Taylor set for England debut as family matter forces Bopara out
Lions batsman to be thrown in at the deep end against the South Africans at Headingley
James Taylor, the diminutive Nottinghamshire batsman, will make his Test debut this week in the most unexpected circumstances. The selectors were on the verge of announcing an unchanged squad for the crucial second Test against South Africa when Ravi Bopara withdrew for personal reasons.
Bopara was only recalled to the team for the opening game of the series at The Oval, which England lost by an innings and 12 runs.
Although he failed in both innings by playing ill-considered shots, his place looked safe for at least the next two matches in the Investec Series as the selectors sought to give him every chance to stake a claim for a durable international career.
But late on Saturday night, the squad had to be amended when Bopara declared himself unavailable. He declined to elaborate publicly on the reason but it is understood it is a family matter. Bopara and his partner had their first child last year.
After four separate sequences in the team, which have brought three hundreds and five ducks in 13 matches, it might be the end for Bopara's Test aspirations. But he is a popular chap and it is to be hoped he is playing at least for Essex again soon. The circumstances are not exactly the most auspicious for 22-year-old Taylor to try to establish a place. He has edged himself gradually to next in line partly because of failings by others.
The No 6 spot has been troublesome for England since Ian Bell vacated it to move to No 5 on Paul Collingwood's retirement after the last Ashes series. Eoin Morgan was fitful for a year until losing form in the UAE, Matt Prior was a stopgap in Sri Lanka and Jonny Bairstow did not look quite ready when tried in three matches against West Indies earlier this summer. Thus Bopara was summoned again.
Now, and perhaps not before time, Taylor's turn has come. There are already rumours about his susceptibility to pace but South Africa's attack would give any batsman in the world a working over.
England have understandably retained faith in the rest of the squad of 13 they named for the opening Test, on the grounds that they are still the No 1 ranked side. They are a side nonetheless who have only won four of their last nine matches and they were all but eviscerated by the South Africans last week.
The matches that start at Headingley on Thursday – and at Lord's two weeks later – could decide the destiny of this England team. There is at last recognition among the selectors that not all is right.
Geoff Miller, the National Selector, said yesterday: "We were outplayed during the first Test last week but it is important that this squad regroups and focuses on preparing for the second Test.
"This is a talented squad with plenty of international experience and they will be determined to improve on the performance during the first Test.
"We have played a lot of good cricket over the last few years and it's important we remember that, learn from the mistakes that we made and retain the belief that we can level this series at Headingley."
Taylor scored a timely century for Nottinghamshire on Saturday (as did Bairstow for Yorkshire) and it may be significant that he has a wonderful record for England Lions in the longer form of the game. If the selectors are serious about the Lions being a vital bridge between county cricket and the Test game, Taylor has crossed it confidently.
He said: "I've always backed myself to play at the highest level and even though I'm young I've played a lot of cricket and I've got a lot of runs behind me. The next goal is to get a place in the XI and if I get that opportunity I have to take it with both hands."
In the shoot-out Lions' match early last summer between Morgan and Bopara for a place in the Test series against Sri Lanka, it was Morgan's innings of 193 that dominated headlines as Bopara failed. But the best innings that day was played by Taylor, who dealt with the new ball well in tricky conditions at Derby. It demonstrated a sound temperament and, largely, a solid method although his tendency to try to fetch balls to leg from well outside off stump can get up the noses of purists.
Taylor moved to Nottinghamshire from Leicestershire this season because he (and England) felt it was important for him to play in Division One of the Championship. In a rain-sodden season he did not shine for them until Saturday but when he played for England Lions against West Indies he made a sterling 118 to rescue them from collapse.
He might have been unfortunate then to be overlooked in favour of Bairstow simply because of his Lions form. It is difficult to think that a smaller player has represented England, at least since the early days of international cricket.
"Test cricket is the pinnacle but there was a noticeable step up to Division One of the Championship and wickets haven't been easy to bat on," he said. Taylor is the son of a jockey and stands around 5ft 6in tall. But he has class and looks also to have a big-game temperament if the Lions' form is any yardstick.
The present England side contains four players who made a century on their Test debut – Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott.
The selectors, who pride themselves on choosing players when they are ready and not before, will hope fervently that this time they have got it right.
Headingley squad for second Test against South Africa, starting on Thursday.
A J Strauss (capt) Age: 35 Tests: 98
J M Anderson 29 71
I R Bell 30 78
T T Bresnan 27 15
S C J Broad 26 48
A N Cook 27 81
S T Finn 23 14
G Onions 29 9
K P Pietersen 32 87
M J Prior (wkt) 30 56
G P Swann 33 45
J W A Taylor 22 0
I J L Trott 31 32
Taylor-mad: James's record
41: Taylor's average for Notts this season
5,801: First-class runs scored by Taylor, including 12 centuries
1: International played by Taylor - ODI win v Ireland in 2011
14: Minutes spent at the crease in that match, scoring one run
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