Ravi Bopara eyes England T20 recall after Sussex move opens up franchise opportunities
Ravi Bopara hopes that his move to Sussex will be the first step in his plan to reboot his England career in time for the T20 World Cup via the global franchise circuit, and feels that he is "better equipped than ever before" in the shortest format.
Bopara ended an 18-year association with Essex on Wednesday as he joined Sussex on a two-year deal which will allow him more flexibility as to which leagues he plays than he was afforded at Chelmsford, in a move that head coach Jason Gillespie described as "a bit of a coup".
Speaking to ESPNcricinfo, Bopara revealed his plan to "give himself the best possible shot in T20" over the next few years, and opened up on the reasons behind his Essex exit.
"It's a massive opportunity for me," Bopara said. "I'm not giving up red-ball cricket, but I want to take the opportunity to really focus on T20 cricket for now and see how far I can get. I think I can really improve my T20 games and take it to the next level.
Bopara, 34, last played for England at the 2015 World Cup, but admitted that he has "had thoughts" of a recall for the T20 World Cup in Australia next year.
"That'd be amazing," he said. "The players in the squad now absolutely deserve their spots - they're doing an amazing job for England. But there's no harm putting pressure on them, putting a bit of competition in there, and giving myself a goal."
His grand plan to return to the international set-up involves playing in "each and every league I can possibly go to," while he hopes that the "tough, hard cricket" played in them does not get ignored.
"People are taking notice of overseas leagues," he said. "More English players are drifting into those leagues and performing on different surfaces. I can tell you now - playing in those leagues is really hard. It's tough cricket. You're playing on wickets that are often not great, and it's tough to get runs on them. The pressure's on: you're one of the three or four overseas players, you're expected to perform and win games.
"The more T20 cricket I can play in, the better. I don't like having time off - I don't enjoy it. A lot of people like going on holiday or whatever, by I don't - I like playing cricket, working on something new, and seeing it work."
Bopara also revealed the details of his exit from his boyhood club Essex, and highlighted a mid-summer period when he was left out of the side for "non-cricketing reasons" as a flashpoint.
Essex were unhappy with his request to miss part of the Championship run-in to play in the aborted Euro T20 Slam, and after some "difficult conversations" with captain Simon Harmer about his role in the side, he was dropped to the Second XI in July.
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He smashed an unbeaten 122 from 50 balls against Somerset in that Second XI T20 competition, but reflected that it was "always going to be tough to put numbers in front of people when I was being left out for non-cricketing reasons.
"There was a lot going on at the time," he said. "It was really bad timing. When you're out the side, you've got to make plans to play cricket. You can't just sit around doing nothing - that's no value to anyone. I really wanted to play, whatever it took.
"I was out of the side at that time and it wasn't looking great. I was told it wasn't for cricketing reasons, and I was told my mind wasn't in the right place. I really strongly disagreed with it, as you can imagine. But that's life - you experience everything once in your lifetime.
"[Harmer and I] are still good mates - I spoke to him yesterday about the South African league [the Mzansi Super League] saying I couldn't wait to see him out there.
"I'm really going to miss playing at Essex. It's very sad to be leaving my boyhood club. It would have been nice to get a longer-term deal, but I understand it from the club's point of view too. Essex is a great club, and there's great people there from top to bottom. They've given me a great 18 years. But I have to emphasise how excited I am about my future now: Sussex have presented me with a fantastic opportunity."
While Bopara admitted that his role as finisher in Essex's Blast side "worked out" in the end, as he starred with the bat in five must-win games as they crept up the blindside on their way to their maiden T20 trophy, he maintained that he wants to bat higher up the order in future.
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"I know 20 or 25 balls can make a big impact on a game," he said, "but I always see myself as a run-scorer. Why not try and give me the opportunity to let me face 45 or 50 balls, and see what I can do? My game has moved forward over the past year.
"People say 100 games is experience, but I promise you… you've got so much more to learn from there to [when you've played] 200 games, to 300 games. You're going to change so much in that time, and come across so many situations in games. I've changed my batting, and the way I approach it. I'm changing my bowling now as well, because I've got the time to do it.
Bopara faces a serious task to get back into the England set-up more than five years after his last T20I, but his plan to press his case begins in earnest on November 9, when he will make his debut for Durban Heat in the MSL. From there, he plans to enter the draft for each and every T20 league that he can find, and he is certain to be picked up in the draft for The Hundred this Sunday.
"I've always taken an approach where I knew I could hit a clean ball and I could hit sixes, but I feel like I can do it more often and more consistently now. I've opened up more areas too. I never used to look through the off side in T20 - I thought 'drag it to leg, and it goes for six' - but I've moved away from that. I look at extra cover, behind point, dead-straight over the bowler's head. I'm working on hitting the ball behind myself as well, trying to open up all areas, 360 degrees.
"I'm not saying I'm complete - you'll still struggle in some games against certain bowlers, that's the reality of the sport. But I feel like I'm better equipped today than I have ever been before."