Ravi Bopara's hopes of clinging to his Test place for the final Ashes encounter at The Oval faded further as he fell for 1 against Middlesex at Lord's. Faced with a tricky 10 minute session before lunch on the second day, following a failure for England team-mate Alastair Cook, he couldn't survive the session when he fenced outside off and offered a catch to second slip from his seventh ball.
After spending the opening day in the field as Middlesex batted in sunshine, Bopara would have hoped for something similar when his turn came. Instead, the second morning was overcast and the ball swung, then to make matters worse he had that mini-session which top-order batsmen hate before a break.
He nearly fell to his first delivery when he risked a single into the covers and Nick Compton couldn't collect the ball cleanly. But the reprieve was short-lived when Tim Murtagh, who found movement with the new ball to take the four wickets to fall, got one to bounce a little and Bopara met it with an indeterminate poke. It was a dismissal straight out of the Ben Hilfenhaus notebook.
James Whitaker, the England selector, was in attendance to witness Bopara's latest failure to go alongside the 1 and 0 the No. 3 made at Headingley, which took his Ashes tally to 105 runs in four Tests. A score in this game appeared to be his last chance of salvation with the calls for change ringing in the selectors' ears.
Although Geoff Miller told Cricinfo that changes won't be made just for the sake of it, Bopara has endured such a tortured period that it seems inconceivable he will bat at first drop next week. Runs here may only have clouded the issue and Alec Stewart, who averaged 43.56 in 20 Tests at No.3, said the break might be what Bopara needs.
"Very few people come into a Test side and don't get left out at some stage," Stewart said. "In a way it can do you a little bit of good. You go back, you reassess, you learn what international cricket is about and then you come back a better and stronger player for it. If he is to be left out, it wouldn't surprise me.
"Even when he was getting his Test hundreds against the West Indies I said that he should have started off his career at No. 5 or 6. I see him as a middle order player at the moment with the ability to go up to No. 3," he added. "Ravi will be a wonderful international cricketer. It's tough playing against any international side. You're playing against the very best and this is the first little hiccup of his career. If - and I underline the word if - he is left out, then he will go back to Essex and score his runs."
It was a miserable day for both Essex's England batsmen. Cook was trapped half forward by one that swung back from Murtagh and departed for 4. Although his situation is not as dire as Bopara's, Cook hasn't set the world alight either in the Ashes barring his 95 at Lord's. He top-scored with 30 in the first-innings demise at Headingley and made another 30 in the second dig, but being one of the senior batsmen in a struggling line-up he needs to pull his weight more.
The Australia quicks have probed away outside off stump and exposed Cook's technical flaws. He was twice dismissed pushing at swinging deliveries at Leeds having been pinned leg before three times earlier in the series.
The double failure of the England players meant Essex went to lunch in trouble on 15 for 2 in reply to Middlesex's 356. Gareth Berg's 66, his third half century in three innings, had boosted the lower order before the final-wicket pair of Steven Finn and Alan Richardson secured a fourth batting point.
The visitors' position didn't improve as Murtagh posed plenty of problems from the Nursery End. He made the ball shape away at John Maunders to take the outside edge to first slip and pinned Mark Pettini lbw when the Essex captain was caught on the crease. It was the basics of swing bowling, pitching the ball up on a good length - something else that England lacked at Headingley. For a while it looked like Bopara would get a second hit in the day.
A break for rain meant Murtagh had time to recharge his batteries and kept going for 13-over spell up to tea. However, the Essex line-up found some resistance in the form of Matt Walker and James Foster to begin the rebuilding job after the failure of their Test pair.
Foster was the aggressor post tea as he punched strongly off the back foot through the off side, while Walker watchfully negotiated the movement which noticeably diminished after the rain. Their stand had reached 75 when bad light, then heavy rain, forced an early close.