Bopara is back, and this time it may be for good
Essex batsman can nail down the place Morgan and Bairstow could not quite make their own
Ravi Bopara, whose Test career has had more stops and starts than a London bus, will resume his place in the England middle order on Thursday. He has been recalled to the team for the start of the series against South Africa at The Oval and, given the predilections of the present selectors, will almost certainly keep his place for all three matches.
A predictable squad of 13 was named yesterday, comprising six batsmen, five fast bowlers, a spinner and a wicketkeeper. Two of the fast bowlers will be left out of the XI on Thursday, probably Steve Finn and Graham Onions. Both Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan have recovered sufficiently well from elbow injuries to be included.
There can hardly be a cricket follower in the country who does not wish Bopara well on the latest and almost certainly final leg of his journey in the international game. When he made his debut in late 2007 he was 22, full of talent and a long period in the England team beckoned. Instead, he has appeared in only 12 of England's 59 Tests in that time, blighted by form, temperament and injury. Each of his small runs in the side has ended in failure and on two occasions when he was about to be recalled, the most recent in May, his body has let him down.
But Bopara is a thrilling and handsome batsman who can be a fearless strokemaker. That early talent has never faded but sometimes in the heat of the battle he has been brittle enough to make poor choices.
He is the only player in Test history to have made three ducks in successive innings as well as three successive hundreds. The ducks came against Sri Lanka in 2007, the centuries against West Indies in 2009. Entrusted with the prized No 3 berth in that summer's Ashes, he was undermined by Australia and the selectors had no option but to omit him from the final match at The Oval, where England then won the series.
Bopara returns now, having played two more matches last summer as an injury replacement, in the troubled No 6 place. In recent times neither Eoin Morgan nor Jonny Bairstow has quite nailed the opportunity.
Bairstow failed to make the most of his good fortune in the series against West Indies because the place had been earmarked for Bopara before injury struck while he was playing for Essex. It shows that these selectors are prepared not only to stick with talent but also never to jettison it lightly.
Undoubtedly, it has been in Bopara's favour that both England's coach (Andy Flower) and batting coach (Graham Gooch) know him so well from their days at Essex. But he has done what selectors require from dropped players – gone and made some runs in the Championship. Both last year and this he hit the ground running and this season he scored an early hundred in April and another in June as a reminder.
During the recent one-day series against Australia, there was a significant change. To match the talent, there was an authoritative air about his batting, which had not been present before. His Test average is already 34.56 because of those three hundreds, but this time there is a feeling, shared by the selectors, that his time has come.
Bairstow, Morgan, Nick Compton and Ben Stokes will ensure that it is no easy ride for him or anybody else. But it is Bopara's place to lose now.
The selectors have picked the squad, and now Flower and the captain, Andrew Strauss, will decide on the team. They will take into account form, pitch conditions and team balance, and should then decide that Bresnan has done nothing to deserve being omitted.
* South Africa's batsmen had the edge over their bowlers as they completed preparations for the first Test in a routine rain-affected stalemate with Kent at Canterbury.
The tourists' 314 all out gave them a 104-run lead, and then young Kent openers Sam Northeast (54 not out) and Daniel Bell-Drummond (48no) followed their first-innings stand of 81 with an unbroken 105.
Three middle-order half-centuries ensured South Africa's batsmen will head to The Oval with confidence intact and crease time under their belts. From an overnight 108 for two, none of the top seven was dismissed for single figures; Hashim Amla (77) and Jacques Kallis (54) both retired after a century stand for the third wicket, and Jacques Rudolph (50) ensured the necessary extra substance.
England test squad
For first Investec Test v South Africa, starting at The Oval on Thursday: AJ Strauss (captain), JM Anderson, IR Bell, RS Bopara, TT Bresnan, SCJ Broad, AN Cook, ST Finn, G Onions, KP Pietersen, MJ Prior (wicketkeeper), GP Swann, IJL Trott
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