Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wait! Let's Give Ravi a Chance

"People try to put us down," rock band The Who used to wail in their 60's anthem, My Generation. Ravi Bopara must know what they meant, having surrendered his second innings wicket cheaply on day five at the Kia Oval, leading to more questions as to why he had been given another chance in England's middle order for this summers box office test series against South Africa. 

Day five at the Kia Oval this time around was a dismal place for England, despite previous high points, and what England required in order to save a game they had been thoroughly outplayed in was caution and restraint from their premier batsmen, particularly following the loss of their top four batsmen late on day four.

That Bopara chopped a wide delivery from the imperious Dale Steyn onto his own stumps was cavalier in the extreme given the context of the game, and is a mistake that Bopara will have to live with as he returned to Essex for T20 action this week. He scored only one for them by the way - bad week.

But Bopara wasn't the only England player bamboozled or simply battered by the Proteas in the first of this three match series. Plenty struggled, with not enough batsmen protecting their wicket against a formidable South African bowling attack, whilst the bowlers toiled but looked completely bereft of the cutting edge required to penetrate this solid South African batting line up. The fact that AB De Villiers wasn't even required to bat says it all. Smith, Amla and Kallis were all in scintillating form and whilst this was a messy defeat for England, most cricket fans could only stand and applaud the achievements of all three men. 

From day one South Africa bossed England in every department, scoring a mammoth 637 runs for the loss of just two wickets either side of knocking England over for what turned out to be below par scores in both innings on a slow, dry Kia Oval wicket.

Still, when play resumed on the fifth morning there was a glimmer, however small or diminishing, that England might somehow rescue a match that for all intents and purposes seemed dead a long time earlier, from England's perspective at least. and Graeme Smith deserves recognition here. His declaration was perfectly timed, offering chances for all results whilst maintaining his sides overwhelming advantage. 

When Bell and Bopara took their guard on Monday, 11:00am, England had 6 wickets in hand. Caution was required to have any hope of survival and so when Bopara waved a bat at a wide one, the Oval gasped as the ball deflected viciously onto the middle timber, pressing it back and calling time of Bopara's brief 30 minute resistance.

Many will say it was a ridiculous shot, that Bopara should have left it, that it demonstrates he doesn't have the temperament for test cricket, that his chances in this side must surely have all expired now. 

True it was an unnecessary shot, but we have to look at what came before. Steyn was in the middle of another lethal spell of fast bowling. The over before, Bopara had left one that had swung in late and missed his off stump by millimetres. When the ball is coming down the track as fast as Steyn propels it, shot selection needs to be made in split seconds. Get the decision wrong and the outcome can be messy, as Ravi found out to England's cost.

But Bopara has made plenty of good decisions during the rest of this summer, so can't we forgive him for a couple of blunders here? I mean, he wasn't alone in the poor shot selection category, where other nominees were Kevin Pietersen, who was clean bowled when the ball seemed destined to be blocked by his notorious walking forward-defensive stroke, whilst Strauss and Prior both embarked on that age-old English tradition (no, not streaking) of sweeping at inopportune and ill-advised periods of the game, both giving their wickets away to the leg-breaking Imran Tahir

Whether Bopara is the perennial twelfth man figure of this current generation of English supremacy, or part of a new group of players that includes Jonny Bairstow and Steven Finn who will undoubtedly be England's future, is currently still undecided. What is for sure is that Bopara is not the only one who needs to shape up for the second test.

England are at a curious stage in their development at present. Some might say that the current side reached the peak of their powers some time ago, beating Australia 3-1 away before humiliating India in a 4-0 whitewash at home in 2011, taking over at the top of the ICC's rankings as the best test side in the world from their beaten visitors.

Since then, England have toiled on the sub-continent before completing formalities against the West Indies here earlier this summer. South Africa provided the next big test for the best test side around and, if this first test is anything to go by, England might not be number one for much longer.

To be honest, I don't share this view. England still have a lot of very, very good players and are a well organised, functioning team led by Andy Flower, who has been superb, and captained by the equally impressive Andrew Strauss.

But certain players are under threat now, and that is no bad thing. Tim Bresnan is the obvious one, his pace or lack thereof is a concern whilst his ability to bat may be the main reason for his continued selection. Steven Finn is ready and waiting and will surely get his chance before long. 

Whilst Bopara deserves his chance in the current set up in my view, if England were to change to five bowlers instead of their customary four it would enable Bresnan to remain in the side batting at seven, with Prior moving up to six and Finn replacing Bopara as a more penetrating bowler with some genuine pace, something England currently lack. It would be hard on Bopara but England have to win the next game, and given the fact only two wickets were taken at the Oval, England might go for broke.

I personally think Finn for Bresnan is more likely but given the next test is at Headingly, the selectors may actually stick with the side that lost at the Oval, giving the players the chance to redeem themselves.

And it's important to remember that this is virtually the same side that has given England so much success over the past 18 months. Surely they deserve the chance to appease the errors of last week - everyone has off days?

It's sets us up for a fascinating second test in Leeds and I for one can't wait for it to start! Hopefully the sun sticks around for a bit now too!

Tom Huelin for DieHard Cricket Fans
Follow Tom on Twitter @tomhue1

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