Ian Bell's joust with Shane Warne was the highlight of a gripping fourth day. Greater responsibility had been put upon his shoulders and he had to produce something substantial. Man cannot remain forever young. The time had come to add his name to the list of proven performers.
Far from balking at the challenge, Bell contributed a fine innings. His effort began at the end of a discouraging day in the field. England had tried hard, only to be hammered. Andrew Flintoff's side was on the rack. What better time for a young man to show his mettle?
Having survived till stumps, Bell could start afresh and with a few runs to his name. A batsman always sleeps easier when he has broken his duck. At first the Australians tried pace. Bell and his partner stood firm. They were a contrasting pair, Alastair Cook with his height, style, left-handedness and leg-side game counterpointing a stocky partner fond of back-foot punches and off-drives.
Bell's confrontation with his nemesis was critical to England's prospects. In 2005 he had looked out of his depth. Often he had been left stabbing at leg-breaks like Macbeth at Banquo's ghost. Once his victim's mind was in sufficient turmoil, the spinner would direct a straight delivery at his pads and roar at a complicit umpire. Warne's beauty also contains slivers of cruelty.
Although he has one of those baby-faces that generally leads either to gangsterism or, worse, membership of a boy band, Bell is a steely character. Not to be intimidated, he countered with back-foot play and attacks from down the pitch. He did not allow Warne to work him over or fieldsmen to gather like wild dogs at a corpse. Nor did he sweep.
Bell showed he was not scared in the spinner's first over. Twice he stepped down the pitch to lift the ball back over his head. Since the ball was turning and the spinner was fresh, these were brave strokes. Warne sent a man back, whereupon the batsman took singles. It was a game of cat and mouse. Warne began to push the ball through and the batsman moved back to counter the spin, not once letting the ball strike his pads. Several sharply-spun breakers defeated his outside edge but that did not bother him.
And so the battle continued. Widening his repertoire, Bell stepped forwards to clip through mid-wicket. He passed 50 and moved towards three figures. By now the leggie had been bowling for a long time on a hot day. Ricky Ponting ought to give him more breaks. His body and temper were fraying but his spirit was not broken. Desperate for a wicket, he started appealing for everything, a strategy that displeased the umpire.
Bell moved within sight of his hundred. Warne was not to be denied. At last, concentration wavered and the right-hander played a loose stroke. Australia rejoiced. Bell cursed himself. But he had made his point. England were not going to go down without a fight, not on his watch.