South Africa in England 2012 September 3, 2012

England's Bopara conundrum

After a self-inflicted break, Ravi Bopara's form with the bat has slumped and it is beginning to pose a dilemma for England

When Ravi Bopara bowled Hashim Amla at Lord's, and celebrated with polite handshakes from his team-mates, he had the wide smile of a man enjoying the game. A few hours later, when he edged Ryan McLaren behind for 6, he walked off wearing the expression of someone with the weight of world on his shoulders.

It has been a tough few weeks for Bopara, stemming from the personal problems that forced him to withdraw from the second Test against South Africa at Headingley. There is no need to speculate on what those problems were, but since returning to action he has had a miserable run with the bat: 1, 3, 2, 16, 0 and 6.

Yet his bowling is as effective as ever in one-day internationals. His 2 for 34 at Lord's included the wickets of Amla (who many of England's frontline bowlers have struggled to dismiss this season) and Faf du Plessis. It followed a tight 10-over spell at The Oval, just the second time in his ODI career he had bowled his full quota and he is giving Alastair Cook a valuable option. This season he averages 23.28 with the ball in ODIs - with an economy rate of just 3.46 - and let's not forget he almost removed Amla early in his triple hundred in the Test series.

"Ravi's bowled well all summer and manages to keep picking up wickets," Cook said. "He's always had a bit of a golden arm, but I think he's managed to control his length a little bit better than in the past. He bowls wicket to wicket, and a lot less four-balls."

The problem is, however, that as one of the top five he needs to score runs. Batting orders rarely have everyone in top form, but Bopara looks so short on confidence that he is being carried by the others. Coupled with Cook attracting some good deliveries against the new ball there is a lot of onus on Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Eoin Morgan.

Cook, though, did not sound overly concerned about his Essex team-mate: "You get a little bit frustrated, like anyone, when you're not scoring runs," he said. "But that's why it's great when you have both strings to your bow - like he does. It's not quite happening with the bat for him at the moment but he showed his class with the bat against Australia, and he's certainly making a massive contribution with the ball at the moment."

It is hard not to feel a little sympathy for Bopara, although it is not often a common senitment used in comment sections or social media. Things had all started to look so promising for him earlier in the season against Australia where he scored 182 runs in four innings to hint at a greater maturity to his game. After a match-winning 82 at The Oval he even said he thought he "was batting as well as ever".

Then came a tough Test return at The Oval where he made 0 and 22, twice falling to Dale Steyn, but he would certainly have had the Headingley Test and probably Lord's as well to try and convince the selectors he was was the man for No. 6. But his self-inflicted absence forced him to watch James Taylor and Jonny Bairstow leapfrog him in the queue to the extent that, even if Kevin Pietersen's exile continues into the India Test series, Bopara is no certainty to be there.

The other, more immediate, problem for England is that they are in danger of heading into the World Twenty20 with their No. 3 badly out of touch. Bopara is inked in for that position following a steady half-century against West Indies earlier the season in what is an inexperienced top order outside of Eoin Morgan and, to a lesser degree, Craig Kieswetter.

Yet the shortest format may just be Bopara's best route back to form. There is really no choice but to play shots (despite the maxim that 20 overs is longer than you think) and exploiting the six Powerplay overs will be a key period in Sri Lanka. Maybe the less time Bopara has to worry about building a score can free his mind to be more instinctive.

His place in the one-day side is probably secure for the final match of the series. Cook did not sound like a captain who wanted to dispense with his bowling, while there are concerns over Trott's hand injury. However, one of the major debates this season has been whether England are too wedded to picking bowlers because of their batting skills and the reverse situation is quickly coming to the fore about Bopara.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo