For a long while, there was the undeniable sense that Ian Bell owed English cricket. He was long on promise, short on delivery and even in these parlous times questions were being asked in Threadneedle Street about rates of return on the investment.
The debt is being repaid in full and then some. Bell's 14th Test hundred on the fourth day of the Third Test against Sri Lanka yesterday, usually as measured as it was sublime, enhanced England's control.
Whether it will be enough to ensure that they win the series 2-0, as they deserve to do, is, however, beyond their power. Sri Lanka will need the assistance of the weather, which may be withdrawing its co-operation.
Bearing in mind the possible conditions, England made a bold declaration at 377 for 8, a mere 193 runs ahead. Sri Lanka had reduced the deficit to 81 by the close but had shed three wickets. After the early loss of opener Tharanga Paranavitana, well caught at slip, they appeared to be repelling the threat.
But Chris Tremlett produced a snorter to account for the debutant Lahiru Thirimanne and with the close at hand Mahela Jayawardene's tour continued on its miserable way when he was dismissed by a beauty from Stuart Broad, not a fate to have befallen many batsmen of late.
The time-wicket equation could yet be fascinating today and England, who dropped two tough chances behind and at short leg, may need to hold everything. After his great deeds for Sri Lanka, Kumar Sangakkara is hardly in debt, except perhaps in regard to his returns in England. His vigilance over 111 balls showed that he is in the business of atonement.
Watching Bell operate has always been a pleasure but he was in danger of squandering his gifts, gilt-edged stock parading round town in junk-bond clothes. It needed a couple of brutal lessons.
What a mystery it seems now. This was his second century of the series, his sixth in his last 20 innings, in which he has also scored seven other fifties. It begins to make Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott seem in serious need of runs.
Bell's driving was as ever pristine, impeccably modulated. But it was the serenity of his late cutting that enthralled. He waits until the last possible moment and plays it with dextrous ease.
It took him a while to find a range but he was not deterred by men placed there for the shot in whose orbit he placed the ball occasionally. The next time he made sure that he threaded it through the gap precisely, as though he had been messing about with them before.
Only once he was discomfited when, on 95, his attempted cut went off a top edge into his groin. It might be why he advanced to three figures more gingerly than he might have done, in singles.
Bell put on 137 for England's seventh wicket with Eoin Morgan, after Jimmy Anderson had extended his nightwatchman's role longer than Sri Lanka would have liked and unfurled a series of legitimate cover drives. It is only when he attempts to slog that Bell looks at odds with himself.
It does not suit him and, though he thinks he might be doing it for the team, it might be simpler for him to play with more aggression in a more orthodox fashion. He can score as quickly as anybody around.
A little more than two years ago, Bell was dropped by England. The thoughtless cut shot he played just before lunch at Jamaica led indirectly to the collapse after it which cost the first Test against the West Indies and ultimately the series. All for the want of a forward defensive.
Recalled when injury struck later that summer, he played a key and too often overlooked innings in the final Test of the 2009 Ashes. But that winter in Centurion, Sloppy Joe was back, the embodiment of a man who thought talent alone was everything.
He was bowled shouldering arms in the first innings and in the second, when all England needed him to do was defend for a draw, he hung out his bat limply to be caught behind. The bowler was a chap called De Wet, though the name was much more appropriate for the batsman he had just dismissed.
The change began. It had to. Over Christmas in Durban he underwent some long nights of the soul as well as some equally protracted discussion with the team coach, Andy Flower. He kept his place, he scored a lavish 140 in Durban and, as significantly, a gritty 70 in Cape Town, which helped to save the Test. He was on his way.
Since then, Bell has scored centuries in each series he has played. He has had the rub of the green sometimes but he has usually played like a man not only in form, but who knows his destiny. There was no fuss when he reached his hundred yesterday, merely a polite acknowledgement and a diffident raising of the arms.
There will be more formidable opponents to come. Sri Lanka's bowling was not quite meat and drink but it hardly put either Bell or Morgan (or Anderson) on meagre rations either. Anderson illuminated the early overs and must have had a maiden Test fifty in mind before another ambitious drive brought a faint edge behind.
It seems odd to recall that Morgan was a late amendment to the side for the first Test. This was his second score above 70, as selfless and calculated as the first, and he want blazing away when England required the foot on the throttle.
Matt Prior, in the same cause, sliced his second ball to gully and there followed an amusing interlude. In a pastiche of Lord's, when a dressing-room window was broken shortly after Prior returned there following his run out, he could be seen raising his bat as if to hurl it. And then he withdrew with a smile. It was a nice touch.
