'I want to be England's Tendulkar'
His big smile makes him look younger than his 22 years and immediately approachable. There is nothing clumsy or hurried about his handshake or his small talk.
But then it is only right that he should be relaxed; Essex is his home from home. However, his reputation suggests that, no matter where he finds himself, he will cope.
This reputation was polished on the world stage in April. It was one of the few thrilling matches of the World Cup. England needed 102 in 16 overs to beat Sri Lanka and stay on course for the semi-final. They were six wickets down. At the crease were 36-year-old Paul Nixon, playing his 15th one-day international, and Bopara, with only four ODIs behind him.
But while Nixon fidgeted, Bopara was visibly detached, the calmest man on the field. Watching him ease his way to 52, with pushed ones and twos and creative flicks for four, was a study of a man thinking only about the next scoring option. Everything else - the noise from the stands, the need for a win, playing in the World Cup at 21 - seemed to be blocked out.
Although there was an unhappy ending - Bopara bowled by Dilhara Fernando needing three to win off the last ball - it could be the beginning of a great story.
"I said to myself when I was 17 that I wanted to represent England by the time I'm 21," says Bopara, matter-of-factly. "Although that happened, I never expected to be at the World Cup so early."
That his plans were slightly ahead of schedule clearly did not bother him in the Caribbean. "I had my plan against Sri Lanka and I set myself a clear goal of what I wanted to do. I said to myself, 'I'm going to score my runs here, here and here and not worry about the total or how they're bowling.' Like all of my batting, I was just thinking about where I'm going to score rather than looking at the big picture."
The game sealed Bopara's growing reputation as a wristy, impulsive and intelligent batsman who could build different types of innings - from slow-burners to boundary-filled assaults. And he took his form into the county season. By the beginning of August he was averaging in the high 60s with the bat and had scored his first double-hundred.
His medium-pacers were also proving more and more effective, especially in one-dayers. No wonder he is unfazed.
Bopara believes that a streetwise childhood helped foster his level-headed approach. Born in Forest Gate, East London, to Indian parents, he was touched by the game at an early age while watching his dad play park cricket for Internationals CC. Ravi remembers hating it when he was not taken.
While his dad played, Bopara and his brother would throw a ball around on the side. Most nights from the age of nine were spent playing cricket with his friends from the local area, often in slightly dodgy surroundings.
|We used to trespass at our local school, climb over the gates and play. They were quality days|
At 12 he was bossing around and captaining older friends in matches on the playground. The wristy, improvised shots that Essex saw in him may well have been a product of those illegal school raids. "We used a taped ball and a bat and it was all about hand-eye coordination. It wasn't about singles then. The ground was a funny shape, so the shortest boundary could be anywhere - it could be behind you, so you'd have to flick it behind you to get to it."
This carefree attitude came from his parents. Dad worked for a pharmaceuticals company, mum looked after the family-owned shop and they were happy to let their sons explore. "I had a great childhood. It was all fun and games - going out and doing my own thing. My parents weren't overprotective - a lot of parents wouldn't let their children out but my mum and dad let me out from a young age.
"I had the freedom to play cricket and make my own friends. I never felt restricted, things never seemed like a mystery to me because I loved finding out about everything around me."
It is this attitude that has turned Bopara into a fans' favourite at Essex. He is also a big hit in the British Asian community, receiving compliments and being asked for cricketing advice on the streets.
And Bopara hopes his family's attitude, as much as his success, has a positive effect on the community. "Hopefully parents can see myself and Monty Panesar and realise that kids can go out and play sports and that it's not just about reading books and being a doctor.
"Sometimes there's too much emphasis put on education and it would be good to let your kids go out and be free because studying may not be the kid's main thing. If they want to play tennis, cricket or football, let them. And if there are more parents who see that, then I can see a lot more British Asians playing for England."
Scouts from Essex began noticing Bopara at the age of 12. His early success was helped by netting with adults when 10, which he says he did not find daunting. He signed a professional contract at 17. "I was already thinking that I didn't want to be just good enough for county level but that I really wanted to be the best."
Six years on Bopara's rise has taken no one who has followed his career by surprise. Writing in Essex's 2003 yearbook, the former Essex and England legspinner Robin Hobbs, who coached Bopara between the ages of 12 and 15, said: "He has a superb temperament and that is something which should be to his great advantage as he attempts to make the grade. Nothing fazes him and he has unshakeable belief in his own ability."
