Mike Holmans September 13, 2011

At last, Bopara and India perform

At last

At last. The London ODIs produced interesting cricket, matches which could not be summed up in the five brutal words “England bowled well, India didn't.” And in such a high-profile series, once the professional vultures had swooped on the carcase of a match there was precious little else for an amateur England fan to find anything of interest to write, let alone read.

What with the overwhelming win in Australia, the beating of Sri Lanka and the crushing of India, it's pretty clear that the England Test team is in very good shape. There are some issues about backup spinner, wicketkeeper and opening bat, but otherwise it's the same task as faces a leading Formula One team: how to tune the mechanism to make it work even better.

The ODI team, though, is very much a work in progress – with “progress” being a highly apposite word. Alastair Cook has won his first two series as official England ODI captain against the runners-up and winners of the 2011 World Cup: pretty credit-worthy for the poorest of that tournament's quarter-finalists. I'm sure that World Cup fatigue, the IPL and favourable home conditions have been factors which undermined the visitors, but it's still more than a decent effort by England. For those of us inured to perpetual mediocrity, it's even possible to be mildly encouraged.

One very obvious encouragement is that this has not been the customary going through of motions following a brilliantly successful Test series from England. They have shown commitment and energy and an overpowering will to win. Messrs Duckworth and Lewis have probably been of considerable assistance in keeping the scoresheet clean, but even irritated Indian fans can probably allow that England's lower order put in heroic end-of-innings efforts which showed they were very serious indeed about these games.

Another big plus for England is that the Lord's tie and Oval win were achieved without any assistance from Kevin Pietersen or Eoin Morgan. Of course India were depleted too, but KP or Morgan or both have been mainsprings behind almost every win achieved in the last couple of years. Given the surrounding talent, Morgan is an even more important component in England's team than Sachin Tendulkar in India's, so for England to win games without them is a little more than surprising.

Doing something of the job Morgan normally does has been Ravi Bopara. I marked him as having England potential about five years ago and have been moderately in favour of his inclusion in Test and ODI teams, a faith which has been only semi-requited so far.

In these matches he has batted intelligently, manoeuvring the ball around the gaps with a close eye on the required D/L targets, in both cases guiding the team to within a couple of yards of the finish line. It would obviously be better if he didn't get out just before the end, but it's certainly better than getting out before he has reached double figures.

What has upped my rating of him considerably is the way he reached his fifty at Lord's. He had virtually committed himself to playing the paddle sweep, but was able at the last split second to adjust and glide it down to fine third man when he realised the ball was on the wrong line for his original shot.

That is true improvisation. A lot of nonsense gets spouted about how KP's unorthodox shots are terribly inventive, as though he thought them up on the spur of the moment when in reality he spends months trying them out and practicing them in the nets before essaying them in a real match. The same is just about true of Morgan, though I think a few of his shots are played entirely reactively.

But that one moment from Bopara convinced me at last that he has the spark of magic in him. It's a similar spark to that clearly possessed by the likes of MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina. I find Raina's style, if you can call it that, pretty ugly to watch, but it's extremely effective: it seems to consist of deciding where he's going to play a ball from and then bringing the middle of the bat into contact with it as hard as possible without much interest in the method of achieving it. In other words, almost entirely improvisational. No England batsman will ever be quite that free-and-easy because survival on English county pitches and the English weather require some attention to be paid to technique, but we need a few more batsmen not too restrained by orthodoxy.

With Morgan unavailable for some time, I would hope that Bopara will retain his place. There have been false dawns from him before, but maybe his recent performances will convince him that he can trust himself in international cricket. My theory is that his obvious nerviness has been down to a sense of puzzlement that his international performances have largely failed to live up to what he believes himself capable of rather than because he doesn't believe himself to be good enough. I'd like to hope that he is just about to deliver the return on all the investment that has been made in him for 60 previous ODIs.

However, the upcoming series in India is likely to expose rather painfully the major problem with England's ODI team. They are pretty good at bowling in the first half of the innings, but they have very little idea of what to do once the opposition start teeing off. Ryan ten Doeschate's and Kevin O'Brien's spectacular assaults during the World Cup have now been matched by the devastating hitting unleashed by Dhoni, Raina and Ravindra Jadeja; it is clear that Cook has no more idea about what tactics to use or what fields to set than his predecessor had and that even if he did, he doesn't have much in the way of bowlers who can follow the plan – at least, not with any useful effect.

The other big worry is how the batsmen will cope with the lack of pace in the subcontinent pitches. They are pretty good at working the ball around for the ones and twos but neither Ian Bell nor Jonathan Trott, in particular, are used to putting the muscle into their shots usually required for boundaries in India.

It's going to be a long climb for England to become a seriously respected 50-over outfit outside their own back yard.