When Dawid Malan became the second wicket to fall on the second morning at the Oval, the outlook appeared bleak for England. Despite having bowled India out for 191, they had stuttered to 62 for five – and Joe Root was out too.
Ollie Pope had come in when the first wicket of the morning, Craig Overton, fell, wafting a cut to first slip. Pope feels at home at the Oval. He has seven centuries in 14 first-class matches for Surrey here, and an average just north of 100. He likes the familiar surrounds and the easy-paced pitch. He lives just a couple of stops down the Northern Line.
But Pope, the great hope of English batting, has endured a tough 12 months. The eight Tests he has played have not brought a half-century, and he has missed five due to shoulder and thigh injuries. For the first time, his technique has looked uncertain.
The match situation and the player’s circumstances made this a mighty fine time for him to turn up. By the time he was dismissed, in the evening session for 81, England’s lead was 59. When Chris Woakes was done and the innings ended, it was 99. And by stumps, after 70 wicketless minutes of Indian batting, it was still 56. England are in charge of a Test full of twists and turns that is a long way from done yet.
Pope entered the fray with Umesh Yadav, who dismissed Root on day one then Overton and Malan on day two, bowling beautifully, and Jasprit Bumrah providing threatening support. Pope was partnered by Jonny Bairstow, who survived an lbw review before he had scored.
The circumstances were tricky, but the pair counter-attacked. By lunch, their partnership was worth 77 from 109 balls, including a period that saw them find the boundary seven times in 10 deliveries. With Bumrah and Yadav out of the attack, the going was easier.
This was a slightly different Pope. As ever, he was busy, a little skittish, and keen to feel bat on ball. But he was also more restrained, and appeared unworried by boundaries. Notably, he had ditched the off-stump guard that attracted so much attention earlier in the summer.
After lunch, he lost Bairstow – lbw, partly because he is covering his stumps so thoroughly – but settled into a partnership of 71 with Moeen Ali. Bairstow left chuntering, partly because he had not kicked on after another start, and partly because he believed someone was moving behind the bowlers arm. Not, though, because he had had an altercation with Jarvo 69, the pitch invader who had taken the field for the third Test in a row and was arrested on suspicion of assault.
England pressed on. A stunning back-foot drive from Moeen levelled the scores at 3pm, and England looked capable of dishing out some pain. But an attempt to stick Ravi Jadeja into the JM Finn Stand saw Moeen caught in the offside.
After tea, with the new ball looming, Pope played on to Shardul Thakur, as he had been threatening to. Pope had not been at his most fluent, and left desperately disappointed. But this was a hugely important and hugely promising innings from a player England expect so much from.
England’s scoring rate increased thanks to Woakes, especially as India set some naive fields in a final wicket stand of 35 from 40 balls with Jimmy Anderson. Woakes flayed boundaries through and over the offside, and played elegantly to leg. Shortly after adding a half-century to his four wickets, he was run out trying to protect Anderson from the strike. A lead of 99 was very solid, although England might feel a couple of partnerships ended a little prematurely, keeping India in the game.
That left England 70 minutes to get stuck into India. England bowled well, beating the bat regularly, but the tourists made it through unscathed. There was one chance missed, Rohit Sharma on six by the unsighted Rory Burns at second slip off Anderson, who looked furious.
Both sides ended the day happy. India because they had made it to stumps on 43 without loss, England because they were in such a better position than they had feared when Pope’s innings began.