Cow Corner

Is Bopara the right man to bat at six?

Ravi Bopara returned to the fold for the first Test at The Oval with another opportunity to make the England number six spot his own, but the latest phase of his career did not start at all well.

A cursory glance over the newspapers before the series started would have convinced many doubting the selection that Bopara was a changed man, a batsman who had matured at last and who deserved this latest opportunity.

Bopara, it seemed, was due a renaissance: a comeback to show his doubters that he had blossomed as an international cricketer and had refined a previously unconvincing technique, exposed at the highest level.

Indeed, England's batting coach Graham Gooch was insistent that his Essex charge had everything required of him and was ready to translate his natural talent into tangible results on the biggest stage.

"I think he's finding himself now, he's maturing with age," Gooch said prior to the series. "He's not old - the prime for a batsman is 25 to 35; he's 27.

"He's got great talent. We all know that he's got great balance. He's got great options as a batsman. I think he's understanding now how he can make the best out of those options, so therefore that translates into performances."

As far as returning innings go, this was not one to savour for the 27-year-old, who was dismissed for a six-ball duck by Dale Steyn.

The man nicknamed 'Puppy', renowned for over-thinking about his game and for showing real anxiety before an innings, is the type of player who needs to be believed in, to be trusted and given a run of games to feel settled within the side.

Bopara looked utterly bewildered as he dangled the bat above his head, in two minds as to whether to play a hook shot or to leave the ball, and ended up edging the ball behind to AB de Villiers in almost comically hapless fashion.

Only the ball before Bopara was very fortunate to survive a marginal lbw decision against the fired up paceman, and it all contributed the impression that he was floundering against bowling of the very highest class.

Andy Flower (left) chats with Ravi Bopara

Inevitably, despite it being just his first innings of the series, it sparked the debate about the England number six spot, and specifically regarding the Essex batsman's ability to translate his talent into runs at the highest level.

A poll conducted immediately after the dismissal, asking 'Is Bopara the man to bat at number six for England?' prompted a negative response. "No" was the vote cast by 72 per cent, with 13 per cent "undecided".

While Bopara's place is undoubtedly pretty precarious with a Test average of just 34.56 from 12 matches, there is no obvious alternative for the troublesome position in the line up.

Eoin Morgan endured a dismal run while filling the number six spot, and had to be replaced ahead of the English summer after a tour of the UAE against Pakistan which left him entirely devoid of confidence and form.

Equally, while Jonny Bairstow has an abundance of talent and will certainly be given many further opportunities, his technique appeared raw and unconvincing against a fairly mediocre West Indies attack.

An average of 12.66 and a top score of 18 from three Tests meant it was not difficult for the selectors to cast him aside for a major series.

If that seems slightly harsh on the 22-year-old Yorkshireman, consider the explanation from England's chief selector Geoff Miller, who said when naming the current squad that he had to "work on a number of things back with Yorkshire".

Eoin Morgan (left) and Jonny Bairstow

This is, if anyone had forgotten, a series which could see South Africa usurp their hosts at the top of the world Test rankings and which represents an incredibly arduous challenge for even the most experienced of international performers.

The immediate question to ask those who are clamouring for the removal of Bopara from England's line up is, 'Okay, so who should replace him at number six, then?' This is not an easy or straight forward selection manoeuvre.

Varun Chopra, Ben Stokes, Alex Hales, James Taylor and Bairstow are among the potential alternatives, but surely such a risk should only be taken if the player in question is simply demanding their selection in terms of sheer weight of runs — the only undeniable currency in the game.

In his last County Championship match for Essex, against Northamptonshire, Bopara bludgeoned a brilliant 174 and went on to hit 59 against West Indies in the solitary Twenty20, then scores of 15, 82, 33* and 52* in the ODIs against Australia. This is not a player on a sustained run of scratchy form.

If Bopara was the right man to occupy the number six spot before the series — which he was considered so by the majority, it seemed — then he remains the correct choice for this series. Steyn is, after all, pretty adept at bowling the bouncer and is a long-standing occupant of the number one spot in the Test rankings.

England carried a young Ian Bell through the 2005 Ashes series with the Warwickshire batsman's miniscule contribution not preventing his side from winning the series.

The hosts will not allow Bopara to have a similarly subdued series and will be expecting far bigger things from the 27-year-old, but equally South Africa are always quick to pounce upon a weak link and will no doubt target him.

This series could be the making of Puppy and see him thrive against the tourists' much-vaunted attack, but equally it could be his last in a career which could end up seeing him compared to the likes of Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick in terms of talent unfulfilled.

One thing is clear, however, Bopara must be afforded the relative luxury of playing out the series with full backing; after all, if he is able to raise his game and end up excelling against an attack as good as South Africa's, he may just be the man England needed after all.