Bopara England's biggest surprise
Such has been the excellence of Alastair Cook in the first two ODIs between Pakistan and England that it would be easy to overlook the impressive performances of a couple of his teammates.
Cook scored his second successive century as England took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the four-match series in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. It means his ODI average since returning to the side as captain in June 2011 is 55.93 at a strike-rate of 92.5. It is understandable that such figures overshadow those of his colleagues.
But Cook is not the only England player enjoying a good series. Steven Finn, bowling with pace, control and skill, has underlined the impression that he is fast maturing into a high-quality international cricketer and, in taking four wickets in each of the first two ODIs, has played a key role in England's success. Displacing Stuart Broad or James Anderson from England's Test team still appears unlikely in the short term but Finn surely has an exciting future.
It is, perhaps, the batting of Ravi Bopara that has been the biggest surprise. Had Jos Buttler been fit, there is every chance Bopara would have been the man omitted from the ODI side, but the 26-year-old Essex batsman has taken his chance and responded with two important half-centuries. From a precarious position on the periphery of the Test and limited-overs teams, Bopara has re-established himself in England's long-term plans.
Bopara's talent has never been in question. It has long been accepted that he was capable of playing attractive strokes and, just days after his 24th birthday, he joined a select group of England players - Herbert Sutcliffe, Denis Compton, Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch - by scoring Test centuries in three successive innings, after 108 against West Indies at Chester-le-Street. The questions have more been over his temperament under pressure and ability to grind out runs in adversity.
So it must have been particularly pleasing to see Bopara prosper in Abu Dhabi. On begrudging pitches that have inhibited strokeplay, Bopara has twice come in with his side under some pressure and succeeded in grafting for runs in circumstances where most others have failed. It was a welcome sign of maturity from a player who may yet develop into a fine batsmen in all formats of the game.
"Taking responsibility had been a massive thing for me," Bopara said. "We knew we had soak up the pressure as it was going to be tough in the first 15 or 20 minutes. It gets easier as the innings goes on. Once you're in for about five overs you get used to the pace of the wicket and the bowlers. Once you give yourself a chance, you have every chance of catching up and scoring at a run a ball.
"If you're going to bat in the middle order you have to give yourself 15-20 balls. I'm not saying you go in there and block 15-20 balls but you can't put yourself under pressure if you're not scoring in those first 10, 15, 20 balls. You just hang in there because you do get those little bit of luck - maybe runs past third man or fine leg - and you can catch up."
Luck was a key ingredient in the first ODI in Abu Dhabi. A better wicketkeeper than Umar Akmal - and that is a very large constituency - might have stumped Bopara when he had just one in that game. But Bopara has experienced too many triumphs and tragedies already in his career to start pondering the tiny twists of fate than can make or break a player. He is determined to simply concentrate on the present and is reluctant to be drawn on his own future or that of his team.
"Things can change so quickly," Bopara said. "I'm not analysing where I am at the moment. I remember in the summer, against India, I had a good series but then I went out to India and didn't have such a good series. I'm just keeping my feet on the ground. I'm just thinking about Ajmal and how I'm going to deal with him.
"I wouldn't want to think about winning this series 4-0. We've done that in the past. Individually we've got a bit giddy and things just go wrong. So we're not going to look too far ahead. We'll just keep doing what we've been doing in the last couple of matches and worry about our skills and dealing with that Pakistan bowling line-up.
"We haven't had a good one-day record in the sub-continent so it's a big thing for us to win out here. It will give us confidence to know we can do it in sub-continent conditions.
"Obviously, I want to play Test cricket for England. That's the ultimate goal and achievement: to stay in that side and win things. That's my main aim. That's what I'm working towards."
Bopara was more effusive on the subject of his teammate and old friend Cook. While many on-lookers have been surprised by Cook's much improved ODI batting, Bopara is not. Indeed, Bopara now believes that Cook - who is currently not part of England's T20 squad - can force himself into the reckoning in the shortest format.
"He's someone I've seen adapt so much over his career so far," Bopara said. "I've played with him since I was 14 or 15 and with the amount he's changed over the years, there's no reason why he can't change and become a T20 player as well. I've seen him play some class T20 knocks for Essex. There's no reason he can't do it for England. He's someone I've seen adapt more than anyone in my whole career. Most definitely I think he's the sort of person who will play for England in T20.
"He just grinds out runs, doesn't he? I don't know how he keeps doing it but he knows his areas, he's a tough man, he's hard on himself and he's a really good player."
The England and Pakistan squads travelled from Dubai to Abu Dhabi on Thursday. England reported no new injury concerns, with Tim Bresnan and Jos Buttler improving by the day and the sore back that forced Bopara off the field for a short period on Wednesday not thought to be a serious issue.
It is Pakistan who have more to think about. In both games they have been let down by the part-time wicketkeeping of Umar Akmal and their brittle batting. None of their batsmen have yet registered a half-century in the series, highlighting their long tail and need for more all-rounders. Pakistan's fielding will also have to improve substantially if they are to challenge in the 2015 World Cup. The third ODI takes place in Dubai on Saturday.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo