Cricket: Bell tolls for wilting Windies

The NatWest one-day series was meant to be West Indies’ opportunity to win matches on this tour. The Tests were expected to be beyond them, England are the best in the world after all, but the 50-over thrash is more suited to West Indies’ expressive cricket. That was the theory anyway but on yesterday’s form they will be lucky to win any of the three scheduled matches.

Indeed it was a dreadful day for them. Before the match Chris Gayle was ruled out of the series with a foot injury – an ignominious conclusion after weeks and months of negotiation with the West Indies Cricket Board – during the first innings Darren Bravo pulled a hamstring and, when batting after a lengthy rain squall, Andre Russell slipped on the greasy turf and hurt his shoulder.

It seemed one calamity just begat another and the players, huddled deep into their sweaters with hands in pockets against a blustery cold wind, were unable to change their fate.

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In truth they are rarely at their best in very cold conditions, and it was certainly that, but neither are they good when their cricket is overly structured or conservative. The omission of both Tino Best and Fidel Edwards meant a diet of medium pace backed up by spin was meant to contain England. West Indies cricket needs some firepower with both bat and ball. It is their method and the players respond to it. By selecting a rather boring conservative side, much like an English county would, West Indies accepted a loss of spark and aggression.

It failed. Ian Bell’s innings was magnificent. England had been posed a very awkward question by the retirement of Kevin Pietersen. Who would open with Alastair Cook and provide the initial impetus in the power play overs? Bell was the man selected, partly because he has the all-round strokemaking ability and also because he has not dominated enough in the middle order. Only one century in his previous 108 matches was scant reward for such a talent.

Being pushed up to open the innings was a direct challenge to Bell and he responded with his second century scored at better than a run a ball. The pitch was good, the outfield fast and the boundaries forced back to the barriers protecting the stands so there were plenty of twos and threes which helps an artistic batsman more than a bludgeoner, but still it was a commanding performance filled with boundaries as well. He pulled, cut, drove hard, placed the ball exquisitely just beyond fielders and manoeuvred the ball into gaps for singles with such aplomb that while he was present at the crease a score of 310 was likely.

His dismissal in the 40th over however stifled England’s final assault. Even the lusty swinging and hard running of Craig Kieswetter and Stuart Broad could not compare to Bell’s impressive strike rate.

Not that 288 was ever going to be easy to chase down.

Dwayne Smith started superbly for West Indies, driving hard through midwicket and mid-off and when the seamers pitched a tad short he pulled hard and flat for six.

It was scintillating but needed support and with Dinesh Ramdin pushed up to three it was difficult to see where the big partnerships would come from. Smith’s half-century was the only highlight and that was because of the strength of England’s bowling attack.

Where Bell could feast on the gentle offerings of Darren Sammy and Dwayne Bravo and accumulate with ease, West Indies had to combat a seam quartet of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Tim Bresnan. That is a Test match seam attack and will often overpower sides.

They also had worked out a method of where to bowl. Normally they pitch the ball up, encouraging the batsman to drive, as this generates edges behind. However, with the field restrictions in one-day cricket and only two or three fielders allowed to scout the boundary during the power plays, pitching the ball up often results in a flurry of boundaries.

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Anderson has often suffered from that but all the bowlers adjusted their length by dragging just a little shorter.

It was well thought out and mostly very well executed.

As well as England batted, it is the bowlers that will win most matches for them.

However, interestingly England have won their last five one-day internationals and in each an opening batsman has scored a century. It is no coincidence.