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February 27, 2009
A week ago Ravi Bopara was in the sleepy city of Christchurch, but the world is a small place these days. Now he is England's Test No. 6 and is going to take some shifting. A 41-hour journey through six time zones culminated in his maiden Test hundred as England declared on 600 for 6. It has all been worth it now.
The calm acknowledgement of his century was not someone feeling huge amounts of pressure and he was even relaxed enough to unveil a Usain Bolt celebration. He was also able to shake of a nasty blow from Fidel Edwards, who struck him on the grill during a rapid burst that was enthralling to watch. It was a proper Test match initiation.
"I felt as though I was a little early on it and it went straight into the grill, jarring it into the cheek," Bopara said, while sporting a pair of sunglasses to hide the growing black eye. "I wouldn't say it affected me, I think it's one of those things you accept as a batter.
"You are going to get hit now and then especially in Test cricket when you have someone bowling around 90mph," he added. "I think [you] have to expect it. I felt as if they were going to come at me hard, they were chirping and all sorts of things but that's part of Test cricket and it is good fun. That was one of quickest spells I've faced."
When he walked off with 104 to his name the contrast couldn't have been starker from the last time left a Test field. It was the third Test against Sri Lanka, at Galle, in December 2007 and he had just been run out from slip by Mahela Jayawardene to complete a depressing pair and a miserable first series. He had actually collected three consecutive ducks and ended with 42 runs in five innings. In hindsight it was a promotion that came too early but, in similar circumstances to his recall here, England were trying to fill the hole left by Andrew Flintoff being injured.
This time he passed that series tally in 60 balls and reached his hundred off 140 deliveries with an ease that suggested he done it many times before. "There were all those feelings you have as a youngster growing up about what it would feel like," he said. "As a kid you dream of doing it at Lord's, but I'll take it any time."
Caveats do apply; West Indies' bowling (Edwards apart) verged on awful at times, the fielding was slack and the pitch very flat. England face a huge task to take 20 wickets. He was also offered a life on 4 when Jerome Taylor spilled a chance at deep square-leg. But all Bopara could do was grasp his reprieve and make hay in the sunshine. He proceeded to show the sort of stroke play that lit up county cricket last season.
Bopara was becoming a slightly tricky cricketer to work out. The abundant talent was clear right from his World Cup innings against Sri Lanka when he almost led England to victory, but it had yet to be translated into significant results. At times he'd looked a confused player, not surprising when you consider that in one-day cricket he has been tried in nearly every batting position.
But anyone who can score a double hundred in 50-over cricket was always going toreturn, although his chance has come a little sooner than expected. That could have been a helping hand for Bopara. Coming in as a replacement can often mean expectations are lower.
"I didn't expect to play, I just came here thinking I'd be the spare batter and I never thought I'd get in," he said. "I've tried to be patient first and not thought that I what to get back prove everyone wrong. I told myself to be patient, earn your chance by scoring runs for Essex and when you get it take it, but don't worry about it too much and build it up too much before you get there."
This was another innings that showed how much luck and how much judgement goes into selecting a side. If England had a full strength squad out here neither Bopara or Tim Ambrose, who together added a rollicking 113 in 21 overs for the sixth wicket, would have played. Instead Flintoff is ruled out of the rest of the series and Matt Prior is already back on home soil visiting his new baby. If Prior was watching the sixth-wicket stand rather than being knee-deep in nappies he may have been sitting a little uneasily.
As Flintoff boards his plane home tonight he may think that a few of Bopara's runs are his. But Bopara looked classier in this one innings than Flintoff has managed in years. There was an elegance, touch and timing that Flintoff has never managed. Flintoff has always believed he is a Test number six, yet apart from one glorious 18 months he has never convinced. These are still early days for Bopara, but it was only a matter of when, and not if, he would show his class. What a difference a week makes.
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