James Lawton: Unstoppable Bell makes Pietersen play second fiddle as England waltz

Bell set the agenda quite exquisitely. He greeted one Sreesanth over with successive fours, delivered with such forcethey might have come out of the barrel of a gun

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The Independent Online

When a man named Strauss tells you what is and what isn't waltz, you are inclined to listen – and this is especially so when he also happens to be arguably the most successful captain in the history of English cricket.

But then maybe on this occasion Andrew Strauss was just a little off key when he declared his team was unlikely to proceed to a 4-0 whitewash of the Indian team they have already supplanted at the top of the world rankings as if they were operating in a Viennese ballroom.

"The thing that makes me most proud of this team," says Strauss, "is that they understand that whatever success they have enjoyed they know they're not going to just come into any game and dance away with it. They know it's not a waltz."

The thing is, skipper, yesterday it was, at least as near to one as we are ever likely see on the stage of one of the great cricket grounds. Leading the dance, on this occasion was Ian Bell, yet if at times the 29-year-old seemed to be directly contradicting his captain, if some of his off drives flowed from an apparently effortless facility, there was still no doubting Strauss's essential point.

It is, surely, the classic one which tends to emerge in all the stories of the most successful teams. What Strauss is really saying, you have to believe, is that if cricket is never going to be truly a team sport – and just think of the agonies of thwarted individual ambition now being suffered by the frustrated guest at the latest England party, Ravi Bopara – it is still a place where a collective spirit can mould the best instincts of an ambitious man.

Bell was yesterday's supreme example when a high summer sun replaced Thursday's rain clouds and with it came a warming sense that this beleaguered Indian team had found a little heart, a little fight, before they shuffled back to the quick-fire, highly paid glory of short-form cricket.

Bell, it is not so easy to recall now, was the fine talent with the questionable will. He had beautiful shots but a fragile self-belief. Some hard judges said that his time as a contender had become seriously overindulged. Jonathan Trott, the relentless, obsessive man from Cape Town, slammed an iron door on the No 3 spot. Paul Collingwood, the ebbing veteran hung on at No 5 and of course Kevin Pietersen, was always going to remember how it was he became one of the most celebrated batsmen in the world. It meant that Bell had a rough, tough obligation. He had to produce the very best of himself or walk away. The best of Ian Bell, we saw here again, seems unstoppable now. It was remarkable enough that he should produce his 16th Test century so soon after his superb 159 at Trent Bridge. More striking still was the sheer quality of yesterday's performance.

Bell's brilliance filled every corner of the famous old ground – and nor was it as though he we was spending his time in retiring company. Pietersen came clattering in the footsteps of his team-mate, hitting massively, reacting as theatrically as ever to one of life's little misadventures, a blow on his elbow when an Indian fieldsman threw in the ball, living precariously early in his innings when the hapless R P Singh misjudged a steepling shot into the offside, but there he was, triumphant once more, with his 19th century.

On most days Pietersen would have put the sun-lit events into the strictest personal custody, milking every drama, not least the one when a despairing Sreesanath hurled the ball in his general direction, but no, not this time.

This time it was Bell who wrote down the agenda. At times he did it quite exquisitely. He greeted one Sreesanth over with successive fours. Both of them dissected the offside with such force they might have come out of the barrel of a gun. The contact was so clean, so imperious you had to wonder how it happened that this man's career had come under such serious challenge.

Strauss would tell us without too much pressing, of course. He would tell us how this England side has grown strong in all its parts, for a variety of reasons but most importantly by the acceptance that if you cannot go to the wicket or the bowling crease alone, you can take more than a little of the accumulated strength of a winning dressing room.

Bopara, maybe fighting for his last chance as a front-rank England contender, must feel that he is in a desperate search for some new insight into the competitive force which has carried this team to victories over Australia home and away and now, surely, is already driving their thoughts when they consider next summer's three-Test series against No 2 ranked South Africa.

