Ollie Pope throws off shackles of potential to become an England performer as hard work with Joe Root pays off

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

These days, England give their Test cricketers a new cap when they hit 25 and 75 appearances, as well as 50 and 100, the game’s more conventional milestones. They accompany it with a speech from a colleague or coach, then stick it on social media.

For Ollie Pope, 25 caps arrived this week and, as he was lavished with praise by Surrey team-mate Ben Foakes, his face was at once steely and sheepish. There was certainly not much of a smile.

Pope’s expression betrayed an understanding that 25 caps makes him an experienced Test cricketer — the sight of he and Zak Crawley, another 24-year-old, in the front row of the team photo a couple of days earlier was arresting — and it was time to kick on. For too long he had been picked on potential, and it was time to perform.

There once seemed an inevitability to Pope’s ascension to becoming a bedrock of England’s batting order. After mountains of runs for Surrey, he averaged 63, scoring a maiden century and three very fun fifties in his first Test winter in 2019-20. Joe Root said then he was “more than capable of going on and breaking a number of records for England”. Ben Stokes, the staunchest supporter of his team-mates, has said that “if there’s going to be someone to take over the records that Root sets, it’s Popey”.

It is fair to say Root’s form since has made that task a little harder. And then the pandemic arrived.

In 17 Tests since, Pope had averaged just 21. He went 18 Tests without a hundred. It has been a period disrupted by injury, awkward pitches, muddled technical and tactical thinking, and strange selection decisions, while he was the first player to vocalise how much life in bubbles was draining him. His county form has never dwindled, meaning the early comparisons with Root and Ian Bell had become a little more Ramprakashian.

While Root, then the captain, and head coach Chris Silverwood never quite seemed to know what to do with a player of promise experiencing a tough patch, new skipper Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum opted to back him, with a recall, then back him again, by shifting him up to No3, where he had never batted before at first-class level.

After two low scores at Lord’s, Pope’s manner all week was distilled in his response to Foakes’s words. He had hung off every word uttered by Root at training; they batted in next-door nets, then stayed on afterwards. Root threw balls to Pope, offering technical advice. Then Pope threw at Root, which provides just as much of an education.

It was neat, and perhaps no coincidence, then, that it was Root in the middle with Pope when he reached his second Test century. In Tests, this was his first at home (his father, who was supposed to head home on Saturday night, stuck around just in case), while in first-class cricket, it was his first at No3 and first north of the River Thames. It was a knock that should help quieten those who say he is an Oval specialist; he averages 46 in domestic cricket at all other grounds.

Pope was a little frantic on Saturday evening, but settled on Sunday. He is steadier at the crease than he has been, and taking a guard on middle, rather than off-stump, which has opened up the offside once more; 90 of his 145 runs, or 62 per cent, came on the offside.

Root gave Pope one last lesson. While the younger man rather gave his wicket away, losing concentration after a break in play to replace a broken pad, Root turned the swiftest of his 27 Test hundreds into his 13th score of more than 150.

“I’m trying to pick his brains as much as much as I possibly can,” said Pope. “The relentless nature of what he’s doing is something I can learn off.”

The pitch here is flat, but Pope’s innings was a significant feather in the cap of England’s new management, who have backed him so strongly. As he celebrated, he spotted Stokes “going crazy” on the balcony. Of that moment, Pope said: “There was relief, but it was also a stamp of, ‘it’s time’.” He is exactly right.

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