There is a perception that Ian Bell is the master of the exceedingly pretty twenty. He is the batsman of all the talents who contrives casual ways to be dismissed when the game appears to be at his mercy, perpetually flattering to deceive.
On Monday, Bell was the master of the exceedingly pretty, dashing and masterful 167. It was an innings of the purest quality, which took England to a dominant position in the third Investec Test. Studded with beautifully fashioned orthodox strokes, this was the work of a player who could be a model for the MCC coaching manual limited edition for the highest-qualified practitioners.
Bell had two significant partnerships, of 142 for the third wicket with Gary Ballance, and of 106 for the sixth with the debutant Jos Buttler. India’s main strategy in the afternoon was to use their bowlers in one-over spells of which there were 30. It took rotation to a new level.
Perhaps M S Dhoni, the tourists’ captain, had a rationale for the policy. The first bowler to be used for two overs was Ravindra Jadeja and the second went for 21, 20 of them to Bell, who reached his hundred with a delightful straight six and then clattered four, six and four.
England declared their first innings at 569 for 7, leaving India with 14 overs to bat. The loss of Shikhar Dhawan was inconvenient but this pitch, while not as unresponsive as some this summer, will take hard work to prise out batsmen. England may yet rue their lack of an authentic front-line spin bowler and they will have only themselves to blame. But they have the runs in the bank for once.
This was as confident an exhibition of batting as England had assembled for two years. Given a strong start, the middle order was able to play to its strengths and did not make a mess of it, as has happened before this summer.
Ballance was and is a contentious choice for the No 3 batting position, the blue riband place in the order, but he has settled in with a disciplined comfort (and also knows how, in the phrase of the old-timers, to settle in for bed and breakfast). His modus operandi has become clear: he surveys the scene for an hour or so, eschewing risk, calculating the opposition and the pitch. Playing himself in, in other words. Then he ups the ante and looks as though he can destroy attacks.
There was immediate validation of Buttler’s selection. The circumstances of his entry at 420 for 5 were ideal, and no matter how enduring his Test career he may not quite have the licence he had here. Fortune favoured him too. He might have been caught before he had scored, but he was spared by one of those inconclusive replays after the umpires decided to check if the ball had carried to slip. He should have been caught on 23 but was dropped at first slip. He should have been stumped on 59 when two yards down the pitch but Dhoni dropped the ball.
This should not detract from the manner in which he went about his maiden innings. He was fearless and bold, hitting the ball hard with lightning hands. There were elements of genius in his leg-side strokes. Buttler made 85 from 83 balls. Only one player has made a faster score above 80 on debut, the India opener Dhawan.
England’s afternoon assault took their scoring rate to well above three runs an over. In the morning it was well below three as India, even then virtually giving up on the notion of taking wickets, applied the squeeze.
On another day, the tourists might have thought, Bell would not have been there to cause them discomfort. He was perilously close to being lbw the night before to Pankaj Singh with the second new ball. While umpire Rod Tucker’s decision was understandable since the first viewing suggested the ball was going over the top, replays showed it hitting middle stump. It is once more impossible to feel any sympathy for India, who steadfastly refuse to use the decision review system.
Bell grew more imperious as the day progressed. He went to his 21st Test hundred and his first for 20 innings with his second straight six. He and Ballance were wrongly denied the chance to build a stand of more substance when Ballance was wrongly adjudged to have snicked a ball from Rohit Sharma that turned and bounced. It was Sharma’s first Test wicket. Somehow, it seemed unfair that such an obvious error – it was Tucker again – was allowed to stand. Each time this happens India are bringing the game into disrepute and the ICC is powerless to stop them.
Joe Root, who has been in resplendent form, was out making an error as he advanced down the pitch and edged behind.
Moeen Ali, who could find himself in trouble for sporting wristbands saying “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine”, was again out to the short ball. On this occasion, rather than taking unconvincing evasive action, he played the pull shot and the ball went off the toe of the bat to slip. Moeen has looked comfortable at the crease in his brief Test career but his methods of dismissal are not easily condoned.
