x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Essex boys lead the revival for England against Pakistan

Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara's partnership was the catalyst to the dominant victory in Abu Dhabi, writes Kevin Affleck.

Alastair Cook, left, and Ravi Bopara combined well against Pakistan.
Alastair Cook, left, and Ravi Bopara combined well against Pakistan.

The only way, it appears for England, is Essex.

England have suffered too many false dawns - not least when they beat South Africa, 4-0, at home in 2008 - to believe they have turned the corner in one-day cricket, but their painstaking search since the 1992 World Cup final for something resembling the correct formula in the 50-over format of the game might, just might on the evidence of yesterday's heartening win over Pakistan, be founded on two players with origins in the county in the east of England.

When Ravi Bopara ambled out to join Alastair Cook, his captain, at the crease after the demise of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, two men with distinct South African roots, in successive balls, Nasser Hussain quipped "C'mon Essex".

The comment made from the press box was partly laced with pride, as Hussain cut his teeth as an international batsman and captain at Essex, but also an attempt by the broadcaster to make light of an onerous situation that required Bopara to fend off a hat-trick ball from the rampant Shahid Afridi who was starting to show the sort of form that saw him turn Pakistan's match with Sri Lanka in Sharjah in November completely on its head.

Amid the usual overzealous "Oohs and Aahs" from the Pakistan close fielders, Bopara survived the hat-trick delivery, and one or two more anxious moments after that, to join Cook in what turned out to be a match-winning liaison that would have been celebrated in the clubhouse at Chelmsford.

Steven Finn, the towering fast bowler from county rivals Middlesex, will be at the forefront of the post-match analysis for his subsequent exploits with the ball but this was a victory founded on the efforts of two Essex boys.

With Andy Flower, the team director, and Graham Gooch, the batting coach, also former Essex alumni the links to the county were unavoidable. Flower and Gooch will have been aware of the prodigious talent of Cook and Bopara long before they combined yesterday in a fourth-wicket stand worth 131 runs, which was 74 more than the next best in the match.

Their often telepathic understanding, which was evident in their running between the wickets yesterday, can be traced back to 2005, that golden summer in English cricket, when they piled on the misery for a toiling Australia side at Chelmsford.

Against an attack comprising speed merchants Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Shaun Tait no less, the pair used their contrasting techniques and their right/left hand combination to help Essex rack up 500 (yes, five hundred) runs in a day. Cook helped himself to 214 and Bopara made 135 in a mammoth second-wicket stand of 270 runs. They have been England players in waiting ever since.

Cook's remarkable temperament has meant he has acclimatised to international cricket far quicker than Bopara and, barring injury, he will finish his burgeoning career having obliterated all England batting records.

Bopara, on the other hand, seems to perennially be the next batting cab off the rank yet, as often happens for sportsmen either injured or out of the side when the team are struggling, has seen his stock rise during England's woes against spin in the Test series.

Bopara and Cook have been in the UAE since January 3 and have seen their teammates conjure up various methods to occupy the downtime on tour, including playing Call of Duty, credit card roulette and Fifa 2012 on the X-Box 360, but it is hard to imagine Cook having used his English Cricket Board laptop to catch up on the latest episodes of The Only Way is Essex, the cult English television show.

Cook is not even on Twitter. The mild-mannered, humble and spotlight-shunning England one-day captain is the antithesis of the characters, I suppose you call them, in the surreal, grotesque and banal series which, according to its Wikipedia entry, is based on "real people in modified situations …"

Having left the church after his wedding in December on a tractor, Cook is about as real as it gets in the celebrity world of sport and has artfully found a way of modifying his Test game for the one-day arena.

With an assortment of sweeps and drives on the leg side and one sumptuous drive all along the floor through mid-off for four, Cook recorded his third hundred and his first outside England. Having been furious with himself at missing out on a century in the first innings of the Test match at the same venue he was not about to pass up another opportunity.

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Only seven English batsmen have scored more in an innings than the 137 off 142 balls he scored in front of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak at the Zayed Cricket Stadium yesterday.

In doing so he passed the previous best efforts of Gooch and Keith Fletcher, another batsman weaved into the rich fabric of Essex.

The links to the county could not have been more obvious yesterday had a blonde girl wearing white stilettos sat in the Perspex guarded England dugout.