Bell hundred makes up for lost time

Middlesex 298 - Warwickshire 277-6

Much to the Warwickshire captain Nick Knight's relief after Wednesday's late arrival, there were no collisions on the M6 to hold anyone up yesterday; just a persistent drizzle, which kept everyone waiting for play until two o'clock.

Much to the Warwickshire captain Nick Knight's relief after Wednesday's late arrival, there were no collisions on the M6 to hold anyone up yesterday; just a persistent drizzle, which kept everyone waiting for play until two o'clock.

Empty, echoing Test grounds under heavily grey skies can be depressingly grim places. Equipped with extra layers and broad umbrellas, cricket spectators, of course, are always prepared. Supporters of the defending champions at first were unsure that it had been worth hanging about.

Warwickshire's run-gathering was so consistently good last summer that rapid progress to a score of 400 or more became almost the norm, whether batting first or second. This time, against a Middlesex attack that rarely conceded easy runs, it took them 96 overs to reach half that total.

Six wickets had been lost by that point but not that of Ian Bell, who applied himself with a diligence unmatched among his team-mates to complete his first century of the new campaign. Warwickshire needed it, too, struggling as they were to construct a worthwhile reply to a Middlesex total that was looking better than it had when they were making it.

Last year was a big one in the career of the right-hander, whose 23-year-old shoulders are becoming accustomed to bearing a weight of expectation.

No one scored more runs in the Championship than his 1,498, which earned him his Test debut against the West Indies at The Oval, where he made 70 batting at five, followed by a clutch of one-day internationals in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and captaincy of England A in South Africa.

This could be bigger still, with a scramble developing to fill an apparent vacancy in the England middle order. Bell will have gone off at tea, his own score in the 70s, to discover that his principal rival, Robert Key, already had a century at Bristol, with the England coach Duncan Fletcher watching. Presumably, it made him all the more determined not to waste his opportunity.

It was not a blemish-free performance from Bell. Dropping his bat on a ball from Alan Richardson, who had already claimed three wickets against his former county, it had almost come to an end at 61 when the ball trickled into the stumps but, to Bell's relief, left the bails in place.

Facing the off spin of Paul Weekes, he was close to giving a caught and bowled on 64, came within a whisker of being run out in scrambling a second run to get to 84 and reached 96 with a boundary that was streakier than most.

That could not be said, however, about the sumptuous drive through extra cover off Weekes that took him to three figures.

Only Alex Loudon, who crafted a watchable 39 before popping a catch to short leg, had offered him lasting support, but Bell managed well enough without.

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