Pressure on Bopara as Taylor shines
Graham Thorpe, the England Lions batting coach, believes James Taylor would be ready for the challenges of Test cricket should a chance arise in the middle order, which will add to the pressure on Ravi Bopara to perform against India at The Oval.
England have moved on from the days of a player's future being decided by a performance in the final Test of the season, yet despite a selection process now based on continuity and loyalty Bopara faces a crucial five days. Jonathan Trott's shoulder injury has given him another chance to show he should be the spare batsman on the winter tours but he will know there are other players breathing down his neck.
Top of that list of contenders is Taylor, the Leicestershire batsman, who captained the Lions to their 2-1 one-day series win against Sri Lanka A and scored two hundreds. His County Championship form has been less convincing with 502 runs at 31.37 but Thorpe is in no doubt about his potential.
"He has been in the system for a few years and he's very mature," Thorpe told ESPNcricinfo. "You forget sometimes that's he's 21 years old because he knows his game very well. That's the most important thing and you get a feeling that he would be ready. Now it's just a question of an opportunity to open up for him."
Bopara had very little to gain when he walked in at 596 for 4 at Edgbaston and was subsequently lbw to Amit Mishra for 7. However, the skittish nature of his brief stay highlighted a player who is feeling the pressure and while the selectors won't make snap judgements they also won't be shy of ruthless decisions. Precedents have been set with Steven Finn's omission during the Ashes and the way Andy Flower decided, on the evidence of one match in Abu Dhabi, that Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb should open in Twenty20.
Following his omission from the Test team during the 2009 Ashes, Bopara has tried to revive his career with domestic stints in New Zealand and South Africa followed by a return to the England Lions set-up where he has worked with Thorpe.
"Ravi himself will know it's an important Test match for him to do well. What comes next is hard to say, Ravi would be right to just focus on this game," Thorpe said. "I'd say to players whoever they are representing - whether it's the full side or the Lions - not to look too far ahead. That's one of the reasons are England are doing well right now because they just look after the here and now."
Thorpe also doesn't believe that England's Test line-up should be altered just for the sake of finding a spot for a talented young player and at the moment the priority should be maintaining the form that has propelled them to No. 1.
"I feel you should never pre-empt selection by resting guys," he said. "England are a long way from matching someone like Australia who dominated for years so aren't in a position to be shuffling things around. It might naturally happen that space opens up and with the volume of cricket being played there might be chances to get players in."
In his role with the Lions, Thorpe is gaining first-hand knowledge of the players coming through the system to challenge for top honours. Much is made of England's depth in fast bowlers - highlighted this week by the recall of Graham Onions after doubts emerged over James Anderson's fitness - but Thorpe is equally confident over the batting talent emerging.
"I'm excited by what's underneath," he said. "The age profile is younger as well. If you look at Taylor, Jonny Bairstow, Alex Hales and Joe Root they are all in their early 20s. There is some good, young talent to work with and, while that doesn't mean they will make it for certain in the long term, when you have a pack of competitive batsmen to work with it can only be a good thing."
Andrew Strauss, meanwhile, believes the competition from the Lions is important in keeping standards high. "We've tried to make sure the Lions squad mirrors what we do so that people understand what is expected of then," he said. "A lot of that drive and determination comes from the individuals as well, and the point of our set-up is to nudge people in the right direction so that they don't become too comfortable."
They are views echoed by Thorpe, who is confident that the set-up underneath the full team is preparing the players who can help England stay top. "The guys are very hungry and know what is expected to play at the highest level," he said. "So hopefully No. 1 won't be a short-term thing and you'd like to think over the next four to five years they can keep building and stay there."
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo