Friday, 2 August, Sur v Ess, YB40
The press regulator – whether underpinned or not – might take issue with this report. Thing is, my contemporaneous notes are scant, just a few scribbles on the scorecard. That’s because we took a guest, the Friendly Headmaster, and it seemed impolite to break the flow of chat. In the event, his profession was apt. This match was men against boys for the most part. Dom Sibley, halfway through his A-levels, was carted from the field before we arrived. A freak leg injury, they said, while running between the wickets: a nasty gash, apparently, and blood on the pitch. Already out of the running in this competition, Surrey put out a virtual second XI. Essex picked them off like veteran sharpshooters, although strangely it was their skipper, James Foster, toddling behind the stumps in a helmet that seemed several sizes too big, who appeared to be the most junior boy.
Given the paucity of written evidence, this is a remembrance of scenes past, a reverie of a day/night encounter made more dreamlike by the vision of Ravi Bopara batting like Virat Kohli (no higher praise, at present, for a white-ball batterer) to chase down Surrey’s total with time to spare. That the home side reached 223-7 was largely due to Vikram Solanki, their captain and No 3, coming in after the Ealhamesque Napier had Roy caught at slip. Masters, a Fraser-ish old pro, bowled a tight spell with Foster standing up. Solanki looked to score most with his variant of the Ian Bell late cut, surely the shot of the Test summer. Later, his cover drives and pulls were prefecty flicks of his liquid wrists. Wilson was his scuttling fag, with chips over the infield and one huge clonk off Mills for six. The strapping left-armer rolled in like a southpaw Charlie Griffith and plonked the ball short almost by default. This Oval track offers few marks for such bowling. Wilson handed out some homework with that hook.
Mills, aged 21, is raw but blessed with muscular pace. Topley, at 19, is already a cannier scholar. With a long gather reminiscent of a triple jumper’s hop (or skip – maybe both), he generates some swing and makes more of his 6ft 7in frame than Finn (who always seems to crumple slightly at the crease) ever does. Tutored by sages such as Masters, he should go far – assuming England don’t become too fixated on the speed gun. Mills eventually had Wilson caught at square leg, so his strategy worked after a fashion. Ansari, ever the willing student, managed the same score (31) and a six in 10 fewer balls. He and Wilson are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this Surrey line-up. When Solanki (the nearest to a prince) swished over an in-swinger from Topley to be bowled for 86, Burns batted with a Laertes-shaped rock on his shoulder. Rarely does this nuggety first-class opener get one-day opportunities. You sensed he felt that No 6 was beneath him (he had a point) and he set about proving his elders wrong. Driving back past the bowlers or hanging deep and swatting them through mid-wicket, he finished with a valuable 39 not out off 25 balls. Jewell, a KP mini-me in his stance if nothing else, barely troubled the scorers. Curran, the 18-year-old son of the late Zimbabwean legend Kevin, was run out by Bopara’s direct throw for one.
And so to Ravi. He entered the arena at 15-2, the senior citizens Linley and Lewis (weren’t they a pair of dance producers in the 1990s?) having grabbed a pole apiece. Greg Smith was his wingman, every inch the gritty and grimly effective Kolpak, whether that status now applies to him or not. Bopara swaggered with intent. It all seemed remarkably easy. There weren’t too many flashy shots. The odd Dhoniesque whip through mid-on, perhaps, or a front foot pull achieved at an angle that would leave most batsmen in traction. It was more a matter of expert and attractive accumulation. At a rate of knots. And after Smith fell for 65 (a partnership of 152 in 25.3 overs), there was an assault on Ansari’s bowling that took 21 off one over in the company of the Robin Van Persie of Dutch cricket, RTD. The last 59 runs were knocked off in 4.3 overs. Exquisite vandalism, and truly men against boys – the puppyish Curran haring in like a kid pretending to be Allan Donald only to be tonked back over his head.
In this form, even accounting for Surrey’s relative weakness, Bopara should be England’s ODI No 4. On his batting alone. That he isn’t is due to the mistrust stemming from performances – more in Tests than one-dayers – that frequently dump him on the enigma-doofus spectrum. Previously, I’ve tended to think he’s more the latter than the former. Having watched this innings, and his blasting of Sri Lanka in the Champions’ Trophy here, the E-word looms larger. In which case, why hasn’t anyone in the England camp cracked the code? Obviously, Bopara has had his personal problems. Some of his dismissals have been dopey. I used to regard him as a see-ball/hit-ball merchant (best when he thought least), but today’s knock was, as I suggested, as calculating as Kohli. (And he’s nobody’s fool.) Perhaps there’s another factor: Bopara as victim of his early promise. Don’t forget he was the 20-year-old Cook’s partner in that happy slapping of the Aussies in a tour match in 2005, and several months younger. When he played them for real – in the 2009 Ashes – he was, in hindsight, overpromoted at No 3, despite having made two of his three hundreds (all against West Indies) in that position. Had he spent that series at No 6, who knows? He might be an enigma no longer.
Bopara’s bowling certainly becomes handier and handier, in that we-never-properly-replaced-Paul-Collingwood-let-alone-Andrew-Flintoff way. He is of an age now where he ought to be taking responsibility for the team’s innings. And demonstrably does so for Essex. Responsibility and trust are two sides of the same coin, but also a bit chicken and egg, as the Friendly Headmaster probably hasn’t put it in assembly. Perhaps it’s too late for both Bopara and the England selectors to learn the lesson as far as he’s concerned. Then again, Chris Rogers is the textbook example of hope, and experience, springing eternal.
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