Last chance saloon, but Ravi's glass is half full
His Test career has fluctuated between ducks and tons. Now it's time to prove he is the genuine article
This really is it for Ravi Bopara. He should not be surprised, as he arrives at the ground tomorrow for the start of the third Test, if the sign above the gate says: "Welcome to Edgbaston, Last Chance Saloon".
Recalled to the England side for the third time since making his first appearance almost four years ago, Bopara finds himself in a classic no-win situation. If he succeeds in making runs against India the likelihood is that Jonathan Trott will resume as soon as he is fit, probably in time for the fourth Test next week.
Bopara is prepared. It happened to him once before after he made the first of his three Test hundreds, and as he said yesterday: "It is not rocket science that Trotty will come back. He is a class player and he has proved himself many times. But this window of opportunity for me is to score some runs and prove myself."
But were he to fail and thus not prove himself, the selectors may decide that others must be given a chance in future. James Taylor, who has made runs for England Lions this season when Bopara has not, was the preferred candidate of some commentators for this match.
"I'm a more rounded player," Bopara said. "I know my game a little bit more. It's amazing what you can learn in two years about yourself. Just when you think you've got it cracked, you suddenly realise you haven't and you've got a lot to learn. I'd love to play 10 years for England.
"When everyone talks about wanting to have a 'proper' England career, they're talking 10 years. If I was to say there has never been any self-doubt, I'd be lying. Every cricketer has some self-doubt at some stage of their careers – some have it all the way through. But I back my ability, and I definitely know more about myself than I ever have, what I can and can't do."
It should not have come to this. For a brief, sunlit while it did not look like doing so. Bopara has been the coming man for ages, a batsman of considerable style who first played for Essex when he had just turned 17 in 2002. He broke into the national conscience in 2005 when, a week before the decisive Test in that summer's Ashes, he and Alastair Cook shared a second-wicket partnership of 270 against the Australians.
Soon enough he had the England call, first in one-day matches, for which he had exactly the right components, but then in Tests. His first series in Sri Lanka ended disastrously with three consecutive ducks. It took more than a year to win another opportunity and he took it.
Called up to the side for the fourth Test in Barbados in 2009 he made 104 and was promptly omitted for the next match. But by the time the English summer began, the selectors agreed he was the man for the vexed No 3 berth and he responded with two more centuries.
There had never been a run like it: three ducks followed by three hundreds. He seemed to have cracked it and a place in the England batting order for 10 years was his. Before the summer was up, this accepted wisdom looked tosh.
Bopara had a dreadful Ashes series, not because he was out of form but because he kept getting in and getting out. If he had a game plan it looked as though it had been devised by a headless chicken.
There was no structure to his batting and his tenure ended in the disaster at Headingley, when England lost the fourth Test inside three days by an innings and 80 runs. He has been around the one-day side since and was nearly recalled to the Test team for the first match against Sri Lanka in May.
At the start of the season, Bopara had eschewed the attentions of the Indian Premier League and stayed at home to concentrate on honing his first-class form with Essex, which also allowed him to be at home for the birth of his first child, Rome. It is believed that the selectors had actually picked him in the squad but had a last-minute change of mind. Eoin Morgan turned up for England Lions against Sri Lanka and made a handsome 193 following Bopara's typically fitful 17. Plans were hastily revised.
And now this. Trott injured his shoulder at Nottingham last week and the selectors decided to stick with Bopara as the next man in line. There is no doubt that the 178 he made at Southend a fortnight ago was vital. Until then his season was going nowhere.
"It was very crucial, I would have thought," he said. "I certainly enjoyed that innings. It was a long innings. I got into the zone and honestly felt I couldn't get out unless I was coming out of that bubble. I would say it was one of my best four-day innings. I am glad I played it and I learnt a lot."
He is a cheery fellow who is obsessed by cricket. One of his favourite pastimes – at least before Rome came along – was watching videos of great batsmen, not least Sachin Tendulkar. His lack of organisation is renowned. He is habitually late and once forgot his passport before an England trip abroad.
"I am very forgetful," he said. "I have invested in an iPad that has helped me a lot. I receive my emails straight away whereas before I needed a computer to log on, find some Wi-Fi and that rubbish. I have now got 3G and everything. My life is certainly more organised now than it ever has been.
"I didn't think it was a big issue but it has crept up on me, sometimes being late here and there, and forgetting your kit, forgetting your passport and stuff. It's one of those things that happens but it can't keep happening. It sounds silly but the iPad is really helping me."
The feeling must be that a more organised person may also make a more organised batsman. He conceded that he had not always been able to grind it out when the going was tough, though mentioned that he had done just that at Lord's against the West Indies two years ago. "I know I have done it for Essex in county cricket, but I know where you're coming from," he said.
He will probably bat at six tomorrow, although the No 3 place was his for the taking two years ago. Who knows? Bopara might be the first Test cricketer to be made by possession of an iPad. But when he goes out tomorrow he would still be wise to remember his bat.
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