After a gap of two years and one day, Ravi Bopara will resume his Test career on Wednesday.
While it is the blink of an eye compared to the 17 years and 314 days that George Gunn waited to play again for England between 1912 and 1930, it will have felt like an epoch to Bopara.
He was picked yesterday in a squad of 13 for the Third Test against India at Edgbaston, after Jonathan Trott failed to recover from a shoulder injury sustained in the second match at Nottingham. Unless the selectors suddenly depart from their tried, trusted and winning method of six batsmen, four bowlers and a wicketkeeper, Bopara will feature somewhere in the middle order.
The absence of Trott is a blow for England, though he has been relatively muted in this series. India's problems, 2-0 down and looking weary, wobbly and out of form, are much greater. If they lose in Birmingham they will be replaced as the official No 1 Test side by England, though on the basis of the past fortnight the transfer has occurred.
There must have been times during the 23 matches that England have played without him when Bopara thought his chance would never come again. His Test career has had two distinct parts – the first consisted of three consecutive ducks and the second of three consecutive centuries before another duck. When it seemed certain that he would be selected at the start of this season, along came Eoin Morgan to score a hundred in an England Lions match and win the place instead.
It would have been tough, though not necessarily unfair, had Bopara missed out again. If Lions matches are to mean anything, and Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, continues to insist they do, there is a case for viewing them partially as Test trials.
In that case, Bopara has failed his trial twice this season, with scores of 17, 25, 19 and 25, whereas James Taylor, generally considered to be his closest contender, has made 76, 17, 76 and 98. Taylor's form for Leicestershire in the Championship Division Two has been fairly moderate.
Although Bopara embarked on a lean run after losing out to Morgan, the selectors may have been convinced by a dogged, craftsmanlike 178 on a tricky pitch at Southend last week – against Leicestershire, when Taylor's scores were 19 and 4. Bopara's seam bowling, too easily under-rated, was probably part of the equation.
In a four-man attack, a part-time fifth bowler is usually essential. Trott has filled the role with varying degrees of adequacy this summer – Bopara, who has taken 25 wickets in 2011, will do it better. Taylor bowls very occasional leg spin which has yet to bring him a first-class wicket.
In any event, Bopara would probably have to make a quadruple hundred for the match starting on Wednesday to be anything other than a one-off. His position in the order is likely to be five or six. Ian Bell will stay at three, where he made a magnificent 159 in Nottingham. The innings was blighted by his controversial run-out on the stroke of tea on the third day but that should not expunge the sheer delight of his play.
The selectors have named five seam bowlers, with Steve Finn in as cover for Chris Tremlett. The selectors expect Tremlett to have recovered from his hamstring niggle and back spasm, which forced him to miss the last match, in which case they will have the conundrum of whether to drop Tim Bresnan. Bresnan took seven wickets and a made a blazing 90 in the second innings at Trent Bridge.
None of which adds up to anything remotely as dreadful as the difficulties facing India. It is not simply that they have twice been beaten resoundingly but that they have allowed themselves to be deprived of advantageous positions. At Lord's and Trent Bridge, having won the toss, the tourists had chances. Many reasons have been proposed for their lack of spirit. Perhaps the re-introduction of the opening batsman Virender Sehwag and left-arm fast bowler Zaheer Khan, who have both been injured, will rectify some of their defects.
On paper at least there is talent in such abundance that they should be able to make some sort of response. If they can win one match they keep their No 1 position. But it is not looking good – actually, it is looking terrible and their new coach, Duncan Fletcher, must wonder what he has got himself into. His mind may wander back to 1999, when he took over an England side that had dropped to bottom in the world.
It took Fletcher a while to find the players he wanted and it may take him longer in India. In England he already had considerable knowledge of players from his time as coach at Glamorgan. If Fletcher's chief quality as a coach is his technical expertise, particularly in regard to batting, his patience is another. All players say that when they ask a question, he rarely gives an answer immediately but will dwell on it and give a considered response later.
From the look of this India side, with its ageing batting line-up, inadequate bowling and distracted captain, he has a lot of responses to ponder. If he can get India out of this with a draw, it would be talked of in the same breath as the 2005 Ashes. It is England's series to lose now.Reuse content