LONDON // For most boys growing up in England, playing for your country in the Ashes is the ultimate dream. The precociously talented Ravi Bopara, though, was not like any other youngster - and the revelation that the Ashes "never really meant anything" in his teenage years is refreshingly honesty.
Three Test match hundreds in seven matches have seen the Essex man establish himself in the perennially troublesome No 3 position for England, despite his failure to shine in the first Test, in which England managed to hang on for a draw after being comprehensively outplayed by the tourists. Now he faces the ultimate challenge - a contest with Australia at the home of cricket and the realisation that the Ashes really is one of the most eagerly awaited contests in world sport.
"I remember Shane Warne bowling Mike Gatting in 1993 but if I'm honest I never really took to the Ashes," said Bopara. "Even as a kid when we played in the garden we never played Ashes series. "I never really saw it as a big series until what happened in 2005 and then it really hit home. "That series really changed my whole perception about what the Ashes is about. "For me, it was just another series but now and after 2005 I can see the enormity of it. Everyone gets involved and you see just how massive it is."
Following his poor showing last week - he was dismissed for 35 in England's first innings and lasted only three balls for one run in the second - Bopara is hoping to follow up his century against the West Indies at Lord's earlier in the year by adding another Test hundred to his already promising collection. "It was frustrating in Cardiff but you've got to remember that we're not robots," he observed. "If we were robots then it would be a lot simpler but not as exciting.
"But I've got great memories of Lord's and I've done really well there in the past. As a team we know we need to improve but we're confident." Just as the dust began to settle on England's remarkable escape in Cardiff, the inquest into their tactics continued. In 2005 it was England's use of substitute fielders and Gary Pratt's pinpoint throw to dismiss Ricky Ponting at Trent Bridge that sent the Australian captain into a snit.
This time, Graeme Swann's gloves and a rather overcautious physio left the tourists spitting blood during a dramatic finale. Ponting has been outspoken in his criticism of England's alleged time wasting antics during the final session at Cardiff, although he is no stranger to this sort of tactic. Australia have been fined 33 times for slow play since 1995, with 20 of those penalties coming under Ponting's reign - nine of them in the past year.
In 2008 alone, Australia were fined £59,000 (Dh 353.600) in four Tests and two one-day internationals. England, meanwhile, have been awarded the ICC Fair Play Award twice in recent years. The England coach Andy Flower believes Australia's captain has blown the incident out of all proportion ahead of the second Test, which starts today. "Ricky Ponting has got his own opinion, and I respect his opinion. He is a very good cricketer and has been a very good ambassador for Australia," said Flower.
"But, in this instance, I think he has made a meal of it. I am a little surprised at all the hullabaloo over it, to be honest. "From my own perspective, in that last hour of the game, there was no time wasting by us. "Most teams in those situations, you have batsmen talking in the middle for extended periods, knocking down the pitch, changing gloves, getting drinks, which all wastes time. At no stage in the last couple of hours did we do that."
The Australia opener Simon Katich also believes England were well within their rights to slow the clock down with the game in the balance. "It happens a fair bit in cricket," he said. "One team is making the running and other is struggling to hang on. You do everything you can to hang on and that's what happened. "We were disappointed not to win in Wales but I wouldn't say we were gutted. We will take out our frustration at Lord's and hopefully win the game."