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James Lawton: Bell's beautiful batting means he must jump ahead of Collingwood

Bell eased to his 25th Test half-century so elegantly that he was surely demanding that he swap places with the dogged Collingwood in the batting order

You couldn't know how well his team-mates still standing would defy but the blow that Michael Clarke took with the last delivery of the fourth day seemed much more than the fall of any old wicket.

It might just have told Australia that the best they can do in this Ashes series is wage passable attrition, and even this modest ambition was ripped away when England rolled to a second Test victory of crushing authority.

That the vice-captain should perish at the hand of Kevin Pietersen's occasional off-spin just 20 runs short of what would have been a life-giving century, and four balls short of a night's respite from the challenge of saving still another Test in which his team had been largely outplayed, was especially savage.

It was bad enough that Pietersen had continued with the bat quite as imperiously in the morning as he had the previous evening and that with a best ever Test score of 227 he is another huge, confirmed reason to believe that England are more or less insulated against the possibility of going home without the Ashes.

There is another in the brilliantly easy form of Ian Bell, who glided to his 25th Test half-century so elegantly he was surely demanding that he swap places with Paul Collingwood in the batting order.

The man from Durham remains an integral part of England's growing resolve and his slip catch off Graeme Swann to remove Ricky Ponting was arguably the day's single most potentially decisive action, but in strictly batting terms Bell is now consistently operating in a distinctly higher league.

Collingwood remains good for some dogged work at the batting crease, as he reminded us yet again with a durable 42, but Bell has indeed moved on to a higher plateau.

It must have seemed all a bit too much for the Aussies when Pietersen, having batted so sublimely, found sufficient movement to remove a key batsman at the vital phase of a match in which Australia's spin attack post-Warne looked, more than anything, part of a non-aggression pact.

England, of course, were never going to take part in such a deal with Swann being cast, not least by himself, as ultimately the most important man in this contest. That Pietersen should appoint himself Swann's first lieutenant was, surely, another deadly assault on Australian confidence.

So where did it leave us going into the final day of a Test dominated by England since the first over last Friday morning? It was with the plainest evidence that if Ponting's team finds a way to win back the Ashes in the next few weeks, it will be one of the greatest triumphs of will and bloody minded determination not to face the facts in the entire history of cricket.

Clarke's return to the dressing room with slumped shoulders and a face suffused with anguish seemed, potentially at least, one of the most crushing moments of bitter truth for an Australian team – and a nation – still groping with the shattering fact that they can no longer turn to a McGrath or a Warne or a Gilchrist to transform the battle in a few sensational overs or with some dramatic batsmanship.

So far in this series Clarke has been obliged to confront a whole series of questions about his once strong assumption that he was on course for one of the great Australian careers, that the succession to Ponting was assured and that with 14 Test centuries and a batting average of 48 already against his name, he could enjoy a triumphant prime of his sporting life.

It has all seemed somewhat more hellish than that in the last few weeks. He came into the first Test at The Gabba so racked with pain that Australia appointed the promising young Usman Khawaja as cover. But Clarke insisted he was fit for action. It was a brave decision but the result was an innings so nightmarish in its lack of touch and confidence that he spent the next few days denying that he had played badly hurt.

He said it was just a matter of regaining his best form. The trouble was that it seemed a thousand miles away – and not least when his captain batted in the next net here on the eve of the Test.

Ponting, who has been having his own problems with the bat right up to yesterday's cheap dismissal following his first innings golden duck, took the time to remind his number two of some of the batting basics.

"It was mostly just a case of standing a little higher in my stance," said Clarke and there was evidence that it might have been true as he batted with much assurance against the off-colour Jimmy Anderson, Swann and Stuart Broad, who was sadly about to be overcome by the injury that brings his tour to a premature close.

Indeed, if Clarke had made it to the close, after the hour's break brought by a storm that promised – rather like Clarke himself – rather more than it delivered, the Australian mood would have been somewhat brighter before going out for another session geared entirely to survival in the small hours of this morning.

Instead Pietersen, of all people, struck and Alastair Cook made a fine catch, and Clarke faced the prospect of sitting beside Ponting and watching the likes of Mike Hussey – he at least seems to have found again all of his old defiance – Marcus North and Brad Haddin rescue something from another story of inadequate performance and maybe failed nerve.

As the action moves to Perth, England have virtually assured themselves of a situation entirely different to the one that faced them four years ago. Then they were a team apparently unable to find a way to avoid defeat. At least now that particular problem appears to have been resolved, which means, you have to suspect, that the Ashes they won a year last summer are on this occasion simply not on offer.

It is probably a dangerous thought on Australian soil but for a few moments last night at least it would not have provoked much of an argument from Michael Clarke.