Century instils Bell with belief that this time he can conquer all

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The Independent Online

For the past five years Ian Bell's time has been about to arrive. So far it has proved damnably elusive and by now it is fair to assume that it is more overdue than a royal engagement.

He is about to play in his fourth Ashes series and has yet to make a hundred in 12 matches. This time it really has to be time for the most richly gifted batsman in English cricket (and you can list any of South African origin should you wish).

Bell yesterday put the finishing touches to his preparations for the first Test with a sublime hundred for the tourists against Australia A here in Hobart. It was full of crisp, lovingly crafted strokes and an innate timing that augured well for the imminent series. It was next door to being impeccable.

But four years ago, it may be remembered, the same thing happened. In the last warm-up match before the Ashes, Bell scored a beautifully upholstered hundred against South Australia. His partner then in a stand of 178 was his partner yesterday. Again, Paul Collingwood played the less prominent but barely less important role, again the pair rescued England from a precarious position.

So what it all means for the next two months is difficult to judge: maybe something, maybe sweet Fanny Adams. Despite several promising interludes and four fifties in 2006, Bell went on to make 331 runs in 10 innings. England lost 5-0, his time was still creeping up.

After he and Collingwood had restored England's fortunes yesterday from the potential wreckage of 137 for 5 by putting on 198 and establishing a lead of 135, he said: "Without doubt I'm a better player than I was on the last Ashes tour. Again this counts for nothing really, it's great practice but Brisbane is when it counts. But over the last 18 months my cricket has started to take shape. I feel I'm getting to the right place physically and mentally, and I have really gained from working with Graham Gooch, who has given me the benefit of so much experience."

Bell might have been overlooked for the Ashes side after missing the last part of the English Test season with a foot injury. It allowed Eoin Morgan to stake a claim for his place and, although he had his moments, the investment in Bell has been so huge that significant rewards are due.

The innings was chanceless and, though the odd one passed the bat, there was nothing untoward. Collingwood suffered by comparison, as he did in Adelaide last week when the pair batted together, as he did in Adelaide four years ago. It will not have mattered to him.

Bell reached his hundred with an exemplary cover-driven four, his 13th from his 113th ball and he had embellished these with one six. He was particularly harsh on the leg-spinner Steve Smith, though he denied that he had deliberately targeted the bowler to send a message in case Smith were to make Australia's Test side. It was, he said, just the way he plays spin these days.

Collingwood, in for three hours, had batted 15 minutes longer for 45 runs fewer, though Bell had faced the bulk of the bowling. It was a partnership that had the second-best Australian team looking slightly ragged by the end. Some of the fielding was as sharp as a tack, some was moderate.

Their best bowler was the left-arm spinner Stephen O'Keefe, but it was difficult to see either Peter George or Clint McKay as potent Test fast bowlers yet. Smith had to be taken off after an initial spell of six overs, his rhythm shattered by Bell's dainty footwork.

Nor was there much good news from elsewhere. Once more, Australians destined for the first Test had poor returns in the Sheffield Shield, most notably their captain, Ricky Ponting. Dropped twice at slip he was eventually caught hooking for 27. That will have been stored in England's collective consciousness.

All was not entirely hunky-dory for England and the form of Kevin Pietersen yet again is giving rise for concern. A fortnight ago, after an intermittently blazing fifty on a hot day in Perth, Pietersen informed the world that he was on fire. So he may be but yesterday he reprised his weakness against left-arm slow bowling when he was bowled by a straight one from O'Keefe, having made five.

There was another half-century for Alastair Cook, who looked in good order, and a typically patient 41 from Jonathan Trott, who will have been disappointed with the shot that led to his dismissal, shaping to pull and battering the ball to mid-off. By last night, Trott was the only one of the tourists' top six not to have made a fifty in the warm-up matches. Three – Andrew Strauss, Cook and Bell – had made hundreds. There is a sense of resignation forming among Australians. But they should know that cold, drizzly Hobart on the third Thursday of November is light years away from steamy Brisbane on the fourth.

Hobart scoreboard

Tour match, Bellerive Oval (Second day of four): England lead Australia A by 105 runs with five first-innings wickets remaining; England won toss

Australia A: First Innings 230 (S N J O'Keefe 66, S P D Smith 59, C T Tremlett 4-54, A Shahzad 3-57)

England: First Innings Overnight 22-1

A N Cook c McKay b O'Keefe 0/7/109

M S Panesar c Cameron b McKay 13/0/1/31

I J L Trott c Khawaja b Cameron 41/0/5/75

K P Pietersen b O'Keefe 5/0/1/22

P D Collingwood not out 74/1/9/128

IR Bell not out 121/1/15/158

Extras (lb 1, w 2, nb 8)/11

Total (5 wkts, 89 overs)/335

Fall 1-20, 2-37, 3-124, 4-127, 5-137.

To bat †M J Prior, T T Bresnan, A Shahzad, C T Tremlett.

Bowling M A Cameron 20-2-88-2, P R George 17-4-66-0, C J McKay 21-5-53-1, S N J O'Keefe 21-3-70-2, S P D Smith 10-1-57-0.

Umpires S D Fry & P R Reiffel.

Countdown to the Ashes

6 The number of wickets Stuart Broad took in Australia's first innings at Headingley in 2009. The seam bowler took career-best igures of 6 for 91, as, despite losing the Test by an innings and 80 runs, England went on to win the Ashes 2-1. Broad took a total of 18 wickets over the series.