Jan 272013

Ian Bell’s pitch-perfect century guided England to a seven-wicket win against India here in Dharamsala, ensuring that the five-match series ended on the right note for the tourists. This rubber may have been dead but a pitch alive with turn, bounce and swing guaranteed the match was anything but.

Chasing 227 for victory, Bell was at the crease for the first ball of the reply, which whistled ominously past Alastair Cook’s outside edge. He was still there for the last ball of the innings as he nudged England to victory with 16 balls to spare. Bell finished unbeaten on 113 from 143 balls to register his third one-day international century.

That India’s total failed to live up to the majesty of the Himalayan surroundings was down to the mountainous efforts of England’s bowlers, rather than dead rubber-induced lack of batting application. Steven Finn took the key wickets of Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni and led the line with venomous intent. Tim Bresnan (right) was his ideal new-ball foil, taking the first two wickets to fall with consecutive away-swingers and mopping up the last two. James Tredwell took two for 25 and was once again metronomic in his precision. India’s struggles with willow in hand only served to illuminate the quality of Bell’s innings.

“Probably I’ve been guilty of getting a lot of starts and not going on,” said England’s centurion. “So to be there in a tight game, not out with a hundred, is exactly what I want to do.”

India captain Dhoni knew what he had to do and began the defence of their total with aggressive intent. As the pitch reared into life, Bell and Cook had to contend with three slips. They survived the early skirmishes with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shami Ahmed, but Dhoni soon turned to Ishant Sharma. The pace bowler beat the bat with arresting regularity and, after four overs, he had conceded a miserly four runs and taken the wicket of Cook.

The over that contained the England captain’s wicket was a lesson in the art of fast bowling. A diving stop from Suresh Raina, who hit his fourth consecutive half-century, kept Cook on strike. Sharma made sure he did not waste the opportunity: he caught Cook’s inside edge with ball two; induced perilous plays and misses from balls three and four; and, with ball five, angled in a fuller delivery that caught the England captain in no man’s land, neither forward nor back.

There was no bat in sight, just the sound of a crashing middle stump as Cook headed back to the pavilion with 22 runs from 40 balls. In strode Kevin Pietersen to a rapturous reception. He was gone six overs later, during which time England’s No 3 and Bell added just 11 runs. He was undone by extra pace from Ahmed and undercut a pull shot into the hands of a running Ravindra Jadeja.

With two wickets gone, Bell dropped anchor as new batsman Joe Root took it upon himself to lower the rising required rate. The 22-year-old dispatched the previously parsimonious Kumar for 10 runs, forcing Dhoni to introduce Yuvraj in an effort to surprise Root and Bell into an error, instead the pair tucked in to his fare with relish. Bell took the opportunity to register his 25th one-day half-century, his watchful 50 coming off 88 balls.

It was off the more incisive spin of Jadeja that India made their final breakthrough. Root had looked assured until the moment he chose to sweep a shorter ball and was bowled for 31 failing to get to the pitch. There were still 84 runs required when Eoin Morgan joined Bell at the crease. They made short and sharp work of acquiring them.

After containing his natural game, Bell unfurled the full range of his talents. A calculated reverse sweep and an elegant six over long-on off Ravichandran Ashwin stood out for their combination of 21st-century extravagance and 20th-century MCC textbook timing. His century came with a caressed on-side drive, his second 50 coming off only 45 balls. After showing a marked improvement following back-to-back 5-0 whitewashes on Indian soil, Bell’s innings was a fitting finale.

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