Bopara creates a momentum of his own
Test cricketers often talk of the importance of momentum, without quite expanding on exactly what that means. They say that success begets success, confidence breeds confidence, you make your own luck and all that guff. But as England demonstrated in their fitful first-day performance at Lord's, when momentum is the end in itself, it can be a mighty tough thing to conjure up from scratch.
After a winter to forget, England are playing catch-up as they enter a seismic season. They desperately need to forge a winning mentality before the Australians rock up next month, but in their haste to produce a defining performance, they managed only to live down to their billing as the No. 6-ranked side in the world. On a flat and blameless surface, they played with the swagger of series favourites but the application of a team who have not won a Test match since August. Andrew Strauss, so inspirational of late, set the tone with a rash chop to the keeper, and only a spate of dropped catches prevented embarrassment turning into humiliation.
One man, however, stood back from the stampede, and just let his innings flow. The momentum that carried Ravi Bopara to his second Test century was entirely unconnected to the fortunes (or lack thereof) of the England team - which is precisely why he was called into the side in the first place. Where others had found frustration on a tiring and fruitless Caribbean tour, Bopara found redemption with a late call-up to the squad and an impressive century in Barbados, with which he proved to himself, after a scratchy debut in Sri Lanka two years ago, that he could really succeed at this level.
And then, where other Englishmen sank without trace in the IPL or tarnished their superstar billing, Bopara bobbed into the public consciousness with a brilliant 84 from 59 balls for Kings XI Punjab against Kevin Pietersen's Bangalore at Durban. That peculiar combination of experiences left him as chilled as the glass of champagne he will doubtless permit himself to sip at some stage this week, as he provided vivid evidence of what true momentum entails.
"I've just felt so relaxed over the last couple of days, and I'm glad it's gone my way," said Bopara. "I think it worked to my advantage coming from the IPL, because as a batter, when you're trying to play positive, your instincts work a lot better. You get into better positions and you want to hit the ball. When you're in a negative mindset you start getting a bit tentative and you don't really hit the ball, you start poking it."
There was nothing pokey about Bopara's performance. Not even a superlative first delivery from Jerome Taylor, which curled past the edge of his bat and through to the keeper, could dent his confidence. He rode his luck in a feisty tussle with Fidel Edwards, who ought to have had him caught at square leg on 76, but in the final analysis there was no question that he had arrived. "I've always wanted to test myself and see where I'm at in my game," he said, "and that's the best test I've had so far."
Even the pressure of completing a Test century at Lord's could not distract him from his duties, as he strode forward to Sulieman Benn with bubbly footwork and drained any excess nervous energy by daydreaming about his forthcoming celebration. For his Barbados hundred Bopara had imitated the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, by mock-combing his hair and drawing an imaginary bow-string. This time he chalked out an imaginary honours board, and motioned to the dressing-room that they should get scribbling.
"I actually thought of it when I was on about 95," said Bopara. "I wanted to do my Usain Bolt impression but [Ramnaresh] Sarwan has stolen that, I think he owns it now. So I thought what else can I do, so I signalled to the honours board, 'get me up there'."
Bopara's performance, on the pitch and in front of the media, was utterly unforced and a stark contrast to some of the lumpen displays that his team-mates provided. When Strauss spoke on the eve of the match of the "exuberance" among the new faces in the squad, he might have been speaking specifically about Bopara, a man who answers to the nickname "Puppy", and played up to that image in everything he did.
Not even Pietersen, the big dog in England's dressing room, could escape without receiving a playful nip on the ankles. As it happens, Bopara's IPL 84 came in the same game that Pietersen made a second-ball duck, which was twice the contribution he managed today as Edwards nailed him with a wicked full-length outswinger. "It's not a great ball to get first up, 90mph and swinging away," said Bopara, "but I'm sure he'll learn from it. There are ways to combat it, [for instance] he could lower his backlift and not go so hard at the ball."
Offering advice to KP - how times have changed since Bopara's desperate debut against Sri Lanka in 2007. Back then he was tormented by Muttiah Muralitharan and out of his depth as Andrew Flintoff's allrounder substitute, and stumbled to 42 runs in the series including three ducks in a row at Colombo and Galle. His momentum during that tour was non-existent, but somehow his self-belief survived. Perhaps that's the lesson that England as a unit need to take from his performance today. They are Test cricketers after all. With a bit of belief, they'll have to start winning again soon.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo