Hampshire 116 (Bailey 55, Hannon-Dalby 4-29) and 20-1 require a further 239 to beat Warwickshire 188 (Sibley 92*, Edwards 5-49) and 186 (Bell 77*, Berg 3-40)
Appropriately enough, given that timing has been the foundation of his career, Ian Bell chose the day an uninspiring Ashes squad was announced to offer a reminder that while his star may be on the wane it has not yet been extinguished.
Days such as these are not coming around as often as they once were, yet when they do it is difficult to look at the current crop of England batsmen and argue that he would be out of place among them. The same thought might have occurred to James Vince, watching in the field as Bell’s unbeaten 77 guided Warwickshire from 65 for five to a total that might have sounded the death knell for Hampshire’s survival chances.
Needing to draw to ensure that they do not join Warwickshire in Division Two next season, this glimpse into Bell’s past left them with a target of 259 to win or a day and a half in which not to lose 10 wickets, depending on how you looked at it.
In the event, the arrival of rain just as the players set themselves to restart after tea has cut the survival time by a considerable chunk, with 46 overs left in the day when the players were told to make way for the covers. On a pitch that has seen 31 wickets fall in a day and a half, however, getting through a couple of sessions might be tough enough.
Even with Bell’s 159-minute masterclass to give it substance, Warwickshire’s second innings encompassed 10 wickets falling in 44.1 overs, with the four seamers doing all the damage.
Fidel Edwards and Ian Holland found movement to remove both openers in quick succession before Jonathan Trott followed them back, plainly unimpressed to given out caught behind off Gareth Berg, his gestures suggesting he did not believe his bat had made any contact.
Bell, whose first task was to avoid a pair, had barely settled when Matt Lamb was squarely leg before and Tim Ambrose taken at second slip in the same Berg over. At 65 for five, Warwickshire’s lead was just 137.
There have been times this season when Bell has looked like a player whose best days have gone and given that he is 35 now perhaps that is not so surprising. The longevity of a Trescothick or a Collingwood is not bestowed upon every batsman.
Even on his poorer days, there is inevitably at least one moment of undeniable class in a Bell innings, yet as he found his stride with three boundaries in the same over off Berg there was a sense that this might be different. Maybe it was because it was the last innings of the season, a rare year without a century to his name. Perhaps he wanted to make a statement, on this of all days, for the benefit of the doubters.
Or perhaps it just the mind-focussing consequence of a sense of senior responsibility, to salvage something from Warwickshire’s dismal season, to set up a chance to avoid the double indignity of a season not only finishing in relegation but winless. He could recognise, no doubt, that if he played with aggression and it came off he could give Hampshire a real test of their mettle. Even an extra 30 or so runs on the Warwickshire total could make the difference.
In the event, he did better even than that. The wickets kept falling at the other end, Alex Thomson, who again looked a batsman of composure and skill, fell to Kyle Abbott the last ball before lunch, Jeetan Patel bowled by the first one of the afternoon. Then Chris Wright was run out by George Bailey’s direct hit from cover point.
But Bell attacked at every opportunity and when he connected it was usually with the middle of the bat. Twice he sent Berg soaring over the rope but it was Edwards who took the most punishment as Bell used the West Indian’s pace to his own advantage.
Twice steered deliberately for four over the slips, Edwards was frustrated enough to swish a hand angrily at the stumps at the end of one three-boundary over.
It seemed for a while that Bell might get that elusive hundred after all, the one he had come closest to in April when he fell on 99 against Surrey. Olly Hannon-Dalby and Ryan Sidebottom did all they could to help as 72 were added for the last two wickets, of which Bell made exactly 50.
Ultimately both ran into a ball that was too good but they had played their part in ensuring Hampshire will have a difficult final day. Although there are signs the pitch is flattening out a little, a draw looks the least likely outcome, unless the heavy rain forecast overnight takes out more time, and Warwickshire are favourites, with Hampshire already one down.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo