Allan Massie: Bowlers and Bell key for England

Ian Bell: Vital centuries. Picture: Reuters
Ian Bell: Vital centuries. Picture: Reuters
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England go to the Fifth Test at The Oval with the Ashes retained and the series won, not a position they have often been in.

Of course, this is an unusual year, with another Ashes series to follow immediately in Australia, the first such double-header since immediately after the 1914-18 war. Australia won 8-0, with two games drawn, that time. England may hope to reverse that score this year. This may be unlikely – it will certainly be hard – for Australia aren’t nearly as bad a team as many were saying a couple of months ago, while some England stars have been in uncertain form.

England are 3-0 up for two reasons. In each victory there has been one outstanding performance by a bowler: Jimmy Anderson at Trent Bridge, Graeme Swann at Lord’s and Stuart Broad at Chester-le-Street. Much has been said about the fragility of the Australian top-order, but batsmen tend to look bad when the bowling is very good.

Bowlers win matches, but batsmen make it possible for them to do so. In England’s case this series, you might re-write that sentence to read: the bowlers have won matches, but Ian Bell has made it possible for them to do so. He has made a hundred in each of the matches England have won. He has come in at number 5 when his side were in deep trouble, and steered them into safe waters. If Bell had failed in these games, England would surely have lost them. He hasn’t won a man-of-the-match award, but, whatever happens at The Oval, he is surely England’s man-of-the-series.

Ian Bell has always been a delight to watch when going well. He is a batsman of wonderful natural gifts who plays in the classical style. There isn’t a text-book stroke he doesn’t have. His front-foot cover drive recalls Len Hutton; his back-foot one is sheer perfection as one is told Wally Hammond’s was. I haven’t seen anyone play the late-cut as well since Denis Compton; in this series, his defence has been as obdurate as Ken Barrington’s, and he hooks and cuts square like Barrington too. He has had difficult times in his career and he has come through them, evidence of resolution as well as skill. In the past he has often been severely criticised when he has failed. This is the penalty suffered by those who can make batting look easy. A failure by someone like Bell, a Tom Graveney, Colin Cowdrey, David Gower or Mark Ramprakash, is somehow held to be less forgivable than a failure by one with fewer natural gifts, a player who has evidently had to work harder to succeed: a Geoffrey Boycott or Alastair Cook.

Australia have their own players for whom this series has been a success, something which bodes well for the return Down Under. Ryan Harris has bowled magnificently; fast, accurate, menacing. Nobody, not even Bell, has looked absolutely secure against him. The ball with which he bowled Bell for 113 at Durham was almost as good as the one with which he had earlier removed Joe Root – and that was as near unplayable as those with which Anderson got Michael Clarke at Trent Bridge and Broad dismissed the Australian captain in the second innings last Monday. Harris at his best is as good as any fast bowler now playing, and a wonderfully whole-hearted cricketer.

Anyone who cares for cricket should have been pleased to see Chris Rogers score a hundred at Durham. He has had to wait a long time to play Test cricket, despite being a consistent run-maker in the Sheffield Shield and English country cricket. He’s an old-fashioned cricketer who just gets on with the job and, though he is now 36, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t continue to do so for Australia for at least another couple of years.

His opening partner, David Warner, played brilliantly to take Australia within sight of victory last Monday, with a display distinguished by audacity and brilliant footwork. They call him a product of T20 cricket, and doubtless he is, to some extent anyway, but there have been dashing openers long before anyone thought of T20: Arthur Morris and Michael Slater for Australia for example, or England’s Colin Milburn. The West Indian Roy Fredericks hit a hundred off 71 balls at Perth in 1975, opening bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Even Boycott once made 77 in an hour and a half in a Test at Sydney in 1971.

Finally, the Australian captain Michael Clarke deserves a word of praise. He may have made only one big score – that sublime century at Old Trafford – but his remains the wicket England prize most. As a captain, Clarke has been imaginative in his field-settings, even though, like so many captains today, Cook among them, he seems to labour under the delusion that runs to third man don’t count. Best of all, however, he has remained cheerful, apparently relaxed and good-humoured as things crumble around him, reminding us that even Ashes cricket is a game, not war to the death.