Fortune evades luckless Bopara
One of the finest traits of this England team is how closely-knit they are. No player will begrudge another their opportunity or success. However, Ravi Bopara could be forgiven for a little curse under his breath after seeing the chance of a Test berth snatched away for the second time in under a year.
Shortly before the toss in Galle the England players gathered in their obligatory huddle and were soon applauding as Bruce French, the former England and Nottinghamshire wicketkeeper and now on the national coaching staff, handed a cap to Samit Patel. Plenty of handshakes were exchanged before the players split up; Patel went and bowled on an adjacent pitch along with Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar while Bopara went and took some high catches along with other non-selected players.
Ultimately, the side strain Bopara picked up bowling against the Sri Lanka Development XI in Colombo during the second warm-up came at a crucial moment, although he was fit enough to act as a substitute fielder on the first day of the Test. Even in the days leading into Galle the feeling was Bopara would still play, but after assessing the conditions Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss felt the demand for a fifth-bowling option better than Kevin Pietersen or Jonathan Trott was too great.
Bopara will have had similar emotions in a steamy Galle as he felt in a chilly Derby last May. On that occasion, playing for England Lions against Sri Lanka, he was on the verge of a Test recall to replace the retired Paul Collingwood only for Eoin Morgan, who had arrived a few days earlier from the IPL, to crack 193 and sway the selectors' minds. Patel also scored 119 in that match.
Morgan went on to play 10 consecutive Tests before suffering for his horrid series against Pakistan in the UAE and losing his place for this tour. That, finally, appeared to open the door for Bopara to get an extended run in the No. 6 spot only to miss out again. The two Tests he played against India last year, as a replacement for the injured Trott, barely constituted a chance especially when he walked to the crease at 596 for 4 and 487 for 5. He would not be human if there was not the odd thought in his mind about when, or if, that extended run will arrive.
This is not to say that Patel did not deserve his debut. He was selected in the squad to give England precisely this option having been told in no uncertain terms what he needed to do to fit into the squad's fitness ethos. There is still work to do but he has put in some hard yards. During the match against the Development XI he struck 72 off 78 balls in the successful chase although his bowling was less convincing with overall figures of 1 for 127 off 24 overs, which makes figures of 2 for 27 in nine overs on debut very respectable.
It takes a lot for the Strauss-Flower axis to move away from the tried and trusted. This is the closest they have come to playing five bowlers since against Bangladesh, in Dhaka, in early 2010, but Patel cannot really be classed as a specialist spinner with a first-class record of 132 wickets at 38.45. For Nottinghamshire he has often played as the one spinner behind a four-man pace attack but at Trent Bridge that is often all that is needed.
However, at the toss in Galle, Patel was also stated to bat at No. 7 with Matt Prior moving up to No. 6 which suggested he was not a direct replacement for Bopara. Otherwise England do not have as much faith in Patel's batting. He was given a bowl before lunch on the first day in Galle and at the end of his first day in Test cricket he had more wickets than Swann, who was expensive, or Panesar. He also offered another option to spin the ball away from the right handers, but if he continues to be the leading wicket-taking spinner the series will have gone badly for the visitors.
The last time England selected three frontline spinners in a Test was against Pakistan, at Faisalabad, in 1987-88 when Nick Cook, John Emburey and Eddie Hemmings all played together. But on the 1992-93 tour of India, Graeme Hick, a comparable quality spinner to Patel, did more than enough bowling - and topped England's averages - to be classed alongside Emburey, Phil Tufnell and Ian Salisbury although had been selected firstly as a batsman.
If England had wanted a genuine fifth bowler, who has won Test matches and taken five-wicket hauls, they could have gone for Tim Bresnan but he has had a difficult few months. Firstly he had to fly from the UAE having failed to recover from elbow surgery and then he did not impress during the warm-up match last week. Still, a batting average of 45.42 and bowling figure of 23.60 from 10 Tests - all of which England have won - suggests he would still have been worth looking at and a useful bowler to turn to with Sri Lanka 15 for 3. But Patel is the man and no one will begrudge him success.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo