England's Test series against New Zealand got off to a painful start last night when Ian Bell was taken to hospital for an X-ray on the first morning of the first Test.
Bell was taking evasive action while fielding at short leg when a full-blooded pull shot from Jamie How, the New Zealand opener, off the bowling of Ryan Sidebottom struck him hard on the side of his right hand as he instinctively brought his arms up in front of his face.
Bell immediately collapsed on the ground and stayed down for three or four minutes in obvious discomfort while receiving treatment from Kirk Russell, the England physiotherapist. As he was led from the field, a swelling the size of an egg could be seen, raising fears that he may well have broken a bone. But he was back at the ground –if not on the field – after lunch with the X-ray having revealed nothing worse than severe bruising to the arm.
He is expected to be fit to bat, a major fillip for an England batting line-up that does not possess great depth. If Bell is incapable of batting Tim Ambrose, making his Test debut, would come in at six and Sidebottom at seven. Such a scenario would place England's top order under huge pressure to score heavily. Owais Shah is England's back-up batsman, but he would only become available for the second Test in Wellington.
Bell's ailment was not the only concern for England on a morning dominated by the Black Caps' batsmen. Daniel Vettori, the New Zealand captain, happily chose to bat after winning the toss and his openers made the most of a low, slow surface that offered the quicker bowlers very little assistance.
How and Matthew Bell made a watchful start against accurate bowling from Sidebottom and Matthew Hoggard, but once the pair became used to the pace and bounce of the pitch runs began to flow. Both batsmen struck boundaries off the front and back foot as England's seamers searched for a breakthrough.
England's sole moment of joy came in Stephen Harmison's second over, the 14th of the day, when Bell, on 19, sliced a drive high to Kevin Pietersen fielding at fine gully. Stephen Fleming, playing in his last Test series before retirement, came in and played several pleasant shots, finding the boundary whenever England's bowlers strayed off line.
The introduction of Monty Panesar tightened things up for the tourists, the left-armer turning a couple of deliveries past the outside edge of How's bat. The sight offered Panesar encouragement but it will have pleased New Zealand too – the Black Caps have selected two spinners for the Test.
At lunch New Zealand had moved nonchalantly to 87 for 1, with How and Fleming unbeaten on 39 and 29 respectively.
Bell is not the first England player to visit a nearby hospital – Phil Mustard, England's reserve wicket-keeper, underwent surgery on his nose yesterday after being accidentally hit in the face during the team's final practice session before the first Test.
Mustard was feeding the electric bowling machine in the net next to where Pietersen was batting when a full-blooded heave by the batsman, off the bowling of Panesar, went over the netting, struck part of the metal stanchion and hit him flush on the nose. Mustard was standing on a chair at the time and the force of the blow knocked him backwards and on to the ground.
Mustard remained prostrate for five minutes while Russell and the England doctor, Mark Wotherspoon, attended. He was then taken for an X-ray where a fracture was spotted. He is expected to resume training later this week.