Bopara is a talented, ambitious batsman who has committed so much of his life to claiming a place in Test cricket, but last evening he was involved in a familiar agony. He sat in the pavilion watching still another set of shutters come down on his best hopes.

For Bopara it could have been Eoin Morgan, a century-maker at Edgbaston, tightening still more his grip on England tenure, or Trott, back from his shoulder injury, performing his batting crease rituals as though he was the only cricketer on earth. England, if you happen to be on the outside, must look less a club more a fortress. Certainly last evening there was no question about the most arresting figure on the battlements. Bell remained the chief architect of still another day of England dominance, his batting controlled, his mind perfectly attuned to these last strides of the massive summer victory. Still, we also knew that England now have a stockpile of such characters of authority.

One by one they have stepped forward to drain the life out of any modest resolution that has accompanied India's scandalously slight preparation for this series.

Stuart Broad has done it thunderously with bat and ball. James Anderson has bowled with masterful grasp of his trade and quite unbreakable psychological force. When big Chris Tremlett fell injured, the implacable and deceptively gifted Tim Bresnan produced, as he did at a vital stage of the last Ashes series, the clearest evidence that he is equipped to do much more than profit from another's ill luck.

Matt Prior doesn't always invade the world, or the field, with his charm. Indeed, he is abrasive to a fault, but then when wasn't that a vital element in a winning team?

Yesterday the prodigious Cook left with a mere 34 runs against his name and Strauss followed soon after. The Indians looked as if they had spent quite a bit of time in front of their hotel mirrors. They bowled with great spirit and some of the technique which had crumbled after the first rounds of action. But of course they were beaten down again by a team filled with individual force of a growing intensity.

Andrew Strauss said that his men were not involved in a waltz but another example of meticulous comradeship. Maybe they were but perhaps he might just admit that at least one of Ian Bell's cover drives came from a little nearer heaven than your average team talk.

Bell's Annus Mirabilis

After being dropped by England two years ago, the Warwickshire batsman has returned a new man. He has now hit five Test tons this calendar year.

January Hits 115 in first innings of fifth Ashes Test in Sydney.

May Scores 103 not out in his next Test against Sri Lanka in Cardiff.

June Strikes 119 not out in final Test against Sri Lanka at Rose Bowl.

July Batting at No 3, smashes 159 to help England beat India at Trent Bridge.

Yesterday Notches another century to help England to an imposing total.

Bell averaged 65.8 in the Ashes series. He averaged 331 in three Tests against Sri Lanka. He is averaging 78.2 in the current series against India. His Test average is now a whopping 47.44.

Stats magic: The numbers that matter from the second day

59 England broke free after lunch with Bell and Pietersen adding 59 runs in 10 overs. The pair had taken only 23 runs from the 10 overs immediately before the interval.

32 Strauss added only two runs to his overnight score of 38 before he was dismissed, and it took him 32 deliveries to get them.

1 The number of current Prime Ministers in the crowd at The Oval. David Cameron – quick off the mark with his message of congratulation last weekend when England reached No 1 – was a little late taking his seat yesterday afternoon, settling down just before 3pm.

2 The number of mistakes, in the same number of balls, made by RP Singh in the outfield as Pietersen moved into the 90s. First, he failed to go for an outfield catch and then, next delivery, he let a KP sweep through his legs for four.

8 Ian Bell has scored eight hundreds in his past 26 Test innings, since his 140 against South Africa in Durban in late 2009. He has also scored seven fifties and averages 85 in that time. He had scored eight hundreds in his previous 90 innings before then, and averaged 38.

370 Bell and Kevin Pietersen have now shared seven century partnerships for the third, fourth and fifth wickets in Tests. This was their highest to date, the second-highest of all England's third-wicket partnerships and behind only the 370 shared by Denis Compton and Bill Edrich against South Africa at Lord's in 1947.

150 Having gone 27 innings without a Test century, Pietersen has zipped past 150 for the third time in 15 knocks. His run of "daddy" hundreds began in Adelaide (227) and continued at Lord's against India (202 not out).