Shades of Hussain as Bopara arrives
The following scenario may sound familiar. England are at a low ebb after a desperate winter campaign, and a new coach decides it's time to take a punt with one of the most problematic positions in the side. Ignoring a host of usual suspects, he selects at No. 3 a young Essex batsman of Asian extraction, whose talent has never been in question, but whose opportunities have been limited to a handful of appearances down the order. The player responds with a superb century that carries his team's innings, and cements his place in the side for the foreseeable.
Ravi Bopara's arrival as England's No. 3 has strong echoes of the manner in which Nasser Hussain seized his opportunity against India at Edgbaston in 1996. There are differences in the two men's temperaments and techniques - cocky and classy on the one hand, fiery and gritty on the other - but aside from their shared Ilford upbringing, the clearest similarity is the undoubted character they bring to their role. Thirteen years ago, Hussain seized his chance with 128 out of a team total of 313; Bopara currently stands on 118 out of 289 for 7, an almost identical ratio.
"A lot is made of your batting position," Hussain recalled to Cricinfo, "but I always felt, and I did back then when Bumble [David Lloyd] rang me up and asked me to bat No. 3, that if you're good enough to be playing Test cricket, you should be good enough to move from No. 5 to No. 3. Otherwise what is that saying about you? It's saying you're not a particularly good player."
"The question I would be asking is not is he a No. 3, but is he a Test match player?" said Hussain. "That is the same question that David Lloyd and Mike Atherton must have been asking about me in '96, and it's the one that Ravi Bopara has answered now. From the first time I saw him at Essex, I thought he was a Test match player and nothing I've seen since has changed my opinion."
Prior to Hussain's innings, England had tried all manner of combinations at No. 3, from the left-field Jason Gallian to the veteran Robin Smith, via the temperamentally suspect pairing of Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash. None of them was able to provide the ballast the team so urgently required, much as Ian Bell and Owais Shah have fallen short in recent contests.
Bopara himself didn't display a trace of self-doubt in his first-day performance at Lord's. "No. 3 is only a problem position if you make it a problem," he said at the close of play. "You just go out and do your best, play the ball as naturally as you can, and if it's not your day it's not your day, and if it is, you make it count."
Nevertheless, until their respective promotions, both Bopara and Hussain had been given reason to doubt their Test credentials. Bopara endured a tortuous baptism in Sri Lanka when he managed 42 runs in five innings, while Hussain's seven Tests - all against the mighty West Indies and the rapidly improving Australians - were spread across six years and contained a solitary half-century.
"Of course I needed those runs to prove it to myself that I could play Test cricket, and until you get them there's going to be self-doubt," said Hussain. "But I think we were both young enough to get another chance, and we knew English cricket. If you're Australian in the last 20 years, you might have one or two chances because it's been so difficult to get into the side.
"But in England, if you're young and you're good and you get your runs in county cricket, you generally know another opportunity will come. Ravi said to me he knew he'd get another chance, but he also knew he'd have to take it."
In the event, Bopara didn't just take his chance, he seized it, with a cocksure performance that, according to Hussain, belied the more anxious side to his character. "I know Ravi gives his outward bravado of being very confident, but he's not," he said. "He's nervous. It's fine when he's out there, but he's a nervous starter, so I think No. 3 is good for him. I also enjoyed batting at 3 because I just wanted to get out there and get into it, instead of fretting in the dressing-room and waiting to bat."
Now that he has produced his breakthrough innings, Hussain believes that the sky is the limit for Bopara, so long as he manages to retain a basic humility. "He's now got two hundreds in a row, so he's sure to get a bit more of a swagger, he'll become a bit more Pietersen-esque. I just hope he doesn't go over the top, because he's got to remember how he's got his runs. If he can keep grinding them out, this could be the start of something special."
Hussain should know. Within 12 months of his own breakthrough, he had capped his time at No. 3 with a matchwinning double-century in the first Test against Australia. Now that would be taking the parallel to its extremes.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo