Much of the talk around English cricket is about a batsman who spent a lot of time batting at No. 4. What the future holds for Kevin Pietersen remains unclear, but the man who moved into the position vacated by his sacking last year is a fine player himself. Ian Bell’s 22nd Test hundred – now just one fewer than Pietersen (currently) has – helped England recover from a difficult start in Antigua and end the opening day of the series in the ascendency.
It was a quite a turnaround in the second two thirds of the day: at lunch England had plodded and prodded their way to 49 for 3 off 25 overs – although against some testing bowling from West Indies’ three quicks – but in the rest of the day they amassed 292 off 65 overs. Joe Root made 83 in a fourth-wicket stand of 177 which reset England after a start that had threatened more bad vibes.
Ben Stokes, recalled to the side in the No. 6 spot vacated by the injured Moeen Ali, continued the resurgence by skipping to a 59-ball fifty after three consecutive ducks against India last year, ending in sight of a second Test hundred. No need to punch a locker this time. He and Bell surged to a partnership of 130 in 25 overs until Kemar Roach produced an excellent delivery to nick Bell’s edge off the last ball of the penultimate over.
Jonathan Trott’s international return after a gap of 16 months was less successful as he lasted three balls and edged to first slip. Elsewhere in a tough start, Alastair Cook dragged on against Roach and Gary Ballance was lured into driving a wide delivery to slip, his mind muddled by some challenging bowling, as West Indies probed away around the wicket, and an approaching shower. West Indies offered barely a bad ball – but, not for the first time, that pressure only lasted a session.
The early movement, aided by some residual moisture which had encouraged Denesh Ramdin’s surprising choice to bowl, diminished after lunch but equally as important was the greater intent shown by Bell and Root on the resumption. Bell had needed 20 balls to get off the mark and was 10 off 48 deliveries when he started to pick off regularly boundaries, although he could have been in trouble on 21 had a third slip remained for Jerome Taylor.
It was not a pitch which made Bell’s graceful cover drive an easy shot to play, but he still dominated through the off side by driving strongly square and late-cutting down to third man: the region from point to third man brought 56 runs from 21 balls with ten of his boundaries.
Not for the first time, Root’s busy approach at the crease helped to liven up an England innings that had barely moved out of first gear. His nimble footwork and use of the crease disrupted the line of Sulieman Benn – something that Bell also did impressively, including a six over long-on – while the consistency of the pacemen, which had been a stand out feature of the morning session, was not replicated.
Root brought up his fifty off 99 deliveries with a crunching on-drive, holding the pose for good measure. However, shortly before tea he needed treatment from the physio for a back problem which led to him being contorted in all manner of directions before resuming his innings. He was given a life straight after tea, on 61, when Benn dropped a simple catch at midwicket but he did not appear too impeded until lazily dragging on against Taylor with a century on offer.
Three figures did not elude Bell, but the boundary that brought his milestone from 194 balls was one of his less convincing as he went for his favourite late cut against Marlon Samuels and edged it to the left of slip who had already starting move to his right in anticipation of the shot.
Bell and Stokes continued to enhance England’s position during the final session against an attack which had lost its morning zip. Benn could not provide the control needed by his captain while Samuels went at nearly five-an-over when Ramdin rested his quicks.
It took Stokes seven balls to score his first Test runs since Sydney last January as he opened his account with a square cut off Taylor. On 21, West Indies reviewed for an lbw shout from Benn but the ball was only clipping the top of leg stump and a short while later Stokes took the left-arm spinner for six over long-on.
The extra pace of the second new ball was to his liking as well as he sped to his half-century before taking three consecutive boundaries off Taylor – to make it five in nine balls off the same bowler – switching between powerful drives and pulls. For him, if not for Bell, there is the chance of further plunder.