ST JOHN’S, Antigua –– Ian Bell’s 22nd Test century helped England out of a deep hole and firmly on to the front foot as they eventually dominated the opening day of the first Test against the West Indies in Antigua today.
The Warwickshire batsman stayed calm while wickets fell early, and he made it to 143 before falling to Kemar Roach a matter of six balls before the end of play, England finishing up on 341 for 5 after a serious early struggle.
Joe Root also impressed in a vital stand with Bell, falling not far short of a century, while the recalled Ben Stokes showed signs of having his batting back in order with an exciting and unbeaten innings of 71 which included a mixture of style and power.
England got off to an awful start when Jonathan Trott, returning to the international ranks for the first time since he left the 2013-14 Ashes series with a stress-related illness, was caught in the slips by Darren Bravo off the bowling of Jerome Taylor for a third-ball duck.
Worse would follow a handful of overs later when captain Alastair Cook (11), who could easily have been out in the second over, was bowled by Roach, somehow finding a narrow gap between bat and pad.
Fears of England embarrassment to start the series were further raised when Gary Ballance (10) became the third batsman to fall with the score on only 34, caught by Bravo as he went fishing at a wide delivery from Jason Holder that could easily have been left alone.
But Bell and Root have clearly been England’s two best Test batsmen over the last couple of years, and they proved their class with a fourth-wicket stand that eventually reached 177 and started to take the day away from the home side.
Both batsmen took their time to build before the lunch interval, which arrived with England on 49 for 3 after 25 stodgy overs, but they soon found their range in the afternoon.
Runs began to flow, with the next 50 coming in just over ten overs as the seamers struggled to break through and an innocuous Sulieman Benn struggled badly with his line and length.
Bell was the first to reach 50, coming off 96 balls and Root, who had been treated for a back issue, completed his half-century just before tea, which saw England on a far healthier 167 for 3.
Root had just about caught his batting partner when he fell for 83, a disappointing dismissal as Taylor induced a thick inside edge that caromed into the stumps – the Yorkshireman was clearly angry with himself as he walked off.
Bell’s scoring slowed in the nervous 90s, but a thick outside edge off Samuels past slip took him to three figures as he and a resurgent Stokes built another valuable stand.
Stokes had failed to score a run in his last three Test innings, but he played with great fluency after a lovely cut shot earned him his first four runs.
By now the momentum had completely turned from the opening hour, and England barely offered even the hint of a chance as Bell and Stokes closed on a quick hundred partnership, the Durham all-rounder reaching his 50 off 59 balls.
The cavalier Stokes was showing off his entire range of shots, with the Windies attack looking completely dispirited as the final overs ticked by and the runs piled up, Taylor in particular taking a beating.
Scoring continued to be easy, and it appeared Bell and Stokes would be back tomorrow to continue their stand, but Bell’s 256-ball vigil ended off the final ball of the 89th over when a fine seaming delivery from Roach found his outside edge and flew through to Ramdin.
James Tredwell came in as night-watchman but it was Stokes who safely saw off Holder’s last over, and England will look to build a big score from the rest of their middle and lower order today, with Stokes key to that as he seeks a second Test century.
England 1st Innings
A Cook* b Roach 11
J Trott c Bravo b Taylor 0
G Ballance c Bravo b Holder 10
I Bell c Ramdin b Roach 143
J Root b Taylor 83
B Stokes not out 71
J Tredwell not out 0
Total: 341/5 (90 Overs)
Extras: (b 7, lb 3, w 7, nb 6) 23
Still to Bat: J Buttler+, C Jordan, S Broad, J Anderson.
Fall of Wickets: 1-1 (Trott, 0.5 ov), 2-22 (Cook, 7.6 ov), 3-34 (Ballance, 16.5 ov), 4-211 (Root, 63.2 ov), 5-341 (Bell, 88.6 ov).
West Indies 1st Innings bowling: J Taylor 15-2-79-2, K Roach 21-4-66-2, J Holder 18-7-55-1, S Benn 26-3-85-0, M Samuels 10-0-46-0.
West Indies: Denesh Ramdin (captain), Kraigg Brathwaite (vice-captain), Sulieman Benn, Jermaine Blackwood, Darren Bravo, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jason Holder, Kemar Roach, Marlon Samuels, Devon Smith, Jerome Taylor.
Toss: West Indies won the toss and elected to bowl