Cricket: Bell's lesson for England

Graeme Wright at Old Trafford sees home truths hammered out
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IT MAY be hard cheese on Channel 4, drawing England for their first Test series. But Matthew Bell, New Zealand's tyro opener, won't be complaining. Dropped during the winter after his first three Tests, two against India and one against South Africa, the 22- year-old Bell made the most of his comeback by hitting the winning runs at Lord's a fortnight ago. Yesterday he took a giant step towards establishing himself as Matt Horne's opening partner with a pugnacious, never pretty 83 that wrung the life out of England. He may not be a fully fledged Test cricketer yet, but he knows what Test cricket is all about.

There were times in the hour and a quarter before lunch yesterday when it looked as if Bell could be out any ball. But there were also times when it looked as if the only thing likely to disturb his concentration was the occasional half-hearted attempt in a half-empty ground to get a Mexican wave going.

Whatever happens here, New Zealand should be the long-term beneficiaries of Bell's tenacity. When he was omitted earlier in the year, the New Zealand selectors recalled the Northern Districts opener Bryan Young, and toyed with Roger Twose, who was such a significant failure opening the innings in the First Test at Edgbaston. They did not, however, lose faith in Bell, a lesson England's selectors could learn from when dealing with a young player's confidence. Though not in the World Cup party, he was guaranteed a place in the Tour party for the Test series. He had come to England as a youngster to serve an apprenticeship on the MCC ground staff, and when he scored 661 runs at an average of 50 in 1997-98, good judges in New Zealand said he was potentially the best and most secure opener to appear since Glenn Turner.

Bell and Turner have a birthplace, Dunedin, in common. And remembering how the young Turner could scarcely hit the ball off the square when he came into first- class cricket, there were times in Bell's innings here when it appeared as if they had that in common as well. Having resumed yesterday on 31, he looked as if he would struggle to reach 50 by lunch. But then he pulled Graeme Hick's first ball through midwicket for the boundary that posted his first Test half-century.

By the time they were parted in mid-afternoon, Bell and Nathan Astle had put on 153 for the third wicket from 297 balls, far away surpassing New Zealand's previous highest for this wicket at Old Trafford. That was 51 in 1949 by Merv Wallace and Bert Sutcliffe, but on yesterday's evidence you'd have put money on Wallace and Grommitt to take runs off England's bowling.

At Lord's 30 years ago, Turner carried his bat for 43 in New Zealand's innings of 131. He was 22, the same age as Bell, but it is unlikely Bell will have to carry his country's batting as often as Turner did. Since their defeat at Birmingham, these New Zealanders, as they say in the Channel 4 advertisements, have raised the stakes and just got better.