Rose Bowl scoreboard
Third Test (third and fourth day of five): Sri Lanka are trailing England by 81 runs with seven second-innings wickets in hand
England won toss
SRI LANKA First Innings (overnight 177-9)
C R D Fernando not out 39
51 balls 0 sixes 6 fours
U W M B C A Welegedara c Morgan b Broad 7
17 balls 0 sixes 1 four
Extras (b2 lb15 w4 nb2) 23
Total (64.2 overs) 184
Fall: 1-23, 2-23, 3-29, 4-39, 5-89, 6-91, 7-117, 8-158, 9-166.
Bowling: J M Anderson 23-7-56-2 (1wd) (12-4-18-2; 7-3-19-0; 4-0-19-0), S C J Broad 19.2-3-51-1 (2wd, 1nb) (4-0-11-0; 3-1-7-0; 4-1-7-0; 7-1-25-0; 1.2-0-1-1), C T Tremlett 20-5-48-6 (1wd, 1nb) (11-5-17-2; 6-0-18-3; 3-0-13-1), G P Swann 2-0-12-1 (2-0-12-1)
ENGLAND First Innings
*A J Strauss c Paranavitana b Welegedara 3
10 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
A N Cook c Samaraweera b Fernando 55
102 balls 0 sixes 7 fours
I J L Trott c H A P W Jayawardene b Lakmal 4
17 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
K P Pietersen c H A P W Jayawardene b Perera 85
115 balls 0 sixes 14 fours
I R Bell not out 119
169 balls 0 sixes 12 fours
J M Anderson c H A P W Jayawardene b Welegedara 27
33 balls 0 sixes 5 fours
E J G Morgan c H A P W Jayawardene b Lakmal 71
110 balls 0 sixes 7 fours
†M J Prior c D P M D Jayawardene b Perera 0
2 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
S C J Broad c Sub b Lakmal 0
6 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
Extras (lb2 w3 nb8) 13
Total (for 8 dec, 92.4 overs) 377
Fall: 1-4, 2-14, 3-120, 4-191, 5-236, 6-373, 7-374, 8-377.
Did not bat: G P Swann, C T Tremlett.
Bowling: U W M B C A Welegedara 24-3-90-2 (1w, 2nb) (5-0-15-1; 5-1-12-0; 2-0-13-0; 9-2-29-1, 3-0-21-0), R A S Lakmal 24.2-2-99-3 (1w, 2nb) (6-1-17-1; 2-0-13-0; 2.4-0-22-0, 6-1-17-0, 6.4-0-30-2), C R D Fernando 10.2-0-47-1 (1wd, 4nb) (3-0-13-0; 3.2-0-23-1, 1-0-6-0, 3-0-5-0), N L T C Perera 24-3-101-2 (1-0-4-0; 10-1-37-0; 5-2-22-1, 3-0-10-0, 2-0-11-0, 3-0-17-1), H M R K B Herath 9-0-33-0 (1-0-5-0; 3-0-12-0, 5-0-16-0), D P M D Jayawardene 1-0-5-0 (1-0-5-0).
SRI LANKA — Second Innings
N T Paranavitana c Swann b Anderson 10
38 balls 0 sixes 2 fours
H D R L Thirimanne c Strauss b Tremlett 38
112 balls 0 sixes 4 fours
*K C Sangakkara not out 44
111 balls 0 sixes 4 fours
D P M D Jayawardene c Prior b Broad 6
23 balls 0 sixes 1 four
H M R K B Herath not out 2
11 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
Extras (b8 lb2 w1 nb1) 12
Total (for 3, 49 overs) 112
Fall: 1-25, 2-86, 3-110.
To bat: T T Samaraweera, †H A P W Jayawardene, N L T C Perera, U W M B C A Welegedara, C R D Fernando, R A S Lakmal.
Bowling: J M Anderson 12-5-22-1 (1wd) (9-4-15-1; 3-2-7-0), C T Tremlett 13-4-34-1 (1nb) (8-3-25-0; 5-1-9-1), S C J Broad 11-4-22-1 (8-3-16-0; 3-2-6-1), G P Swann 10-3-16-0 (10-3-16-0), K P Pietersen 3-1-8-0 (3-1-8-0).
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) & R J Tucker (Aus).
3rd Umpire: B R Doctrove (WI).
Match Referee: A G Hurst (Aus).
* This was Ian Bell's 14th century in 65 Tests.
* Fifth consecutive Test innings of 50 or more
* Sixth century in his last 20 Test innings
* Averaged 69 since being dropped in February 2009
* Averaged 91 since Christmas 2009Reuse content