Ravi Bopara's dream as a child was pretty simple - to become England's very own Sachin Tendulkar. For a boy from Forest Gate in one of London's most underprivileged areas, achieving similar status to India's greatest batsman appeared unattainable. After all, Tendulkar made his Test debut at 16 and had already made 16 centuries before the age of 25 on his way to becoming the first player to score 12,000 Test match runs.
This summer, Bopara will take his first steps into England folklore when he pits his skills against Australia in the most famous cricketing duel on the planet - The Ashes. At 24, Bopara has still come a long way since the days he spent as a child practising at a club for disadvantaged children in the heart of London. Now it is Tendulkar who Bopara can add to his list of admirers after the "Little Master" expressed confidence that the Essex batsman "can become something special".
During the World Twenty20 in England, Tendulkar said: "He looked promising - balanced, well-organised and all he has to do is not to think too much about the external factors, and he has got a fantastic future. But he has the talent to do something special." After suffering a difficult debut tour to Sri Lanka in the winter of 2007, Bopara has shown his growing potential with three breathtaking centuries in the recent series win over the West Indies.
Such has been the impact of Bopara that even his fellow teammates have been astounded with his progress, and none more so than England's premier batsman Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen's career blossomed following his Ashes heroics of 2005 after helping Michael Vaughan's side record an improbable victory against Ricky Ponting's all-conquering Australians. Those performances have not been forgotten with Australian leg-spin legend Shane Warne claiming England are an "average side" if Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff are below par.
Not so, says Pietersen. The South Africa-born batsman is adamant that Bopara will prove England have class in abundance when he makes his Ashes debut. "Ravi has got that X-Factor," says the former captain. "He's not frightened to go out and say what he's thinking. He can do that because he is talented enough and I like Ravi a lot. "I think he's a fantastic player and he has got really aggressive confidence in his ability. I think the way he plays means that he will be a huge success for England in years to come."
Bopara struggled in the early stages of his Test career and failed to score a run in his first three innings. Yet Pietersen says that early setback has helped Bopara to overcome a fear of failure and has served to make him stronger. "It was good for Ravi to get those straight ducks and I told him that afterwards," reveals Pietersen. "I look after Bopara a lot in the dressing room, just like Michael Vaughan did with me when I came into the team.
"Michael was fantastic with me and gave me excellent advice which I'm now trying to pass on to Ravi. "After those ducks we had some conversations, which will remain private between Ravi and myself. But I told him that he has to go out there and back himself because that's what I have learned." Bopara's fine form appears to have ended England's problems in the troublesome No 3 spot - although Warne has already written off the Essex man as nothing but a county cricketer.
Pietersen, however, remains convinced that Bopara is ready to handle all the pressures and hype which accompany such a huge sporting encounter. "Ashes series are huge and you have to realise that," he adds. "It's as big a series as you'll ever play in and Ravi knows that. England versus Australia: the countries get involved, the spectators get involved and it's something that you have to make people aware of.
"At the same time you have to make sure you don't frighten people about playing in them. You have to make sure you tell them it's tough cricket but also tell them to keep doing what they've been doing over the past few days and they'll be okay." While Bopara is expected to star this summer, the onus still remains on Pietersen to provide England with the majority of their runs against Ricky Ponting's side.
His famous innings of 158 on the final day of the fifth Test at the Oval in 2005 will forever remain one of the most precious moments in the history of English cricket. Since then, though, much has changed both on and off the field of play with his famous foray into captaincy curtailed prematurely after a disagreement with former coach Peter Moores, who also got the early axe. Gone are the pop-star hairstyles and the late nights out with supermodel Caprice, with Pietersen now being a far more balanced individual than the young upstart who burst on to the scene in the summer of 2005.
"I think you grow up, but I don't live with any regrets," he said. "I do sometimes look at the pictures of 2005 and I know a lot of them are circulating at the moment and I just think, 'what the hell was I doing with such a stupid haircut?' "I was young, having fun and Darren Gough and I were having a laugh. I played pretty well with it and kept it longer than I probably should have. But now I've grown up and all I'm thinking about is playing well for England and winning the Ashes because there's nothing better than beating Australia.
"I don't even think about what happened with the captaincy because, to be honest, I don't really miss doing all the constant press conferences and stuff like that. "There's been no problems in the dressing room and quite a few of the lads have come up to me and said, 'what you did was really amazing', so I'm happy with that. "I have a lot more time to spend with my wife and we even got to go away a few weeks ago when we went to New York. I was really proud to be England captain and I was sad to lose it, but life goes on and it will this summer."