Jack Bannister sees Ian Bell prove his worth to England's cause once again.
Ian Bell's hundred at Headingley on Saturday settled quite a few arguments about selection, and also ensured him a place in history.
His third hundred in as many consecutive Tests puts him alongside these distinguished nine Englishmen who have achieved the feat: Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Walter Hammond, Denis Compton, Ken Barrington, Graham Gooch, Geoffrey Boycott, Allan Lamb and Chris Broad. Not too shabby a club to join, and one more at The Oval will put him alongside Barrington as the only Englishman to score four in four.
It has been quite a year for Warwickshire batsman Bell. He grabbed his chance in Pakistan and in six Tests against Pakistan he has scored 666 runs at an average of 74, including four of his five hundreds in 28 innings.
A sporting career is littered with T junctions. Take the wrong turn and you can end up in a cul-de-sac from which there is no return. That was the Bell situation at Lord's last month when he edged into the side because of Andrew Flint-off's ankle injury. He acknowledged after that drawn game that his hundred would not keep him in the side as and when Flintoff returned, but he also said that he went into that game with a less tense and introverted approach.
He has been helped by a pretty poor Pakistan pace attack, but even his walk to the wicket carries a different body language.
"I worked on that. I tried to show the bowler I mean business without crossing the line into arrogance," he said. "Missing the Sri Lanka series helped. I went away and did a lot of thinking and I believe I came back tougher."
He certainly did, and now oozes a fluency that is right out of the top drawer.
On Saturday, he started with 66 polished runs in the book and, helped by two edgy fours in the first half hour, got to his century in only the 13th over of the morning with his 11th four - a gorgeous on-drive wide of mid-on. The last 34 runs came out of 57 added with Kevin Pietersen, who unselfishly reined himself in until Bell reached three figures. As soon as the applause died down, Pietersen cut loose, only to give his wicket away to a wild slog after he had already creamed Mohammad Sami twice through and over the covers. His 135 came off 169 balls and he hit 92 in boundaries.
His two partnerships with Bell, broken when he retired hurt on the first evening, were worth 141 in 27 overs of romp-along batting. The Pakistan bowling and fielding never recovered from such a brutal mauling. Kamran Akmal has had an awful series with the gloves, and the sloppy byes he twice conceded in the first two overs of the day set the tone for a shoddy exhibition from the tourists.
When Bell was eighth out at 445 for eight, trying to make room to cut Danish Kaneria, Pakistan captain Inzamamul-Haq must have thought his tribulations were over, but Sajid Mahmood and Steve Hamison rubbed a few more spoonfuls of salt into wounds that became more gaping. Mahmood's 34 showed he could become a decent number eight.
Harmison was at his most mischievous. The match situation gave him an open cheque to indulge himself, and he rattled up 36 off 27 balls, including four fours and two hooked sixes off consecutive balls from Umar Gul, as the ninth wicket stand brought 56 off 46 balls. A final total of 515 from an overnight position of 347 for six was a terrific effort, with Pakistan actually leaking 168 from 32 overs.
Pakistan badly needed a good start, but both openers were back in the dressing room with the score 36 for two. The pitch was much less threatening to them than at Old Trafford, but neither Salman Butt nor Taufeeq Umar look up to it at this level. Umar played a poor stroke at one bowled across the left-hander by Matthew Hoggard and nicked a low catch beautifully pouched by Chris Read, diving low to his left.
Read had a fine day behind the stumps, with the ball always melting into his gloves, even from the occasional poorly-directed return from the deep. He is a natural 'keeper, while Geraint Jones and others such as Matthew Prior look manufactured.
Younis Khan ran out Butt, although the opener seeemd not to sense any danger as Pietersen swooped from cover and scored with a direct hit. Mohammad Yousuf was next in and after playing himself in, launched a thrilling counterattack with Younis that exposed the frailty of England's four-man attack. Only Monty Panesar was treated with respect, while Harmison had a reality check after his fireworks at Old Trafford.
Mahmood had a mixed day with the ball. As in the last Test, he bowled a magnificent first over - full of aggression, pace and bounce - but, also as he did in the last Test, he then served up several overs of pure dross. Younis clearly set out to target him and hit him out of the attack. But when he came back towards the end of the day he bowled a tight spell from the Kirkstall Lane end but the last session belonged to Younis and Yousuf whose third wicket partnership was worth 166 in 40 overs.