Warwickshire 195 for 7 (Bell 106*) lead Durham 163 (Barker 5-33) by 32 runs Scorecard
Another piece in the jigsaw that makes up the England team fell into place with the return to form of Ian Bell. Bell overcame challenging conditions and a demanding pace attack to register his first first-class century since his double hundred against India at The Oval last August; 20 innings ago. On a pitch where no other batsman has managed to move beyond the 30s, that represents a fine effort.
While Bell was never in serious danger of losing his England place ahead of the series against West Indies, he needed this innings. After a chastening tour of the UAE, where he averaged just 8.50 in the Test series, he had managed just 34 runs in his first three Championship innings of the season. In 16 of his last 20 first-class innings, he has failed to reach 20 and this may well prove his final first-class knock ahead of the first Test at Lord's. His confidence, understandably, had diminished.
He was not, perhaps, at his most fluent for the first half of this innings. He was dropped twice - on 51 and 59 - and survived a very confident leg-before appeal from Mitchell Claydon when he had 61. As the ball softened and his confidence grew, however, he began to settle and produced some high-quality strokes. One hook off Graham Onions bore the hallmark of class, as did a perfect cover drive off the same bowler. And, while there may be some doubt about his ability to deal with top-class spin after his travails against Saeed Ajmal, his treatment of Ian Blackwell, a perfectly respectable left-arm spinner who was once deemed good enough for Test cricket, bordered on the dismissive. Bell brought up his century - the 39th of his first-class career - by cutting a Blackwell delivery to the boundary, having earlier skipped down the wicket and driven the same bowler for six over long-off.
"That was a bit of a relief," Bell said afterwards. "That kind of innings will certainly help me. It counts for nothing going into the Test series, but it will give me some comfort to have spent some time at the crease. I haven't had enough of it over the winter. I'd be out within the first few minutes.
"It was a tough winter. It wasn't for a lack of effort, but every run I got seemed to be hard work. In the summer before when everything was going nicely runs seemed to be easy to come across and those balls that I was nicking were going into gaps. Hopefully I've turned a corner now.
"That's what we can expect against the West Indies. It doesn't look as if the weather will improve, so we'll be facing a good seam attack on green pitches. Durham have one of the better seam attacks, so it's nice to do well against them in these conditions. It gives you a lot of confidence.
"Technique isn't something I have to worry about too much. I wouldn't say I've lost confidence - the last three years, going back to Cape Town, has given me lots of good stuff to draw upon - but I want to get better at playing in the subcontinent and I know there are areas - such as playing against spin - where I want to get better. I feel I'm a good player of spin in England and most places, but batting at five in the subcontinent is hard work. I've learned some tough lessons.
"I just haven't have enough time at the crease. I'm netted out, to be honest. I've had enough time in the net. It's scoring runs that helps your confidence and your form. I feel I've just been scratching around. It started in the UAE, but even here, in the last two games, I just didn't feel the rhythm was there. Even the 50 I made in Sri Lanka, on a really good batting wicket, felt like hard work.
"In the last six months I haven't been finding the gaps or timing the ball nicely. I did that today as the ball got a little softer and a little wetter. I was going forward and back nicely, too, whereas in the winter I was getting stuck in the crease a bit."
Bell's work ethic cannot be faulted. Whereas Mark Ramprakash has complained that the early season conditions have made batting "a lottery", Bell asked the England management to allow him to play an extra Championship game - he was originally scheduled to play just two - and feels that time spent batting in such conditions will serve him well. He will also forgo his time off next week to come and face his team-mate Chris Woakes, who is just about fit to resume bowling, in the middle at Edgbaston.
"Batting is going to be hard, but you can't sit here and complain about it," he said. "There's no point moaning. You can get a lot out of batting in these conditions. You're not always going to play on flat wickets, so it's good to play on challenging surfaces where things are in the bowlers' favour. You can't always live in the comfort zone."
Bell's century helped Warwickshire build a dominant position in this game. Only 22 overs were possible on another rain-reduced day but Tim Ambrose, cutting as enthusiastically as ever, helped Bell extend their overnight partnership to 87 before Blackwell, carrying a shoulder injury that may well require surgery, struck twice in two balls. Ambrose, at least, could count himself unfortunate: his cut shot thumped into the thigh of Ben Stokes at silly-point and deflected to slip, before Rikki Clarke, back instead of forward, simply missed one. To have earned a first innings lead having been, at one stage, for 14 for 4 underlined once again the depth of Warwickshire's batting. It is, however, the depth of the puddles at Edgbaston that may thwart them.