This Thursday it will be a year to the day since Ravi Bopara was caught behind off the bowling of Dale Steyn for a 12-ball duck in a one-day international at Old Trafford.
On that September day Bopara looked a haunted man—ghostly and gaunt he trudged back to the pavilion on a grey and damp afternoon in the midst of a torturous phase of cricket that many felt foreboded the end of his international career.
He had managed just 22 runs in his lone Test match at the Oval earlier in the summer after being worked over and dismissed both times by a ferocious Steyn. He then ruled himself out of the remainder of the series in mysterious circumstances citing “personal issues,” and when he did return for the limited overs matches things only got worse as he scratched his way to 28 runs in six excruciating innings.
His form was so awful that he couldn’t even get out quickly. His innings were panicked and jerky, characterised by wild swishes and unconvincing prods.
He missed more balls than he hit. He looked like a broken man. Indeed, as hopeless swish outside off stump followed hopeless swish outside off stump you would have forgiven him for wanting the world to swallow him up.
At that point in time Bopara could have never played for England again; given it all up, and the world of cricket would hardly have batted an eyelid.
Of course he would’ve been a wasted talent, such prodigal traits have been ever-present in Bopara, but as he walked back to the pavilion on that September afternoon a successful return to form seemed impossible.
The end seemed nigh. His inclusion in England’s World Twenty20 squad would surely be the final rites of a squandered star, and indeed his lone innings of one in England’s quarter final defeat to Sri Lanka did have an air of finality to it.
But a little less than a year on from then, how things have changed.
Pathetic fallacy cast a powerful omnipotence over the Malahide Cricket Ground today as bathed in sunshine Bopara blitzed his way to his maiden ODI hundred and powered England to victory against Ireland. It was England’s second fastest ODI hundred ever.
Despite some erratic Irish bowling, having arrived at the crease with England 48/4 this was an innings of real fight and chutzpah, and most importantly he finished the match not out. He got the job done.
Too frequently in his career, innings of similar ilk have been tarnished by futile dismissals with the finish line in sight. Today was different. He not only remained unbeaten but surged England to their target, battering 31 off his last 10 balls, with four, four, six and four taking him through the nineties and to his century.
A glimpse of this merciless aggression was displayed in the Champions Trophy earlier this summer—the tournament in which Bopara made his return to the team—when he clattered 33 off 13 balls, including 28 off a single over against Sri Lanka.
His selection for the tournament in June was somewhat of a surprise following a winter in which Bopara plied his trade in the Bangladesh Premier League and later South Africa’s Ram Slam T20 Challenge with little reward.
However, his bowling, which considerably outshone his batting—even against South Africa last summer—continued to impress, and he took seven wickets at an average of 19 in the Championship before the end of April. And it appears his selection for the ODI series against New Zealand and Champions Trophy was due as much to his bowling as his batting—if not more.
Since his successful comeback in the Champions Trophy, while England have been wallowing in a summer of Ashes glory, Bopara has wiled away in county cricket—and although averaging just over 30 in the Championship, he’s plundered 441 runs at an average of 63 in the Yorkshire Bank 40, as well as being part of Essex’s T20 run to the semi-final.
Perhaps most notable is the improvement in his body language. 12 months ago he cast a forlorn and even sad figure, but now, although his placid emotions at the crease remain, he appears much comfortable with himself and his surroundings.
A steely glint is now present below his often furrowed brow. He looks older and more mature; battled hardened.
And battle hardened he should be. His struggles last summer were painful to watch. He was a cricketer of prodigious talent who appeared totally inept. After all the hours of training, weeks of dedication and years of commitment he could hardly get the ball off the square.
Rarely has an international cricketer looked so out of his depth as Bopara did last year. And it wasn’t just a cricketing decline, it was a personal decline. He was a shadow of the individual he once was.
So although his century today was perhaps the innings most symbolic and confirmative of his resurgence. There was a moment earlier in the summer that was more poignant. As Bopara sent ball after ball over the boundary rope in a T20 against New Zealand at the Oval, the capacity crowd, well inebriated on a carnival-like summer’s evening in London, sang Bopara’s name in joyously drunk delirium.
Not only was Bopara back. Bopara was loved.