Memories abound as Bell's morning glory bridges a 70-year gap

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The Independent Online

Ian Bell's 162 not out at Chester-le-Street makes the temptation to refer to one of the most memorable sentences in the English language irresistible. Ask not for whom the Bell tolls. It tolls for the put-upon bowlers of Bangladesh. But let's be Donne, as it were, with the poetry and bring on the nerds, who will tell us whether Bell's first Test century was as impressive as it looked.

Ian Bell's 162 not out at Chester-le-Street makes the temptation to refer to one of the most memorable sentences in the English language irresistible. Ask not for whom the Bell tolls. It tolls for the put-upon bowlers of Bangladesh. But let's be Donne, as it were, with the poetry and bring on the nerds, who will tell us whether Bell's first Test century was as impressive as it looked.

Statistics say that it was. Bell scored 105 runs before lunch. To be a really worthwhile record, a hundred before lunch ought to be scored on day one. Only four players have managed this in Tests: Victor Trumper, Charlie Macartney and Don Bradman, all of Australia, and Pakistan's Majid Khan.

To score the hundred before lunch in an innings that has already begun is more common, but it still doesn't happen often. The last Englishman to do it was Les Ames, the Kent wicketkeeper, and that was no fewer than 70 years ago, at The Oval against South Africa in 1935. Before that, Wally Hammond did it against weak opposition in New Zealand in 1932-33. Bell also joins Sir Jack Hobbs, Phil Mead and Ranjitsinhji. If his name goes on being used in the same breath as this magnificent crew, this 23-year-old will become one of the most influential English cricketers of his generation.

He has started in a remarkable way: three Test innings - 70 against the West Indies at The Oval last summer, followed by 65 not out at Lord's nine days ago, and now 162 not out. His Test average is the total of those runs, 297.00 precisely.

His batting speaks more eloquently for him than he does himself in the earliest interviews of his Test career. At close of play he said that the reason why he looked so calm when he reached his hundred was that it hadn't yet sunk in. He hid his ginger hair, recently improved with blond highlights, under his England baseball cap, and was shy and modest. He said how glad he was that he had been able to knuckle down and not to try to emulate Marcus Trescothick when he was creating carnage on Friday. (Incidentally, Trescothick also scored 100 runs in a session, but it was after tea rather than before lunch, and was not, therefore, eligible for the attentions of the nerds.) Bell singled out Graham Thorpe for special thanks.

They put on 187 runs off 193 balls, and though they became slightly blasé towards the end of the innings, they touched gloves compulsively at the start of the partnership. "He was fantastic when I got stuck in the nineties," Bell said.

An England colleague felt the same way only a year ago. Andrew Strauss also scored more than fifty in each of his first three Test innings, and before his debut hundred, at Lord's, nerves squeezed the confidence out of him.

The same happened to Bell after he had scored another boundary - his 16th - to reach 94. He started to poke at balls that had not troubled him; a dab to third man and a drive to the fielder on the cover boundary brought a couple of singles, but he played cautiously at the first five balls of an over from Anwar Hossain before putting himself out of his misery when he clipped a ball pitched well up on his leg stump to the mid-wicket boundary.

Adjectives that apply to Bell are nonchalant and nimble. His cuts were so well timed that he bisected the two fielders placed to stop them. Straight drives were hit within an inch or so of the stumps at the bowler's end. He was strong off his hips and his cover driving was sweetly efficient. Only when he received a message from the dressing room to up the scoring rate 20 minutes before lunch did he hit the ball in the air, twice for six - the second bringing up that hundred before lunch.

But this was slogging that was both elegant and efficient. Thorpe's effort to add to his score produced mostly singles. Bell's were boundaries. After he reached his 100, he scored eight more fours, finishing with 25 to go with the two sixes; 44 of those last 62 runs were boundaries.

Bell was so impressive that the essential caveat can be left until last. He is almost certain to be a fixture in the England team for a decade, but it is unlikely that he will ever again face bowling as poor as Bangladesh's has been this summer.

Asked how he found Test cricket, Bell was entirely realistic. "I haven't had enough of it yet. After Australia I'll probably be able to answer," he said.

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