CHESTER-LE-STREET, England (AP) — There was once a time when Australia was Ian Bell's bogey team. Now, he can't stop scoring hundreds against them.
Make that four centuries in the last five Ashes tests for England's new star batsman, who is outshining the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook in what is rapidly becoming a career-defining series.
"Fortunately I've come good in the series that is the biggest one for us," Bell said with a broad smile. Australia is starting to get sick of the sight of the diminutive Bell, whose unbeaten knock of 105 at Chester-le-Street on Sunday put England in the driving seat to not only win the fourth test and also win a third straight Ashes series.
Before the Ashes test in Sydney in January 2011, Bell had gone 29 innings and six years without reaching three figures against the Australians. Bangladesh? Pakistan? West Indies? New Zealand? No problem. But not Australia.
Then he made 115 at the SCG — and hasn't looked back. He scored 109 in the first Ashes test at Trent Bridge this year and the same score at Lord's in the second test. There have also been a smattering of fifties.
"I believed I was good enough to score test hundreds against Australia but it did take a while — my first two series were against arguably one of the best teams of all time," Bell said. "So it's been enjoyable this time to score some hundreds and maybe put to bed some of the stuff I have done in the past."
Whatever the tourists tried on Sunday, Bell was always one step ahead. He was even knocked off his feet by a rapid, rising delivery by Ryan Harris but Bell had still managed to stay in full control of the situation, gloving the ball down and to safety.
"I got it on the money," Harris said, before showering Bell with praise. "Once he gets in that mode, it's tough to get him out, especially when it's a nice wicket to bat on. He's played well through the whole series. He knows his game very well, he's very patient. And he's tough to bowl at, because you know you have to create something as a bowler, and if you don't get it quite right he'll smash you.
"But again, it was all class from him today." So what's changed for Bell? His technique has always been highly thought of, but mental strength was often found wanting in the early part of his test career, particularly on the highest stage — the Ashes. Not anymore.
He no longer gets ruffled. England has been three wickets down for between 20 and 40 four times this series but he hasn't been flustered. He hasn't tried to force the runs, or push too hard. "The thing I've tried to do is forget the situation," Bell said. "I've felt in pretty good touch, and that's a nice place to be. I keep it simple — watch the ball, play the ball. It doesn't matter if we're 100-1 or 20-3, it's the same game.
"I just stay relaxed and keep it simple. When you are not, you are trying to get to 100 before you are 10." Bell now needs to push on and underpin England's bid to build a lead of at least 300 before attempting to bowl Australia out. The team's cushion is currently 202, with the wicket not deteriorating as much as many people would expect after three days.
"Those 200 runs — I'd rather have them on the board than be chasing them, but we've seen already with Australia that they will go all the way," Bell said. "If we start getting a lead over 300, I'll feel a little more confident, but they will keep coming at us. It will be a scrap over the next two days."
Bell has never been on the losing side when he has scored a century for England. It's yet another ominous statistic for Australia to fret about heading into Monday.