Ashes ton is high on Christmas wish list for Bell

Ian Bell has every reason to approach a Boxing Day Test with extra confidence – and he will do so against Australia at Melbourne with the added motivation of a point still to prove too.

It was at this very time last year that Bell grabbed what many thought might be his last chance to add substance to the world-class potential he has always had.

The consensus was, on Christmas Day 2009, Bell's place as England's last specialist batsman against South Africa was hanging by a thread in Durban.

He got the nod, though, responded with a big hundred in an innings victory – and has scarcely looked back since.

Bell has distinguished himself on England's Ashes tour already this winter, so much so that there is a growing clamour for him to move above Paul Collingwood to number five in the order.

Yet still, even with those heartening festive memories of 12 months ago and with the score 1-1 approaching the fourth Test in cricket's greatest rivalry, Bell knows there is a glaring omission on his CV.

At 28, in his fourth series and about to embark on his 17th Test against Australia, he has yet to make an Ashes hundred.

He makes no secret of how much it would mean either.

"I'm desperate for an Ashes hundred – a few of them, to be honest – and I'm hoping with the way I'm playing there's one around the corner," he said. "I think I've improved a lot over the past 18 months and I'm desperate to keep improving.

"I'm certainly not happy with where I am now – I want to keep kicking on.

"My performances are becoming better under pressure, and I'm starting to show the type of cricketer people saw in me in my early ages."

Is he then about to get that promotion back up the batting order?

Bell, apparently, has no better idea than anyone else – apart, of course, from England captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower.

"I've had no discussions about it," he confirmed. "It's always nice to get moved up the order. But whether that happens or not is irrelevant for me for this series, as long as we're winning the next two Test matches.

"That's the most important thing to me, contributing to this team winning the Ashes."

Bell took part yesterday, along with the full squads from both countries, in a set-piece preview event in Melbourne's Queensbridge Square.

If a gathering of hundreds rather than thousands of people did not convey the wall-to-wall fever pitch anticipated from a record 90,000-plus crowd at the MCG on Sunday, there was still enough excitement in the air to conclude a significant event is in the offing when England take on Australia in the traditional festive Test.

Bell was able to feed off some of that when he spoke shortly afterwards of England's intention to embrace the occasion, and show themselves in a better light than they managed while Australia were levelling the series by a 267-run margin in the third Test at the WACA.

"Playing here in Melbourne is something you look forward to – a Boxing Day Test match is always special.

"The Oval in the last Ashes was a pretty big game – any England-Australia game is a huge game.

"But it's probably one of the most exciting Test matches I feel we're going into.

"We're particularly excited about playing on one of the best grounds in the world and trying to put right what we did wrong in Perth.

"I think we've played some very good cricket since we've been here.

"We had a blip in Perth – we knew Australia at some point would play some great cricket and have some great individual performances."

England have done some straight talking, in private, since that setback – and are confident they are back on the right track.

"We've had a good opportunity to have a sit down and talk about what happened in Perth... in Melbourne, I'm sure we can put right what went wrong," Bell added. "Certainly they have got some momentum going into it, there's no doubt.

"They played some fantastic cricket at the WACA. But out of the three Test matches, I'd say we've been playing the better cricket."

Bell's position in the England order is not the only potential variable for the fourth Test, of course.

England have been making optimistic noises about the fitness of pace spearhead James Anderson – he suffered stiffness in his side after his Perth exertions – and likewise Australia about their injured captain Ricky Ponting.

Bell said of Anderson: "He's sounded very positive.

"I'm sure we'll find out a bit more tomorrow (Friday), but he seemed all fit and ready to go."

Anderson is likely to test his side by bowling at full pace in England's first practice session since their defeat at the WACA.

Ponting, meanwhile, took part in fielding practice at the MCG this morning but has yet to bat since he broke his left little finger trying to take a slip catch last weekend.

Bell will be surprised if the determined Tasmanian is absent for such an important match.

"Knowing Ricky Ponting, the type of tough cricketer he is, I'm sure he'll be out on the field," he said.

Botham backing bowling attack

A typically bullish Sir Ian Botham insists England have nothing to fear heading into the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, believing that whoever the tourists pick in their bowling line-up will be too strong for Australia.

The former England all-rounder also doubts that Mitchell Johnson has the consistency to match his nine-wicket haul from Perth, and believes Tim Bresnan or Ajmal Shahzad should get the nod ahead of Steve Finn to play on the drop-in pitch in Melbourne.

"If Australia decide to go into the game with this four-pronged pace attack again, they just might be making a huge mistake," he said. "For England their pace attack might be freshened up with the introduction of Tim Bresnan or Ajmal Shahzad who can exploit reverse-swing which is something they got in the warm-up game against Victoria.

"The drop-in square is a hard surface that roughs up the ball and the shorter swing bowlers might be able to get a bit more out of it than a tall hit-the-deck bowler like Steve Finn.

"I feel that whatever bowling combination England go with they will be too much for the Aussies to handle.

"They've taken 20 wickets in the last two matches and I see no reason why they won't do it again.

"It is hard to see England playing as badly as they did in Perth again in this series, and I find it difficult to see Australia playing as well."

And on the enigma that is the Australian swing bowler who destroyed England at Perth, he added: "No-one knows which Mitchell Johnson will turn up, not even himself and without him England have nothing to worry about."