After a two year absence, Ravi Bopara looks certain to make his return to the Test arena in Birmingham this week. This will be his third chance to establish himself as a regular and, almost certainly, his last. At best Bopara has two Tests in which to stake his claim, but depending on how quickly Jonathan Trott recovers (and whether England would risk him should they finish the series as a contest at Edgbaston), it could be just one. It all comes down to this, then. A man with exceptional talent has one last opportunity to prove he has the mentality to succeed at the highest level.
Thus far, he has shown little to suggest he will. On his debut tour in Sri Lanka he began reasonably enough, but soon fell apart – his series finished with three consecutive ducks, covering a combined total of nine balls. Admittedly, away in Sri Lanka is something of a baptism of fire, but 42 runs at a shade over 8 is falling some way short of rising to the occasion.
Fifteen months later he was back. A blistering hundred in Barbados was followed by a promotion up the order for the start of the Test summer and two more centuries against the West Indies before the Australians arrived. In a sense, those innings did more damage to Bopara’s career than the trials on the sub-continent ever did. It cemented his place at first wicket down, a position he has neither the technique nor the mentality to fill on the international stage.
In all forms of the game Bopara has been rather messed about by England, having been shunted up and down the order with his role never really made clear. In ODI’s, for example, he has batted everywhere in the top eight. Going into an Ashes series with him at number three was an extension of this in many ways, and was asking for trouble. As we all know, the latest in a long line of attempts to fill England’s problem position failed spectacularly, before they stumbled upon Trott and solved it at a stroke. The Essex man has been away from the team ever since.
Will Bopara v3.0 be the one to explode into life and show us just how good he can be? The signs aren’t promising. In each of the two Lions matches this summer he has struggled to make a score. In the first, billed as a shootout with Eoin Morgan for Paul Collingwood’s place in the side, he made little impact whilst the Irishman made a big hundred. In the second, just last week, he was outperformed by both Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor, presumably his closest challenger for selection.
In the long run, whether or not he steps up this week may have little relevance to the England team. There is a sense that the current battle for the number six spot is merely a stop-gap while some of the younger talents gain much needed experience. Taylor leads the list at the moment, but there are a number of excellent prospects coming through who are perhaps slightly too raw to break into the side as yet. One more good winter with the Lions and the Leicestershire man will not so much be knocking on the door as laying siege to the house, perhaps smashing the windows to help himself to a new TV. Given the strength of the rest of England’s top order, there is only one spot available and, barring something incredible from Morgan over the next few months, that will still be the case come next summer.
That said, this week will mean everything to the man involved. There is no doubt that this season must have been exceptionally tough for Bopara, given the intense scrutiny every time he walks out to bat, but, as this series with India has proved, England are a side full of players who can perform under extreme pressure. On each occasion in his international career so far, Bopara has failed to do the same. One more disappointment and he may not get another chance to make amends.