Bell strikes an early blow for redemption

Sussex 200 MCC 266-5
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The Independent Online

The gloom got Stygian at teatime on the second day of the season at Lord's. But not before the chairman of selectors, David Graveney and the academy director, Rod Marsh, standing on the players' balcony, had been able to discern an innings worth shivering through from a young player who hopes to be a contender for a place in England's middle order when the old guard call it a day.

The gloom got Stygian at teatime on the second day of the season at Lord's. But not before the chairman of selectors, David Graveney and the academy director, Rod Marsh, standing on the players' balcony, had been able to discern an innings worth shivering through from a young player who hopes to be a contender for a place in England's middle order when the old guard call it a day.

Ian Bell, who is 22 today, has been a promising batsman for four years already. He has captained the England Under-19s, toured with the A team and, at the start of the 2002 season, he was confidently expected to play for England before the summer was out. But he was sent off to the Academy instead. Last season his defence proved fragile; he averaged a disappointing 28.85 in a poor run with Warwickshire and was not picked for any winter touring side.

At the start of this season Bell is already reasserting himself. He evidently likes Lord's, having scored 98 and 65 in his first two appearances at the ground. Yesterday he looked set for his first Lord's hundred against Sussex, playing as County Champions against the MCC in a revival of a traditional season opener. But when he had made 88 he drove too confidently at a wide outswinger and was caught at second slip. He had scored 15 fours and finally begun to look the part he had been cast to play.

Bell is 5ft 10in; he looks neat, stands still. When the ball was pitched up he appeared to caress the ball to the extra cover boundary; he drove, hard, off the back foot, and he was watchful in defence. The difference between this year, so far, and last is that he is playing like a man who expects to score good runs.

How come? A winter spent in Perth, he said yesterday, while waiting until 1.45pm for the cloud to lift. John Inverarity, his shrewd Australian coach at Edgbaston, arranged for his protégé to spend five winter months playing top-class grade cricket for the University of Western Australia. For the first time in his career he was forced to fend for himself: "I enjoyed every minute of it," he says.

Analysing his poor season, he decided that his ambition had undermined his technique. "I had set my heart on scoring hundreds. I wanted to bat all day and that meant I was playing too defensively. I had become a bit placid in defence, not enough foot movement," he says. In Perth he learned the Australian way of thinking positively: running hard between the wickets, and scoring from defensive stroke play.

Putting on 124 for the fourth wicket with Andy Flower yesterday was part of Bell's further education. You could watch them talking between overs. Bell reported that when he worried about picking Mushtaq Ahmed's googly, Flower would tell him he was getting ahead of himself again. He should be concentrating on the next ball.

Flower, the elder statesman, was a good teacher in a team of young England hopefuls; he was precise in defence and flamboyant when he chose to attack Mushtaq. Only his dismissal was not out of the textbook. On 76, an inside edge off a slash was caught by the keeper.

Gloucestershire's Alex Gidman swiped Robin Martin-Jenkins for six across the short grandstand boundary - as far as one could see, because the gloom descended and the umpires decided at tea that the batsmen could not see well enough and went off for bad light. The umpires brought the players back on but conceded defeat again 21 minutes later with Gidman on 42, second highest score among the aspirants.

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