Friday, 14 June 2013

Ravi Bopara: the problem child that isn't

Every teacher will tell you about their favourite problem child. He's the one who sits in the back of the class, dossing about and showing no interest at all, every now and again knocking out a bit of homework that knocks spots off everyone else's. So you give him an A, and lots of encouragement, thinking that this might be his break through moment. But it isn't. He continues not to live up to his potential, and however much you carry on pointing this out to him, he seems to pay not a blind bit of notice.

To stretch this metaphor: England's coaches have been blessed with a very good class in the last few years. Yes, there have been problems - Broad has been a little hit-and-miss, there's a question mark over the bowling depth, but by-and-large we fans have had precious little to grumble about for the simple reason that everything has gone to plan. And that's what we fans particularly like: if we pick Mark Ealham and he doesn't get 10 wickets that's fine; we expected that, but what we prefer is when people waste the talent we don't have. Then we can really moan. So: we didn't play well against the South Africans, there was the Pietersen bust-up last year, and Eoin Morgan has failed to break through in the longer format: all of them disappointing, but none entirely surprising.

No: I put it to you that for anyone who's watched him play county cricket, the only surprise let down over recent years has been Ravi. He is our favourite problem child. Perhaps it's because the talent is so obvious. Yesterday, he struck 33 off 13 balls - a staggering little innings that included a lofted cover drive that carried 85 metres. The balance, timing and eye required to play that shot are ludicrous. This shot wasn't the shot of a man who'd faced a couple of overs. It was the shot of a man with an unbeaten century to his name, and I'd suggest with a test average rather closer to 50 than its present 30.

We lost, and this innings will be forgotten. But that's Ravi in a nutshell: the problem child who, when you look at it carefully, isn't. He began his career with three centuries against a West Indies attack that really wasn't all that bad, then struggled in the 2009 Ashes at number 3, at a time when Cook was in such bad form that he was essentially operating as our default opener. It wasn't that he was unfairly dropped, but you have to ask why he was there in the first place given the received wisdom about blooding new players at number 6. Trott came in and did well, so all those who said Ravi had been found out at a higher level felt vindicated. Fair enough: but batting at the top is bloody hard for a young player. At the time of writing England are weighing up whether to drop the under-performing Compton in order to give Root a go there. I'm going to go out on a limb and say we won't.

Ravi refused to go to the IPL in 2011, but Morgan still got the nod for the Test team, which was the wrong decision and didn't work anyway. Two years later, when he finally did get a go at number 6, he was up against the best attack in the world (South Africa), was suffering from personal problems, flunked and ended up being dropped again. You can't say he hasn't had enough chances, but at the same time you have to look at the long runs of bad form others in the team have had (Cook and Broad come to mind immediately) and yet the idea of their being dropped has rarely been countenanced. The spectre of Mark Ramprakash looms large: yes, the onus on the player is to make the most of his opportunities, but at the same time I wonder if in 20 years time we will, a la Ramprakash, look back and wonder if we couldn't have done things a little differently.

In the mean time he's been a generally sound - some would say very good - ODI performer in a role that doesn't really allow you to shine: indeed, many of his best performances have seen him pick up the run rate at the end of the innings before weighing in with some extremely parsimonious wicket-to-wicket seam up - none of which really argues the case for Test inclusion, but when people say he's "wasted" his talent they're forgetting that for years he's done whatever's asked of him. And there's another little thing: part of me (call it leftist, whatever) wants to see a boy who grew up above a newsagent's in Forest Green come good.

So here's what I say: come the First Test, Compton out, Root to open, Ravi at six. Give him the rest of the series. It's purely my suspicion, but I think we'll see he's less of a problem child than we thought.

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