Then came Buttler. His method immediately won a legion of admirers on the social-networking sites and it was clear that Alastair Cook was content to delay his declaration for a maiden century. It was not as if Buttler was about to waste much time as he kept clearing his front leg and smashing the ball over midwicket, when he was not unfurling the reverse sweep or clearing cover.
India looked dispirited well before the end and it seemed unfair that Singh, called late into the side for his debut, should go wicketless after 37 overs. He deserved something and he may not necessarily have another chance. England have created a position from which they cannot lose, but winning may be another matter.
Third Test (second day of five): India are trailing England by 544 runs with nine first-innings wickets in hand
England won toss
ENGLAND First Innings Overnight 247-2 (Cook 95)
G S Ballance c Dhoni b Sharma 156
288 balls 0 sixes 24 fours
I R Bell c Singh b Kumar 167
256 balls 3 sixes 19 fours
J E Root c Dhoni b Kumar 3
25 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
M M Ali c Rahane b Kumar 12
28 balls 0 sixes 1 fours
†J C Buttler b Jadeja 85
83 balls 3 sixes 9 fours
C R Woakes not out 7
12 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
Extras (b5 lb11 w2) 18
Total (for 7 dec, 163.4 overs) 569
Fall 1-55, 2-213, 3-355, 4-378, 5-420, 6-526, 7-569.
Did not bat C J Jordan, S C J Broad, J M Anderson.
Bowling: B Kumar: 37-10-101-3 (2wd) (7-3-15-0; 5-0-10-0; 6-2-25-0; 2-0-8-0; 7-3-21-0; 1-1-0-0; 1-0-3-0; 1-0-4-1; 1-1-0-0; 1-0-2-1; 2-0-5-0; 1-0-1-0; 1-0-2-0; 1-0-5-1), Mohammed Shami: 33-4-123-1 (3-0-13-0; 6-1-16-1; 3-1-12-0; 3-0-10-0; 3-1-11-0; 3-1-10-0; 3-0-9-0; 1-0-4-0; 1-0-6-0; 1-0-1-0; 1-0-4-0; 1-0-3-0; 1-0-5-0; 1-0-5-0; 1-0-9-0; 1-0-5-0), Pankaj Singh: 37-8-146-0 (6-1-13-0; 5-1-15-0; 2-0-13-0; 2-0-5-0; 3-0-15-0; 5-2-10-0; 3-1-14-0; 2-1-10-0; 1-1-0-0; 1-1-0-0; 1-0-4-0; 1-0-1-0; 1-0-6-0; 1-0-6-0; 1-0-6-0; 1-0-7-0; 1-0-21-0), RG Sharma: 9-0-26-1 (1-0-7-0; 5-0-14-0; 2-0-4-1; 1-0-1-0), RA Jadeja: 45.4-10-153-2 (1-0-4-0; 21-6-30-1; 8-3-29-0; 6-0-38-0; 9.4-1-52-1), S Dhawan: 2-0-4-0 (1-0-3-0; 1-0-1-0).
INDIA First Innings
M K Vijay not out 11
41 balls 0 sixes 1 fours
S Dhawan c Cook b Anderson 6
17 balls 0 sixes 1 fours
C A Pujara not out 4
26 balls 0 sixes 0 fours
Extras (b4) 4
Total (for 1, 14 overs) 25
To bat V Kohli, R G Sharma, A M Rahane, *†M S Dhoni, R A Jadeja, B Kumar, Mohammed Shami, P Singh.
Bowling: J M Anderson: 7-3-14-1 (one spell), S C J Broad: 4-2-4-0 (one spell), C J Jordan: 2-1-3-0 (one spell), C R Woakes: 1-1-0-0 (one spell).
Umpires M Erasmus (South Africa) and R J Tucker (Australia).
TV umpire R J Bailey.
Match referee D C Boon (Australia).
Reserve umpire R T Robinson.