England completed a workmanlike victory over India this morning to ensure qualification for the tri-series final. The manner of the victory, while frustratingly including a batting collapse, will be cause for optimism in the England camp. Learning to win ugly is a skill that is highly valued with a World Cup around the corner.
One focal point of concern heading into Sunday’s final at the WACA, and the World Cup next month, is the number six position, currently occupied by Ravi Bopara. While batsmen such as Ian Bell, Joe Root and Eoin Morgan have all failed in the series, they also have recent success to fall back on. All three have made centuries in their last 6 ODI’s. Bopara cannot enjoy such luxury.
Bopara can be considered an ODI veteran in English terms, he has played 118 ODI’s spread over a good chunk of the last decade. Yet, the Essex man has never really cemented his spot in the final XI. When England made clear their plan to bat Bopara at 6 in Sri Lanka, and latterly in the on-going tri-series, my initial thoughts were positive, I thought that Bopara has the experience to add valuable middle-order runs. But more importantly I thought he would have a vital role to play as a sixth bowling option.
As it turns out, he has only bowled 3 overs in his four games in Australia so far. This is in part, due to England’s four string pace attack holding up well and also being ably supported by Moeen Ali, but it may also be indicative of the new captain’s lack of trust in the medium pacer. On the hard true pitches of Australia, is there a place for a dibbly-dobbly bowler of Bopara’s skill?
It may be unfair to judge Bopara just yet, and throw his World Cup spot into doubt; on the more seam friendly pitches of New Zealand his bowling style may well be more suited. But of England’s three matches in New Zealand, two are at the Westpac stadium, where the bat often dominates the ball. While England’s other match is at Christchurch against Scotland, a game they would expect to win without a fifth seam bowlers assistance I’m sure.
So if Bopara is not fulfilling a sixth bowler role, it casts serious doubts on his credentials to be considered a frontline batsman. His career average of a smidge over 30 is nothing to write home about, and in the last two years that average has refused to budge from the 30 mark. In fact, if it weren’t for an unbeaten hundred against Ireland, he would average a paltry 26.48 in his last 34 ODI’s. While this may be selective use of statistics, it is still damning evidence of Bopara’s ability to perform as an out and out batsman.
If we chose to look away from statistics, we could try to evaluate Ravi on the number of times he has contributed to England winning an ODI. A mark of talent over consistency maybe. You would need to go back as far as 2011 to find Bopara’s last match defining innings, his 96 against India enabled England to tie the match. Even in this instance you can argue that Bopara should have secured an outright win and made a century to boot.
If Bopara’s time is up, then who should replace him? Well, the obvious answer would be to call Gary Ballance into the starting XI, if bowling is not considered a necessity for a number 6 batsmen then he could easily take Bopara’s place.
He has been in scintillating Test form over the past year, and the manner in which he has taken to international cricket suggests he won’t crack under the pressure of tournament cricket.
Having said all this, I would be inclined to give Bopara another go in the tri-series final. He did score a couple of half-centuries in Sri Lanka, so he isn’t in wretched form, he just needs to get his head down and make a score of note. England also have a couple of warm-up games before the big match at the MCG on February 14th to fine tune their line-up. It may be worth giving both Bopara and Ballance some time in the middle, to prepare for all eventualities.