English on top as Bell strikes it hot on third day
Ian Bell may have been fretting over his form but he did not betray any nerves as his half-century helped England push towards victory in the Investec Ashes opener.
Bell came into the series sorely out of form and managed just one in his first attempt at Cardiff, taking his recent tally to just 56 in nine innings since a classy hundred in Antigua.
At 33 years old, such lean sequences cannot simply be brushed aside and Bell, despite 111 Test caps and 22 centuries in the bank, is honest enough to admit to some anxiety.
Few would have guessed as he compiled a breezy 60 in England's second innings, a tone-setting effort that saw the hosts leave Australia a target of 412.
That would be a new Ashes record and the third highest run-chase of all time should Australia defy the odds to make it.
"It's been a testing period for me. There's no doubt I've been concerned," he said after England were dismissed late on day three for 289.
"You have to dig deep sometimes, look right inside, and I had to work really hard. This is an incredible game, it's always testing you.
"It's obviously nice to play something like my best.
"That's my job (and) it's been four or five games without a score."
Bell offered a nod to those musing over his place in the side, obviously aware that the vultures were limbering up, if not yet circling, but was more focused on the team's dominant position than his own riposte.
"When you're not scoring runs as a batter that (speculation) is the case, there's no doubt," he said.
"I knew this knock was going to be very important individually, but that's irrelevant. It's about getting a total to win a game of cricket.
"That's how I saw it. I wanted to go out and play for the team, be aggressive, be busy and that took a lot of pressure off me."
Bell might be an elder statesman in the current set-up, the last man standing from the 2005 Ashes no less, but he is just as optimistic about England's newfound commitment to attacking cricket as anyone.
"It's about being positive all the time. That's not to say in the past we haven't tried to play like that but now we've got younger guys who were raised that way," he said.
"They just see the game a little bit differently. They want to take every (attacking) option on.
"There are days when it doesn't come off ... but for me, it's a breath of fresh air for me and great to be involved in."
Nathan Lyon, who became the first Australian off-spinner to pass 150 Test wickets when he returned four for 75, was bullish about the tourists' prospects.
An Australia win would be a memorable event indeed, but with two days remaining he sees a simple equation.
"Records are made to be broken," he said.
"As is England's new brief, Bell set the tone with an immediate attacking intent which carried his team to a teatime 149 for three and an overall lead of 271.
England had taken the last five Australia wickets for 44 runs early on a sunny day, to bowl the tourists out for 308.
But they were stumbling themselves on 22 for two after Alastair Cook speared a catch to point off Mitchell Starc, and then in the first over of the afternoon Ballance gloved behind a delivery from Josh Hazlewood which kicked alarmingly.
Bell announced himself with some early cover-drives off Hazlewood and Starc, and opener Adam Lyth responded to the invitation to counter-attack with a rush of boundaries too.
When Lyth slog-swept Nathan Lyon for six, in fact, England had taken 50 runs in the first seven overs of the session.
Lyon got his revenge when Lyth edged an off-break to be brilliantly caught by Michael Clarke, diving one-handed to his left at slip.
But Bell oversaw a second successive half-century stand, this time more than doubling the total with first-innings centurion Joe Root, and passed 50 himself when he hit Mitchell Johnson over point for his 10th four from 75 balls.
Impressive bowling from Stuart Broad especially and James Anderson (three for 43) had made short work of Australia before lunch. Broad and Mark Wood gave the opposition no leeway from the outset, rewarded with two lbw verdicts and only one run scored and then Anderson cleaned up the tail.