Warwickshire 283 for 6 (Bell 130*, Woakes 66) lead Hampshire 202 (McLaren 85, Barker 5-53) by 81 runs

This was not, as its maker would surely attest, a vintage Ian Bell century. It was, however, one of intelligence, importance, and no little inevitability; even lacking the fluency of his pomp, Bell looked better equipped than anyone to deal with a pitch where batsmen fear the new ball but little else - as the efforts of Keith Barker and then Fidel Edwards have shown. Indeed he ended his second day as a 34-year-old having seen off not one, but two new balls and some dirge in between.

Bell has just enjoyed his first winter off for a decade and a half and, while England have prospered in his absence, the cold reality is that this was a day that started with the news that in unforeseen, unfortunate and downright unhappy circumstances, another spot has opened up in the middle order he vacated before Christmas.

Thus the timing of this knock - one of economy over elegance and game awareness over ego - could not have been more apposite. While all the lovely moving parts remain, this was not the sheer sexiness of Bell at his best; it was gritty rather than pretty, as he spent 44 balls in the nineties, laboured for 150 deliveries over his second 50, and had only seven boundaries before he pulled a Will Smith long-hop beautifully along the floor through midwicket to bring up his century.

The cover drive, caressed cut and glide to third man were also all seen, but not regularly; Bell - who has also scored centuries in both Test matches on this ground - was determined to eschew risk and play within himself, even suffering a bout of cramp during the afternoon session. "My arms were struggling a bit, it was the longest I've batted since Antigua! The body took some adjusting," Bell joked afterwards.

While Bell said, "for me it doesn't do me any good thinking about England," he admitted that something had changed and looked, in the middle and beyond the boundary, a man refreshed. "I do feel fresh, and excited about cricket. I probably had lost a bit of that drive a few months back. So to have spent a lot of time away from cricket is nice. Whether other things happen with England is irrelevant, where I am now I am very happy. It was an enforced break and I understand it. I'm not going to make excuses. I was short of runs since Antigua, but I feel great now. I love playing for Warwickshire and my body feels great."

In the morning session, for a little under 40 minutes, Bell and his old mate Jonathan Trott, under the backdrop of perfect blue skies, carried us back to 2010 in sharing 49; Trott drove beautifully down the ground before falling to James Vince, caught by the only slip chasing a wide, looping half-volley. Bell added 49 more with the proto-Trott, Sam Hain, when Ryan McLaren had him strangled down the leg side.

Finally, with his team in some bother after Tim Ambrose looped to midwicket, the captain found an able lieutenant in Chris Woakes, who was watchful and rather staid early on, before unfurling cover drives and cuts to the new ball. The pair, who shared 151, were quite content patting all Hampshire threw at them, particularly Liam Dawson's spin, straight back to the bowler; for much of the partnership piercing the infield was a challenge, as Vince forewent catchers in favour of protection. The reward for the batsmen's patience was 52 from the 9.2 overs of the new ball, before Woakes fell, plumb lbw to Edwards, in the day's final over, and hobbled off for stumps with a rather painful toe.

First thing, Hampshire had walloped their way to a bonus point before promptly getting out - with Edwards following some briefly lusty hitting with fine, if erratic new-ball bowling. His sharp swing accounted for Ian Westwood - not offering a stroke - the Varun Chopra.

But out came Bell and into his bubble he went. In scoring more than twice as many runs as the Hampshire top seven combined, he had crafted a position from which his team cannot lose the opening match of their season. With a lead that could easily swell in double quick time on the final morning - given Warwickshire have the makers of 23 first-class centuries still waiting to bat - victory remains a possibility.

"It's dry, and we have a world class spinner, which is nice. Jeetan [Patel] is class at landing the ball in Keith Barker's footholes so we will be excited about that tomorrow," said Bell, reflecting gleefully on a fine day in the dirt.

Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macp