Ian Bell finally banishes Ajmal's desert spells

Batsman puts his winter spin difficulties against Pakistan behind him to suggest he is ready for a glorious summer

Lord's

A flick of the wrists sent the ball scurrying towards the boundary, and, with West Indies beaten, Ian Bell leaped into the air and pumped his fist. Bell is not known for giving overt displays of emotion, so this celebration said much about the difficulties England's most elegant batsman has endured in 2012.

Even though he scored only one half-century in nine innings during the winter, Bell's place was never under threat. This is a man who averaged 118 in Tests during 2011 and he has always retained the support of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower. Yet when any batsman is struggling to score runs, his anxiety will grow.

Publicly, Bell remained breezy during his run of poor totals in the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka. When he spoke about his sole fifty, the Warwickshire batsman joked he had forgotten what it was like to change his gloves during an innings. Bell always knew he had the talent and confidence to regain his best form for England. That he should do so in the first Test of the summer will lift his team-mates' hearts as much as his own.

"He has shown for a long time what a quality player he is," said Strauss. "He doesn't have to prove how good he is, but it was great to see him show his class, as he did from ball one in the first innings."

Bell has an average of 47 but does not believe he arrived as a Test player until 2009, when he made important contributions in the decisive Ashes Test and during the winter in South Africa. After that, Bell was prolific and international cricket must have seemed a wonderful, easy game.

Then, in January and February, the mystery spin of Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal tied Bell in knots, England lost 3-0 to Pakistan and suddenly his self-assurance at the crease was damaged. He lost his spot in England's limited-overs squads and after a moderate tour of Sri Lanka, Bell knew he had to start the summer strongly.

His 61 in the first innings steered England to 398, but his contribution in the second would have brightened his mood far more. Recalling the jibes early in his England career that he scored runs only when his team were dominant, Bell yearns constantly to play a decisive hand.

When he walked out to bat yesterday, the circumstances were exacting. With four wickets down, England were still 134 runs short of their victory target. Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen were back in the pavilion, Kemar Roach was bowling with menace and Sir Viv Richards was roaring his support from the Lord's Media Centre. Had Bell been out quickly, West Indies might have been able to win their first Test in England since 2000.

The pitch was excellent. West Indies' first- and second-change bowlers, Shannon Gabriel and the captain, Darren Sammy, do not bring the peril of Fidel Edwards and Roach. Even so, Bell's task was not easy, and the confidence with which he tackled it suggests his mind is now free of the spells Ajmal cast in the desert.

Bell's timing was slightly awry in the first innings but yesterday, it was clear the rhythm was back. A full toss from Gabriel was punched easily down the ground for four.

Bell then played a back-cut off Marlon Samuels – as an off-spinner, let's say he's not quite in the class of Ajmal – for the boundary that brought up the fifty stand with Alastair Cook. He was lucky when, on 25, he nearly chopped Sammy on to his stumps, but that was Bell's only false stroke.

Another late cut off Samuels took Bell to his 31st Test fifty and, after Cook hit Sammy into the hands of gully with only two required, Bell sealed the deal with a perfectly timed on-drive. That made it 63 not out and England were 1-0 up in the series.

Then came the jump for joy. Ian Bell is smiling again. Excellent news for England, and a resonant warning to South Africa, who will challenge Strauss's team for the top spot in the Test rankings later this summer. With a top score of 199 against the Proteas, how Bell must be looking forward to that.

Stats magic

3: Stuart Broad is now ranked the joint-third best Test bowler, with James Anderson.

66.00: Ian Bell's Test average at Lord's after 18 innings. He has scored three centuries and five fifties there. His career average is 47.18.

128: Catches taken by Denesh Ramdin after six more in this Test.

132: This was the fourth century stand between Cook and Bell.

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