Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ravi Bopara back in the England squad for the Third Test

Putting aside my crushing disappointment that Jonathan Trott's shoulder of steel has turned into a shoulder of rust, I thought I'd have my say on the England squad for the third Test that was announced this morning. Well, I say squad, I mainly mean talk about that lad from Essex, Ravi Bopara.

I am an Essex fan. I like Bopara but I freely admit that he didn't warrant a call into the ODI squad back in June. In fact, he looked more like he should be playing for the Essex 2nd XI rather than being considered for the international one day side. However, since that woeful run of form in the Twenty20 competition, he has improved. But does he really warrant an England Test recall? 

Bopara has not played a Test match for England since his disastrous Ashes series in 2009. There's no denying he's got talent, but when he played in that Ashes series and found himself in some tricky situations for England, he froze. His average before the Ashes was 49.62. His average by the time Trott had been called into the England set-up and replaced him at The Oval, was and still remains, 33.46 from a total of 10 Tests (15 innings).

But much of this average is built on innings against the West Indies. In fact, over half of Bopara's Test runs have come against the West Indies. He managed to score three hundreds in three innings against them and it cemented his place in the 2009 Ashes side. However, his records against other nations isn't so good. In five innings against Sri Lanka, he has the grand total of 42 runs. In seven innings against Australia, he hit 105 runs. This was the series in which Ben Hilfenhaus was leading wicket taker, so it shows you how brilliant it was.

Bopara was deemed unlucky back in May when he missed out on the Sri Lanka Test squad. He, unlike Eoin Morgan, had turned down the IPL in order to focus on playing in the County Championship and getting some runs under his belt. After a slow start, with scores of 0 (it was painful, I was there) and 39 against Kent, 13 and 4 against Middlesex, 31 and 5 against Northants and then 61 in the first innings against Glamorgan, he produced a match winning 136 not out to guide Essex to their first County Championship victory of the season. But his up and down form has continued throughout the season, until the Leicestershire game the other week, where he outshone James Taylor by taking a 7 hour vigil at the crease to play a captain's innings of 178, by far and away his highest score of the season, to allow David Masters to run in and complete an absolutely astonishing victory.

Bopara has come in at 4 for Essex this season. He has, thus far, come in at three for the England Lions. Should he be selected to play on Wednesday, there is no way he should be allowed to bat at three, even though his average is better there than it is lower down the order. It doesn't matter. Ian Bell is a far more assured and far better player these days and his innings at Trent Bridge shows why he will probably bat at 3 as Trott sits the Edgbaston Test out. Morgan batted well at 5 in the second innings (although, to be fair, pretty much the entire middle to lower order was superb) and, should he play, Bopara could slot in at 6. The England lower order is a massive strength, this year the average is 48.37, so it would be stupid to upset it and, like said, Bopara's temperament and general "Oh God, oh God, oh God" look if he's at the crease wearing an England shirt mean that he shouldn't come in at 3. 

The England Lions squad confirms that there are other options. James Taylor (another player from Division 2), Alex Hales (Division 1) and Jonny Bairstow (Division  1). Their 2011 season statistics are as follows:
  • James Taylor, Leicestershire: 948 runs @ 52.66 in 20 innings. Highest score, 237.
  • Alex Hales, Nottinghamshire: 672 runs @ 37.33 in 19 innings. Highest score, 184.
  • Jonny Bairstow, Yorkshire: 865 runs @ 50.88 in 18 innings. Highest score, 205.
Ravi's season statistics:
  • Ravi Bopara, Essex: 776 runs @ 40.84 in 20 innings. Highest score, 178.
In the recently concluded Lions match against Sri Lanka A at Scarborough, Bopara was outshone by all three of Taylor, Hales and Bairstow. Bopara scored only 19 and 25. Taylor got 76 and 98, Hales, 50 and 42 and Bairstow, 50 and 109. I don't really have an opinion on these other players. I haven't seen them bat at all this season, I am only giving you the statistics. If you have seen these players in action, then you're likely to have your own opinions on who you wanted England to select.

One thing that probably swayed the selectors in favour of Bopara is that he can bowl a bit. He has taken 134 first class wickets and the loss of Trott means that they have lost that fifth bowling option. This is where there is a benefit to playing Bopara. He can use up the overs before the new ball. It's probably not enough to justify a place, but hey, it's something. Of course, England may not even need this fifth bowling option. The England selectors are in a difficult position. After his all-round performance at Trent Bridge, it would be outrageous to drop Tim Bresnan. Broad's suddenly decided that he's not going to try and be the enforcer and finally listen to those who have been frustratingly shouting at him for the past two years to pitch it up, with great reward. James Anderson is James Anderson, forever smiling and bowling beauties that make the off stump cartwheel. Chris Tremlett is recovering from injury and will only have net practice in order to prove his fitness. And the only chance Finn has of playing is if two of Tremlett/Bresnan/Broad/Anderson drop a jar of Nutella on their foot and are ruled out for a month. The point of this bit is all to ask the question: Will England play 5 bowlers? David Saker has seemed pretty passionate about the four bowlers in the past, and the four bowlers have been very effective. History suggests then that they probably won't, but with Finn being included as cover for Tremlett, they might well be considering it. Anyway, we'll find out on Wednesday. I'm not an England selector and I'm just sat on a sofa in Suffolk, so have no idea what's going on in their heads.

Anyway. Back to the point of this blog. I'm unsure where to stand on Bopara. As an Essex fan, I'm delighted that we've got another Essex player in the England squad. But, as an England fan, I'm not sure I'm confident enough in his ability at international level. On his day, he can be a fine player, but the pressure will be on him to perform (if he's selected) and the question is, can Ravi cope with it? 

Trott, I hope, will be fit for the final Test, so this should just be a one Test thing. But it's time for Bopara to show his doubters that he has what it takes to play at the international level. This could be Bopara's last chance to convince the England selectors that he is the right man and, as stated, there are future options coming through. If Bopara doesn't grab this chance, then it could be curtains on his Test career. And no amount of Essex bias in the England staff should change that.

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