By SB Tang
Ravi Bopara ended the international summer with a cumulative total of 50 runs in seven international innings against South Africa.
By the time he was dismissed for the final time this international summer for 6 in England’s opening T20 match against South Africa at Chester-le-Street, even Dale Steyn, the bowler who took his wicket, sympathised with Bopara, offering him the free technical observation that when he tries to play forward, all his weight seems to be on the back foot.
Daily Mail readers have taken to calling him “Ravi Flopara”.
Earlier this month, the ECB announced that Bopara’s long-time rival for a full-time Test berth, Eoin Morgan, would be awarded a full central contract for the 2012/13 season. Bopara was merely handed an incremental contract. Tellingly, of the 10 players awarded full central contracts, Morgan was the only one who is not currently a Test regular.
Later today, England will announce their squad to tour India for a four Test series in November and December. It would be an absolute miracle if Bopara’s name is included.
At the age of 27, his Test career looks finished.
The poor man is cursed.
During the 2009 Ashes series in England, Bopara was dropped for the final Test at the Oval after being bunnified (yes, that’s a word according to me) as a very young Test number three by Ben Hilfenhaus. The dropping was entirely justified. Hilfenhaus’s late swing had turned Bopara into a walking wicket. But Bopara was not the first and certainly will not be the last English batsman to be bunnified by an Australian swing bowler in the course of an Ashes series in England — it is a fate which has befallen many an England batting legend past, including most famously, Graham Gooch in 1989.
At the time, it seemed that Bopara, like Gooch before him, simply needed a short period out of the Test side to rediscover his confidence and form.
When Collingwood’s retirement opened up a Test spot in the summer of 2011, it appeared that Bopara’s apposite period of penance was over. He had knocked back a lucrative IPL deal so that he could toil diligently in county cricket in order to earn the right to inherit the position, racking up 496 runs in six first-class matches for Essex at an average of 49.6 with two centuries, whilst Morgan was off making hay in the IPL. Then Morgan swooped in and smashed a rare first-class ton in a solitary Lions warm-up game and nabbed the spot.
After a 10 Test run batting at number six in a team which rose to number one in the world yielded just one century and a paltry average of 29.6, Morgan was dropped following a disastrous Test tour of the UAE last winter.
Bopara looked all set to reclaim the Test number six position on a permanent basis on the subsequent tour of Sri Lanka when he picked up a side strain bowling in a warm-up game. The injury was minor enough that he was fit to bat and field, but also severe enough that he was not fit to bowl his more than handy medium pacers. On the slow, turning tracks of Sri Lanka, the England selectors plumped for the all-around abilities of Samit Patel, who could operate as a much-needed fifth bowler with his left-arm orthodox spin.
But, surely, a fit again Bopara would reclaim the spot for the home summer?
Unfortunately, having worked his way back to full fitness, Bopara injured himself again — this time fielding for Essex — just before the summer’s opening Test against the West Indies.
He ended up missing the three Test series against the West Indies, but he got fit in time to play the first Test against South Africa at the Oval. He was dismissed twice cheaply playing loose-looking shots at inopportune moments.
In the first innings, England, having won the toss and chosen to bat, were cruising along at 2/250 when they lost Pietersen and Cook in quick succession and fell to 4/271, bringing Bopara, batting at number six in his comeback Test, to the crease. At a time when England’s middle-order needed to batten down the hatches and consolidate, Bopara half-heartedly hooked at a Steyn bouncer and nicked the ball straight to the keeper de Villiers for a duck. It was as if Bopara had mistaken his bat for a periscope.
In the second innings, England, put into bat by South Africa’s declaration for 2/637 in their first innings at tea on the fourth day, were faced with a simple proposition: bat for four sessions to save the Test match. Bopara was already at the crease by late on the fourth day as England collapsed to 4/67. Bopara and Bell survived to the close of play, steering England to 4/102. The following morning, the pair started solidly, with the highlight being a cracking pull shot played by Bopara off Steyn. Then, disaster struck: Steyn served up a short wide ball which was begging to be cut for four; instead, Bopara, feet mired in clay, attempted to slap the ball through the off-side with a grotesque angled bat shot which was neither a drive nor a cut, and inside-edged the ball onto his stumps.
Both dismissals supplied Bopara’s critics with ample ammunition. As it turned out, they didn’t even need to fire their weapons to get their wish — after the first Test, Bopara withdrew himself from the Test squad for “personal reasons”.
James Taylor replaced Bopara in the Test side and acquitted himself reasonably well. Jonny Bairstow replaced the dropped Kevin Pietersen for the third Test at Lord’s and performed brilliantly to book his place on the plane to India.
Bairstow is now deservedly ahead of Bopara in the Test pecking order. But, the odd thing is that, judging by the 2012/13 ECB central contracts, Morgan is too, despite doing absolutely nothing of note in first-class cricket this summer.
I suppose that I am now one of the few who still believe that Bopara deserves another proper crack at Test cricket. At the very least, he deserves to be ahead of Morgan who is already, at 26 years of age, arguably England’s finest ever international limited-overs batsman, but never has been and never will be a Test batsman.
Morgan’s first-class batting record speaks for itself — a mediocre average of 34.52 and just nine centuries from 76 first-class matches. Morgan’s first-class average this season was an abysmal 19, as he managed just 171 runs in 10 first-class innings.
By contrast, Bopara has a respectable first-class average of 41.99, with 22 centuries from 129 matches. Bopara’s first-class average this summer was 50.42 — he churned out 353 runs, including two centuries, from just nine first-class innings.
Morgan scores a century every 13.67 first-class innings, whereas Bopara scores a century every 9.77 first-class innings.
Morgan has two Test centuries from 16 Tests. Bopara has one more Test century from three fewer Test matches. Both Morgan’s Test centuries came when he was batting at six in a settled, confident and winning Test side. All three of Bopara’s Test centuries were scored for a Test team in transition, which had just sacked their captain and their coach and then contrived to lose a five match Test series against the seventh-ranked team in the world, and two of those centuries were scored batting at number three in the bowler friendly conditions of an English May.
Bopara’s performance in the Test series which cost him his permanent Test spot was better than Morgan’s performance in his analogous Test series. In the four Tests he played in the 2009 Ashes series, Bopara scored 228 runs at an average of 15. What tends to be forgotten is that Bopara got starts in that series — four in his seven innings — he just failed to convert them. In the three Test series against Pakistan in the UAE earlier this year, Morgan managed just 82 runs at an average of 13.66. Even Morgan’s disasters are marginally worse than Bopara’s.
What has really harmed Bopara’s standing in the eyes of the England selectors and fans is not his occasional strings of low scores — which is something that has afflicted every batsman who has ever played the game — but rather, the manner of his dismissals.
When Bopara gets out cheaply, it looks bad. He has unwittingly mastered the art of getting out looking soft. Often, this stems from his lack of footwork. The diagonal neither-drive-nor-cut shot in the second innings of the first Test against South Africa at the Oval is the most recent example. The wafty drive to a fullish, swinging delivery from Hilfenhaus, which went straight to the gully placed there for that very shot, in the first innings of the fourth Test of the 2009 Ashes series is another prime example.
Bopara’s footwork has always been minimal. When he’s in-form, this isn’t a problem — at his best, he resembles Mark Waugh or Damien Martyn, an elegant strokemaker with economical foot movement who stays still at the crease and times the ball sweetly. But, when he’s out-of-form, he can look like an intrepid early 19th century jungle explorer who’s accidentally wandered into a pit of quicksand and is now desperately waving his arms to attract the attention of the natives.
Here’s the rub: Morgan often does the same thing, getting out in ugly fashion, playing a loose stroke. That is not particularly surprising; after all, both Morgan and Bopara are naturally free-scoring batsmen who like to play their shots. However, for reasons which remain a mystery to me, the born-and-bred Englishman is judged far more harshly than the Irishman by the England selectors and fans for doing essentially the same thing. It is an inexplicable double standard.
From my perspective, the salient difference between the two is that Bopara, through his first-class and Test performances to date, has done far more to earn a Test spot than Morgan.
I am probably alone in this opinion, but I would still have Bopara on the plane for the Test tour of India this winter. He is a good player of spin and his bowling could prove crucial in allowing the four specialist bowlers a much needed breather in brutal conditions — that’s one thing that Morgan, Bairstow and Taylor can’t provide.
Perhaps, now that his long-time Essex teammate and friend Alastair Cook has been appointed England captain, Bopara might — just this once — catch a lucky break and sneak on that plane to India.