First Test, North Sound, Antigua, day one
England 341-5 (Bell 143, Root 83, Stokes 71no, Roach 2-66)
Bell, who turned 33 on Saturday, came to the crease with England in trouble at 22 for two and then 34 for three. He, too, was subdued early on in his innings as England found themselves virtually strokeless and 49 for three at lunch against a disciplined West Indies seam attack.
Joe Root was, in fact, initially the more aggressive of the pair and looked in fine form. He and Bell have been England’s middle-order rocks of dependability for some time now and they certainly needed to carry on that trend today.
West Indies skipper Denesh Ramdin had surprisingly chosen to insert England upon winning the toss in the morning; a decision that left the assembled pundits mystified on what was a typically slow and uninspiring Antigua pitch on which to bowl. However, Ramdin clearly sensed that early moisture was present and is perhaps banking on it getting no worse for batting throughout the next couple of days.
His bowlers soon rewarded his daring. Jerome Taylor, Kemar Roach and Jason Holder gave England barely a bad ball between them in the morning session and, while it would be easy to criticise an England top three that tend to receive their fair share of it, that would be to do a disservice to the aforementioned trio who located immaculate lines and lengths and fully exploited the early moisture that Ramdin had spotted.
The afternoon session was when the game changed. Bell and Root batted for all of it and hardly offered a chance. Root chopped on, against the run of play, when on 83 and walked off visibly frustrated. Bell, though, had no such problems reaching three figures and was accompanied by an aggressive Ben Stokes. In truth, by this stage, the West Indies bowling had as much in common with that which the tourists faced in St Kitts than it did with their impressive morning display. Stokes feasted on a succession of short deliveries, dispatching each to the boundary with a particularly pleasing crispness.
That crispness had been lacking in the morning and it hadn’t taken long for the critics to start piling in. England’s top three was too one-paced they said. Cook’s technique looks shot. Why was the preparation for this tour so abject? How is Peter Moores still in his job? Fortunately, thanks to Bell, Root and Stokes, England and the watching media have plenty of positive things to talk about.
The Stokes performance is one that will be particularly pleasing. The role that he is being asked to play in this side – to bat at six and be an attacking fourth seamer – will inevitably draw comparisons with Andrew Flintoff and, with an Ashes series on the horizon, that can be no bad thing. He, like any good all-rounder, adds a balance to a Test side that is a captains’ dream.