Bell stages grand recovery
Warwickshire 87 and 387 for 7 (Bell 144*, Clarke 79, Jordan 3-98) lead Sussex 229 (Joyce 117) by 245 runs
So, bit by bit, little by little, the shape of the new England team becomes just a little clearer.
This was a day on which Sam Robson all but nailed down the role of opening batsman, the day that Moeen Ali emerged as the most credible spin option - or the least incredible, anyway - and the day that Chris Jordan reasserted his claims for one of the seam bowling positions. Indeed, in this form, it will prove hard to deny him the new ball.
While there was little doubt that Ian Bell or Alastair Cook would retain their places, both they and the England selectors will sleep just a little easier knowing they have centuries under their belts. Indeed, in the case of Cook, it was only his second century since May. If only a wicketkeeper would emerge, or remain fit, the selectors' job would largely be done.
Here, in front of the watching national selector James Whitaker, Bell provided a reminder, if any was required, of his undoubted class. He left the ball well, defended stoutly, concentrated almost without aberration and, as ever, put away the poor ball with a grace granted to very few. This was the 46th first-class century of his career, his 20th for Warwickshire and his fourth against Sussex.
Just as was the case against Australia last summer, Bell delivered when his side were under pressure. True, the Sussex attack - impressive though it is - might lack the potency of the Australian attack and true, the level of pressure on a quiet day at Edgbaston might not be comparable to that of an Ashes Test. But, on a pitch that continues to offer assistance to the bowlers and in a situation where his side's reliance upon him was absolute, Bell provided an innings of character, class, composure and substance. His driving was a delight and the late cut he played off Jon Lewis was a thing of beauty.
"In my early days, maybe I scored a lot of nice runs that looked good on the eye but really didn't change the course of the game," Bell said afterwards. "But in the last two, three or four years, I've started to score those [important] runs a lot more often.
"The way last summer went against Australia really gave me a lot of confidence - I came in at 20 for 3 a lot - so it was nice to get back into that rhythm."
For Jonathan Trott, the future is less certain. While a thorough examination of the facts does not really support the theory that he was undone by the short ball in Australia, the line between perception and reality is sometimes blurred to the point of irrelevance.
It will not be remembered that, in this game, he played the moving ball in Warwickshire's first innings better than anyone, but it will be remembered that he was, in the second innings, struck twice by short balls from Jordan - once on the helmet, once on the shoulder - and that he fell when pulling another short ball directly to the man positioned for the shot at backward square leg. These are early days in the comeback, but this was not a performance that will have had Whitaker pencilling his name down on any team sheets.
It would be cruel fortune if, in a match that has been enriched by Sussex's excellent catching in the cordon, it was one of their missed chances that proved crucial. But the fact is that Bell was reprieved on 23 when Ed Joyce, at gully, was unable to cling on to a tough, low chance offered off the bowling of Jimmy Anyon. Had it been held, the match might well have been completed within two days.
Joyce also put down a sharp chance offered by Jeetan Patel, on 28, off the deserving Jordan. It allowed Warwickshire's eighth-wicket partnership to graduate, in the eyes of Sussex, from irritation to genuine threat with the bucolic Patel dominating a unbroken stand of 69. With a lead approaching 250 and two days to go, Warwickshire are right back in this game. Sussex looked weary, both with the ball and in the field, some time before the end.
While the Sussex seam attack is excellent, their spin attack is modest and threatens to derail any aspirations they have on the Championship title. Ashar Zaidi may yet emerge as a good quality batsman who bowls useful spin in limited-overs cricket, but his low, slingy left-arm action will surely have little joy in the Championship. Luke Wells and Rory Hamilton-Brown, who were also pressed into service as spinners, are not the answer, either.
When Bell came to the crease, Warwickshire were two wickets down and still 98-runs in arrears. Varun Chopra, who has not enjoyed a distinguished game, left one that swung back at him and Laurie Evans, his weight perhaps falling to the offside, edged a decent delivery that may have left him. Later Chris Woakes and Tim Ambrose were also beaten by deliveries that bounced and left them just a fraction. It was fine bowling.
But with Rikki Clarke, Bell added 132 in 40 overs for the sixth wicket. Clarke, who has now added responsibility to his array of natural talents, resisted with admirable patience and waited for the over-pitched delivery before launching into those flowing drives.
He sustained one sharp blow to the right hand off Jordan when on 49 that clearly caused him great pain and reduced him to something approaching a one-handed batsman afterwards. He went for an X-ray after play and may well have sustained a broken finger. His absence in the Warwickshire slip cordon, and with the ball, could yet prove crucial in this game.
So, too, might be the absence of the heavy roller. Both sides have used their allocation in this game - Warwickshire before play on day two; Sussex at lunch on day one - and without its deadening effects, it may be that the pitch offers increasing help to spinners and seamers alike.
"I always thought 200 would be a tough chase at Edgbaston with some deterioration," Bell said. "It does spin towards the end and there will be some help for Patel."
Despite a first innings score of just 87, Warwickshire might even have their noses in front at this stage.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo