Two young Englishmen walked to the crease in Birmingham with much on their minds. In the morning they had watched with a mixture of astonishment and delight as the cream of Australian batting was swept aside by old-fashioned swing bowling.
Next they had seen Alastair Cook perish as he flirted at a delivery better left alone. A dogfight between two ordinary sides awaited their contribution. England had a chance to seize the initiative, maybe take a stranglehold on the Ashes. No less pertinently they had been given another opportunity to establish themselves. And so Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell went to work, with taut nerves and high hopes.
Bopara could mature into a fine Test match batsmen. Despite his latest failure, England ought to persevere with him. His ambition cannot be mistaken and it is a powerful force. The selectors were right to put him into the difficult first wicket down position and ought to let him settle. Most batsmen prefer to drift down the list, enjoying the protection, facing the old ball. Few volunteer to bat at No 3, getting the worst of both worlds. It's the most critical posting in the order and Bopara seeks it. It is a significant point in his favour.
Clearly the 24-year-old is prepared to back himself. In a somewhat anonymous series, too, he has presence at the crease. Of course, he is not the finished product. Like most youngsters his passions occasionally run hot and then he plays a wayward stroke and everyone grumbles.
Nor is he a fellow for respectable dismissals. Some batsmen are adept at leaving the scene with dignity. Others reveal self-destructive streaks that cause apoplexy amongst forgetful elders. Bopara is not often beaten all ends up by a corker. Mostly he gets himself out, a feat he repeated yesterday. Manifestly there is room for improvement But these weaknesses can be fixed. His footwork requires attention and his brain needs cooling. In both cases the adjustments are minor. Otherwise his technique survives scrutiny. Moreover his puffy-chested aggression tells of fighting spirit.
It's worth remembering that Bopara comes from a minority group that feels it must bang the drum or be buried. Lots of Asian batsmen and bowlers have been chosen to play for England. Few have made the grade. Most have been assertive. All sorts of barriers have to be broken, not least in the mind.
Bopara's technique is essentially sound. All the evidence suggests that he has studied Sachin Tendulkar's game and tries to copy it. Not such a bad idea. Like the Indian master, he keeps his head low, presents a broad bat, moves back and across before stepping forward, tucks the ball away off his pads and seeks to blunt the attack. However, he lacks the champion's precision and genius. Moreover he does not remain as side on as Test cricket's heaviest scorer. Tendulkar's back foot point towards cover, Bopara's aims slightly forward which opens his chest and makes him play across the line. Until set, too, Tendulkar does not play away from his body and avoids opening the face of the bat.
At the SCG in 2004 he reached 200 without scoring a single run between point and mid-off. It was an extraordinarily determined, disciplined and humble performance. At present Bopara lacks that sort of staying power. If he's going to copy Tendulkar, he needs to do it properly.
Impetuosity is his other obvious failing. He is disconcertingly accident prone. Yesterday his first run came with a push, a scamper and a dive. After tea, with the hard work done, he shuffled across his crease and edged a humdrum delivery on to his stumps. Not for the first time he departed as a man whose work had been half-done.
His punishment was to sit in the rooms watching the third-wicket pair putting away loose deliveries. Nothing is more calculated to concentrate a batsman's mind than the sight of comrades scoring soft runs. For all his failings, though, Bopara averages 38 in Test cricket. Moreover, England is not exactly bursting with batsmen. And he fears no bowler, can play shots off both feet and on both sides of the wicket. His extra-cover drive was the stroke of the day.
Probably Bell did not expect to get another chance so soon. Kevin Pietersen's injury opened the door. And so he found himself walking out as Bopara withdrew. His case is the exact opposite. His technique is solid but he has not believed in himself enough. Bell has sought to avoid mistakes, tried to hang on, waited for the game to come to him. His reluctance to assert himself has been pounced on by tough opponents convinced that he buckles under pressure. Of course, he can feel their doubts, which mirror his own. He has thrived when he has felt comfortable and otherwise shrivelled. In short he lacked the conviction needed to do justice to his ability. At the crease he made little impression.
Reprieved, recalled, Bell needed to impose himself or perish in the attempt. He had fiddled around for long enough. It was time for death or glory. And he dared to take the risk. Not long after his arrival he stepped down the crease and drove Nathan Hauritz over the ropes. His response to surviving a palpable leg before decision against Mitchell Johnson – it was the worst of Rudi Koertzen's three mistakes, and again the Australians were the victims – was no less significant. He belted the next ball to the cover boundary. If nothing else it suggested that his mind set had changed, that he realised that promise was no longer enough, that performance alone sufficed, that he had to suppress his fears.
By the time bad light fell across his home ground, Bell had reached 26. Hopefully he will continue in the same vein. It's not enough to shake the hand of opportunity. He needs to grab it and not let go.
Bumble's world: Me & Johnny Cash
Phillip Hughes and Darren Bent may have dominated the world of Twitter over the last couple of days, but they are but small beer when compared to the unique twittering of the masterful David Lloyd. Here's the pick from yesterday's
*Beefy not arrived yet... probably the heavy traffic wheeze again!
*posh dining last night... champignons... noisettes... confits with some jus!
*ryedale bitter last night... nice drop *other delicacies were... assiette de fromage... a lot drizzling was going on
*Charlie Sale spotted comin out of the ladies yesterday!!!
*lunch not arrived yet... fish pie... how smelly is it in here?!
*tap and spile on broad st open every day til 4am. Karaoke too. Marvellous.Tonight Athers is Iggy Pop (after pompous dining)
*Beefy: Pavarotti – Warne: Rolf Harris – Gower: Pet Shop Boys – Hussain: Johnny Rotten... I, of course, will be Johnny Cash
*Spotted T shirts with 'start the car' and 'fumble with bumble' in the crowd
David Lloyd commentates for Sky Sports during the Ashes
Alec's Ashes: Facts from the frontline
Gilbert Jessop holds the record for the fastest Ashes century – the England batsman reached three figures in 75 minutes (and 76 balls) during a one-wicket win at The Oval in August 1902. Jessop also played football for Gloucester and Cheltenham.
From Alec Stewart's Cricket Companion (Corinthian, £16.99). To order a copy for £15.29 (inc P&P) visitReuse content