A dab down to third man, a kiss on the crest on his helmet and a grand wave to the crowd confirmed Ian Bell’s place in the pantheon of English batsmanship after he brought up his third hundred in as many Ashes Tests and steadied England on a day that they began and ended badly. Bell had overcome a bright Australian start, the London heat wave, the slope at the world’s most famous cricket ground and the magnitude of the occasion to make 109, but his colleagues did not resist quite so staunchly. Australia’s bowlers were not at their best, but keeping England down to 289 for 7 was good return for a day of hard labour.
If Bell soaked up the applause, and the warm reception that he got was richly deserved, his colleagues up on the balcony should have been kicking themselves for not making the most of a perfect batting day. On a surface that was firm and lightly grassed and gradually eased out after encouraging the quick men early on, Bell showed the true value of batting the old-fashioned way, staying out in the middle for a little over five hours. When you spend that much time at the crease, on a hot day, you are bound to get deliveries that you can put away as the bowlers fight off fatigue, and Bell was good enough to cash in almost every time the opportunity arose.
But if Bell’s hundred, and Jonny Bairstow’s third half-century at Lord’s – helped along by a slice of luck when Peter Siddle bowled him off a no-ball – hog the headlines, it won’t be because not much else happened on the day.
Australia, who lost the toss and were asked to bowl, found unlikely heroes, first when Shane Watson trapped Alastair Cook in front with the second ball he bowled, and later in Ryan Harris, who was considered surplus to requirement in the first Test.
Harris, running through the crease with the verve of a sprinter breasting the tape at the finish line, showed that there was no substitute for stout legs and a big heart. Although he did not swing the ball as prodigiously as Mitchell Starc, the man he replaced, Harris channeled his energy in one probing line, just close enough to the off stump to make the batsmen play.
Joe Root tried to cover for the swing, but played slightly outside the line of a ball that was slanted into him and even a review could not keep the lbw at bay. While Root had hit the ball, replays showed that this was only after the ball struck pad and at 26 for 2, England was in danger of wasting the advantage garnered by winning the toss.
From her vantage point in the Marylebone Cricket Club pavilion, Queen Elizabeth II watched in dismay as England lost a third wicket in quick time. Kevin Pietersen, who loves the big stage more than any current player, lasted only four balls in what could be the biggest cricket occasion he is involved in all year. A streaky inside edge for two was followed by a feather to the wicketkeeper and England slumped to 28 for 3. It was at this score that the Warwickshire pairing of Bell and Jonathan Trott came together, and instantly set about calming the nerves.
There were no flashy shots played, with Australia’s bowlers still nipping the relatively new ball about, just quality defensive cricket. If the pressure of the scoreboard did not build, it was only because the bowlers were kind enough to offer enough safe scoring opportunities – the 99-run fourth-wicket rescue act included 15 boundaries.
Trott, who you would back as the ideal candidate to cash in once he’s laid a foundation, allowed his concentration to be dulled by the profligacy of the bowling, and helped a short ball from Harris straight into the waiting hands of Usman Khawaja patrolling the legside boundary. Trott made 58, but he left the field with the look of a man who had squandered the opportunity to make a hundred, or more.
Bairstow walked out to the pitch in the middle of a Bell masterclass, and although he was nowhere near as easy on the eye, he kept the scoreboard ticking over, picking off the ones and twos and committing to the big shot when the ball was overpitched. It was one such delivery from Siddle, when Bairstow had only 21, which should have been his downfall, as an attempt to hit to leg ended up with stumps splayed. Kumar Dharmasena, who had a niggling doubt that the bowler had overstepped, asked for help from his colleague watching the replays, and his fears were confirmed.
Bairstow made the most of his good fortune, and Siddle’s mistake, adding 67 to his earlier Lord’s efforts of 95 and 54, putting on 144 in a partnership that took England from the brink of self-destruction to a perfectly acceptable score.
Bell, however, needed no external help. Pressing on from an innings at Trent Bridge that he described as his best Ashes knock, Bell showed off his full range of strokes. A combination of the dry pitch and Australia’s discipline called for focus at Trent Bridge, and Bell answered. At Lord’s, Bell needed no second invitation to express himself, and a brace of cover drives off James Pattinson were so well executed that an artist with a paintbrush could not have bettered them.
When all else had failed, Michael Clarke turned to the legspin of Steve Smith, and the move paid off richly. A perfectly spun legbreak caught Bell’s outside edge, ending his innings on 109; Bairstow (67) patted a low full toss back to the bowler; Matt Prior nibbled at a front-of-the-hand fizzer and, for the second time in the day, England had contrived to hand the advantage to Australia.
Australia ended the day as it had begun it, with wickets, but Bell’s effort ensured that there was little separating the teams, setting the Test match up perfectly.