Ian Bell ton gives England the upper hand in Antigua
West Indies made to toil after early wickets as Bell, Joe Root and Ben Stokes turn screw
Ian Bell’s 22nd Test Match century gave England control on the first day against the West Indies in Antigua. Photograph: Afp
Two teams, one of them, England, down on their uppers these past six months or so and under intense scrutiny and the other labelled mediocre by the ECB chairman-elect, Colin Graves, contrived to produce an enthralling opening day to their three-Test series. It was not so much cut and thrust as cat and mouse for the first part, attritional cricket where for both teams patience was a virtue and paid its dividend.
If West Indies had the upper hand during an intense morning session when, against any expectation, they put England in and removed the top three to leave the innings at 34 for three and potentially in tatters, then Ian Bell and Joe Root with a fourth-wicket stand of 177, a partnership of great maturity, had more than redressed the balance.
Later, as the West Indian discipline dissipated and the bowling became ragged, Ben Stokes added impetus at the right time, making 71 not out from 81 balls and sharing in a fifth-wicket stand of 130 with Bell, the pair flaying the second new ball in the process. Root, badly dropped at midwicket when 61, was finally dismissed in the final session for 83 but Bell completed the 22nd hundred of his career and his first abroad in 23 Tests to make 143, from 256 balls with 20 fours and a six, before a terrific delivery from Kemar Roach that bounced and left him had him caught behind in the penultimate over. He now stands alongside Geoff Boycott, Walter Hammond and Colin Cowdrey among England Test centurions, behind only Kevin Pietersen and beyond that Alastair Cook. England finished on 341 for five.
The rationale behind the West Indies decision to bowl first, something their illustrious predecessors did as a matter of course, was not entirely clear. Certainly it cannot have been based on any notions that the pitch, prepared under the tutelage of Andy Roberts just as the old belter at the Antigua Recreation Ground once was, would break up as the game progressed.
Phil Simmons, the new coach, and Curtly Ambrose – bowling mentor might describe his role – are shrewd cricketers, though, and in Cook and Trott they would have recognised a pair of batsmen with much to prove. So it was a good idea to get stuck in from the word go.
The opening session of the first Test of a series is always a nervy time but it was West Indies who came out of the traps the stronger. Ambrose, one of the most relentlessly accurate pace bowlers of them all, has seen too much profligacy in recent years from West Indies bowlers and has preached the gospel of bowling to a plan, concentrating and sticking with it. So all morning all three seamers, Jerome Taylor, Roach and Jason Holder, pursued a line outside off stump, to an immaculate length and well-set fields, offering no respite or chance to break out, inviting only risk. Trott received an excellent delivery from Taylor three balls into his return to Test cricket and was caught at first slip, but it is hard to draw much conclusion from that: it is the sort of thing that can happen with a new ball.
Cook was then comprehensively bowled by Roach, with a hint of inside edge as he played a fraction away from his body – with the bowler indicating it was part of the West Indies strategy. “Obviously we have our team plans because Alastair Cook has a weakness – everyone knows that - we just have to execute it as much as possible,” said Roach. “Today our plan worked.”
Soon after Gary Ballance, battling hard to make any impression, finally lost patience, drove loosely at a wide half-volley from Holder, around the wicket to the left-hander, and also edged to first slip. It was left to Bell and Root to battle their way through to lunch, the first session producing only 49 runs.
But the afternoon brought change. There was a stiff breeze blowing across the ground, bringing with it the smell of jerk pork from the concession tent, and it may have helped the seamers first thing. Now, though, the ball was older and already had lost its hardness. West Indies began to search for reverse swing and Sulieman Benn wheeled away, first from one end and then the other, as Denesh Ramdin juggled his attack seeking a further breakthrough. Some of the discipline had gone, though, with overpitching as they looked for the reverse swing but all too often going short, sufficiently so for both Bell and Root to pull through midwicket. The former in particular cut characteristically, especially the left-arm spin of Benn whom he cuffed away as might an old-time Bobby seeing off an apple scrumper with a clip round the ear’ole.
The runs began to flow. Where there were only three boundaries in the morning session, the pair found the ropes consistently after the interval. Bell, whose judgment outside off stump had been impeccable with the bounce sufficiently good to be able to leave the ball on length as well as direction, was able to reach a half-century from 96 balls with his ninth boundary, pulled through midwicket. Thus the hundred partnership came up in a shade under two hours’ batting.
It had been a textbook exhibition of Test-match batting in which a batsman first establishes himself, gauging the pace of the pitch, and prospers later. It was chanceless almost until the end.