Backed and mentored by two of his heroes, Graham Gooch and Andy Flower, Bopara has deployed his talent more consistently with each season. His late call-up to the Commonwealth Bank series in Australia last winter paved his way into the World Cup squad.
His only long bad run of form came on his first England A tour, to West Indies in March 2006. In five matches against West Indies A, Bopara scored 47 runs and bowled one over. His first chance to impress on the international stage was a disaster. "I came back from that tour and had a chat with Gooch and reviewed it myself. I thought, if situations like that came up in the summer, I wouldn't be scared of trying new things to get out of it.
"I adapted this way of thinking that I wouldn't have a fear of failure. I used to have that fear around the age of 18 and 19 but I've eliminated that in the last couple of years. A lot of people expected a lot of me then and I needed to find a way to play without worrying about it."
Dealing with pressure is easier said than done - Mark Ramprakash seems to have only just managed it after 20 seasons. So how does Bopara do it? "You tell yourself it's just a game and you need to go out and enjoy it like you're playing at school with your mates. Don't go out and think you have to score a hundred because it'll get me in the England side.
"I used to think about bad runs but thinking about bad runs is the worst thing you can do as you end up dwelling on them. The best thing you can do is think about good runs: when I scored a hundred or won the match for my team or took two important wickets. That's all I think about."
As Bopara's stock rises, his mates keep him grounded, as does his Rottweiler. Unlike Matthew Hoggard, who famously takes his two dogs Billy and Molly for walks on the Yorkshire moors, Bopara takes Gotti - named after the Mafia boss John Gotti - for walks round the parks of his Woolwich home, just the other side of the Thames from where he grew up.
"I'm planning on buying another one for him as a partner. I love Rottweilers, it's nice going home to those and they always jump on you and love you whatever happens in the day. They don't care - you can never upset them."
As well as taking Gotti for walks, Bopara's life outside cricket seems pretty standard, very relaxed: good food, lounging about in front of the TV and meeting up with his friends.He is still very much in contact with his old mates, a couple of them "doing really well in business" and a few of them doing nothing at all ("I quite like their style"). None of them, however, follow his career, despite liking or playing cricket. "They knew I was at the World Cup and I asked them if they watched it and they all said, 'Nah, didn't see it.'"
It was probably for the best. England's World Cup will be remembered for two things: another shambolic team performance and Fredalo. So how did this affect a young man trying to make his name for England?
"I ignored the media, I didn't worry about that and kept away from it. I talked about normal life and the cricket, didn't talk about pressure or criticism. The pedalo thing was built up massively in England but I forgot about it quickly." But what about Michael Vaughan saying that it affected the dressing room? "It didn't affect me at all. If it affected anyone, then you'd have to be pretty easily affected."
The World Cup also saw the end of Duncan Fletcher. Bopara claims to have been surprised by his resignation; perhaps he really does ignore the media. This, however, does not mean he is not a thinking cricketer - quite the opposite. He admits to being a cricket geek - not many do - and says he is good on recent history. Most of this seems to be down to one man: Sachin Tendulkar, Bopara's hero. While Bopara is consistently animated and engaging, he goes into overdrive when talking about his idol.
"Sachin's my ultimate hero. He's the one who I learnt all my batting off, just watching him constantly. I always tried to copy his batting and put it in my own style. I want to be a top-four Test batter - similar to Tendulkar. I don't think anyone's going to score as many runs as him but I want to have a career close to his - do everything he did but do it for England."
Bopara hopes to be in England's Test team within the next year and says he is working hard on his bowling. He wants to be able to bowl 15 containing overs in a Test, with the odd vital wicket thrown in.
And captaincy? "I'm not looking that far ahead but I would love to captain Essex one day, at least. That would be a dream. Captaining England would be amazing. I've captained most of my age groups, so I've got a taste for it. I'm always thinking about the game, how I can change it for the better.
"I do evaluate cricket a lot but not about technique as that can cause problems. I don't like being out of the game. I have to be involved." If anyone can handle the pressure, gain the respect of the dressing room and forget about it when he gets home to his Rottweiler, it is Ravi Bopara.
This article was first published in the September issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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Daniel Brigham is staff writer on The Wisden Cricketer.