Can Bopara nail the number six slot?
Bopara has had a stop-start Test career, but both he and England batting coach Graham Gooch believe he is finally ready
Ravi Bopara, at the age of 27, is no stranger to missed opportunities. In a Test career spanning five years he has played 12 Tests from a possible 59 in two spells for an average of 34.56: These are hardly the statistics of a man who has seized his chances when they came begging.
Bopara’s bugbear has been his inconsistency. He must be the only man in Test history to follow three ducks with three hundreds, which came against the West Indies in 2009.
But runs against the West Indians have become a cheap currency and, in 2009, Bopara failed a much tougher trial of his ability. He was asked to bat in the number three slot in the Ashes and after repeated failures in the first four Test matches, his confidence was shot. He was replaced by Jonathan Trott for the crucial final game at the Oval. Trott made a match-winning hundred and Bopara faded from the limelight.
Such is Bopara’s natural talent, however, that England's selectors have never completely abandoned him. At the same time, they remain unconvinced that he is their man. He played in a couple of Tests against India last year, but was not selected to play against Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, over the winter. This summer, he would have been picked against West Indies, but had an injury.
He is fortunate that no clear rival has emerged for the number six position. Morgan’s technique has come under scrutiny and Bairstow is not quite ready.
Bopara now believes he is ready. Whereas in 2009 he looked out of his depth against Australia, he claims to have tightened his technique and relaxed as a person. He says he will no longer burden himself with pressure but play his natural game.
His coach and mentor Graham Gooch also believes he has matured as a player. And Gooch should know a thing or two about that. His England career was effectively split in two. In the first part he underachieved for an average in the mid thirties; in the second part he developed - partly as a result of coaching from Boycott - into the most feared attacking opener in world cricket.
Bopara has the advantage of going into this series in prime form. He has scored two centuries for Essex this season and was England’s best player in the recent ODI series against Australia, making scores of 82, 33* and 52* with real fluency.
Since it’s impossible for him to face England’s bowlers, this is the toughest rite of passage he will undergo as a batsman. If he can score runs against South Africa, he can do well against anyone. And he will have finally arrived as a Test batsman.
Bopara was born in East London and went to local state schools. His cricket education came not on the manicured pitches enjoyed by the likes of Strauss, Cook, Bell, or Prior, at their expensive private schools, but on the Astro Turf pitches of inner-city parks.
Bopara is, in fact, the one batsman from an English state school in the England team, or even close to it. This represents a massive downturn from a decade ago when 75% of England’s runs were provided by English state schools (from the likes of Vaughan, Trescothick and Thorpe).
Shockingly, the dominance of English batting by the private sector doesn’t look set to change in a hurry. Bopara’s competitors for the no. 6 slot - who include Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan, and Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor – were all privately educated.
Without the advantages of the intensive coaching and enviable practice facilities available in private schools, Bopara has been slower to mature than some other England players. But he has one (final) chance to prove that his lovely wristy, strokeplay should not be confined to the one-day arena.