The bells ring out as the choirboy hits right notes
Bell finally cements his place and fulfils the early promise he shared with Pietersen
Three years ago, on a dusty ground in Faisalabad, the new order emerged. It was exhilarating to watch the England Nos 4 and 5 reach their centuries, one with a muscular hook for six, the other with an elegant glide to third man.
This was Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell then, the punk and the choirboy. They put on 154 for the fourth wicket and it was a middle order to endure a decade. Since then, silence. Or not silence exactly, but the unfortunate sound of a partnership being dissolved.
They have had their individual moments, of course, mostly and hugely Pietersen, sometimes Bell. But together they have never enlivened proceedings as they did that oppressive afternoon at the Iqbal Stadium. There was a distinct suspicion that the selectors would tire of waiting. Pietersen and Bell were not to be the new Marks and Spencer.
Their only partnership of a hundred since then was at Sydney the winter before last, but in the wider context of what was happening (cricketing slaughter) that was inconsequential. The fear was that it would never happen, that Pietersen would have to bestride the middle order alone, that Bell the choirboy would live in the punk's shadow or be consumed by his own.
Yet that all ended at Lord's on the first two days of this Test. Pietersen's innings was inevitable, because he is that rare kind of man who decides what should and should not be inevitable by the level of his self-belief and drive, thus encouraging a kind of divine intervention, which is actually the dissipation of belief in opponents.
But Bell was batting under a huge cloud. It was being openly opined that he did not have what it takes to be a top-notch international batsman and that something was lacking in his fibre. He would be doomed to tread that cricketing never-world inhabited by the likes of Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash.
But on Thursday afternoon and for most of Friday Bell was quite simply serene. And when he and Pietersen batted together, well into their fifth hour, there was a sense that something enduring was being shaped. They have contrasting styles, which could have been designed to irk bowlers. They are both right-handers, but there the similarity almost ends.
This was exactly what England had been promising and what the rest of us were waiting for with an increasing degree of impatience. Bell was a revelation. He denied that he had come in deliberately to assert his authority. The balls had been there for it. So they were, but the Bell of a few weeks ago might still have patted the half-volleys back. Here it was as though he realised there was nothing to lose. He had Andrew Flintoff breathing down his neck (and everybody else's) and never mind him, a whole legion of doubters were doing likewise.
He dashed to 30, and though there were quieter moments thereafter it was an innings constructed with utter certainty of method. It was, above all, mature, not an adjective that has often been associated with Bell.
It is to his credit that he has sustained his good humour, and it has undoubtedly helped in the past few months that he has come to recognise that life cannot consist entirely of cricket. Here was an innings, as theysay in sports headline-writingcircles, to silence the doubters.
Now, one measly stand of 286 does not quite make a partnership for the ages – though it is England's third highest for the fourth wicket of all time. It was timely in many ways: it ensured that England passed 400 in the first innings for the first time in 12 matches and that the selectors were right not to panic.
Only last week Peter Moores, the coach, said that players grew into Test cricket, that the figures in the last half of their careers were better than in the first half. He said it with some conviction and it was clearly a plea for yet more patience. But it could not have gone on. We live in a period where failure is considered to be two successive low scores.
This has delayed the bailiffs. It might have sent them packing. Someone has to give way to Flintoff. But it will not be Bell, whose supporters suddenly appeared as though they had always been four-square at his side these past few months.
The selectors still have to decide who gives way for Flintoff and they must do so soon. Somebody asked the other day if room could be found for him, even assuming he was fit. There were open mouths, not least from Moores, who is usually inscrutable whatever is being asked.
Flintoff has to play. The time to change a team is when they are winning, and if England do not manage to clinch victory at Lord's they have still made a statement which will last the series.
There is a case for batting him at six now, which would mean Paul Collingwood going. Or they could bat Flintoff at seven, but still drop Collingwood and put Matt Prior at six in place of Tim Ambrose, who is beginning to look exposed (or is that again a case of expecting too much too quickly? Perhaps not).
"We're just two young lads making our way in Test cricket," said Pietersen that day in Faisalabad. And now they have.
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