Despite batting at number six for most of his Surrey career, with a solitary game at number five for the England Lions against India A this summer, Ollie Pope believes he can make the step up to number four on the grandest stage. It will be a tough ask for the right-hander, 20-years and 15 first class matches old, to walk out a little earlier than normal for a Lord’s Test against India, on debut. But the spirit is willing and the pluck unwavering.
Coming off the back of a win that puts England 1-0 up in the five-match series, it may seem peculiar that such prime batting real estate will be occupied by someone so wet behind the ears. Pope’s form to date is impressive: 684 County Championship runs this summer with three hundreds and an average of 85.50 along with 244 at 40.66 50-over and Twenty20 combined. Better yet, his first class career average – albeit one that only started in 2017 – is 63.25. But there are mitigating circumstances.
The dropping of Dawid Malan, the importance of skipper Joe Root at number three and Jonny Bairstow’s already lofty position of five given his keeping duties has created something of a perfect storm. And Pope is ready to step in.
“I haven’t been told where I’ll bat or if I’ll definitely be playing but I don’t think there’s a massive difference playing against India. They’ll bowl a lot of spin and batting at six or four you could be in in the same over. There’s not a huge amount of difference to be honest unless you’re opening the batting or perhaps No.3.”
Wisely, he is not looking across at his opposite number. “Yeah – he’s decent!” he answers when India’s No.4 is mentioned. By the time Ollie Pope had made his first hundred of any kind for Surrey – for the U17s in July 2015 – Virat Kohli already had 10 centuries and 2,561 Test runs. Also the small matter of 22 ODI hundreds. As the junior man, Pope is relishing any battle that might come to pass.
“I see it as a challenge early on in my career. I’m not going to look at it as “Me v Kohli” because that would be stupid because he’s scored plenty of runs but it’s an exciting challenge.”
Since he received the call on Sunday while travelling to Surrey’s Twenty20 match against Essex, Pope has been visualising what might come to pass when he crosses that boundary. As it happens, it is something he has picked up recently having watched a documentary called In The Zone.
“A lot of the players like to stand in the middle and imagine this bowler is running up to you and I’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow and before the game, if picked.” As for where he’s going to hit his first ball: “It depends where they bowl it!”
Preparation will also include making plans to Ravichandran Ashwin who tied England in knots for his seven wickets, including four for 63 in the first innings. Pope is considered by many at Surrey as a good player of spin thanks in part because of his ability to work his wrists on the top of the ball, as well as possessing a variety of sweeps that give him scoring options behind square on both sides of the wicket. He already has a few observations on Ashwin that he will be fleshing out over the next 48 hours.
“He’s not your regular off-spin. He bowls a ball that spins away and one that spins back in. You play him like a normal off-spinner, you’ve just got to watch him a bit closer out of the hand. You need to know what ball is coming down at you – you can’t just premeditate an off-spinner with him. That’s probably the main difference. I’ll have a closer look before the game if picked, and I’ll have my gameplan before.”
This free-thinking from Pope – remember, he only turned 20 on January 2 – is in part due to the accelerated maturing done over the winter during a spell with Campbelltown-Camden Cricket Club, based on the outskirts of Sydney. As well as fending for himself for food at times, he also had to be more proactive with regards to developing his cricket. “I didn’t really have a coach and at times I found that a pain. But at other times, it just made me know my game a bit better and learn about myself as a person, too. It was a pretty invaluable experience.”
The sad thing, here, is that the scheme that got Pope to Campbelltown-Camden – the ECB’s overseas placement programme – is now being scrapped as part of ongoing budget cuts. The big-money TV deal that comes into effect in 2020 may resurrect it, but given Pope’s words on its merit, it does seem a worthwhile initiative has been canned.
As well as pope, Matt Critchley (Derbyshire), Matthew Parkinson (Lancashire), Delray Rawlins (Sussex), George Bartlett (Somerset), Max Holden (Middlesex), Andrew Salter (Glamorgan) and Brad Taylor (Hampshire) were all sent away to clubs in Australia and New Zealand to further their development. Pope, while dismayed the scheme is no more, believes it can still live on at the direction of the counties.
“I’m surprised but hopefully counties will still keep doing it. I know we’ve got a lad, Will Jacks, in the year below. He’s off to Perth so hopefully, the counties will still keep supporting it because it was a top-drawer thing for me to do.”
As it happens, one of Pope’s previous visits to Lord’s came in 2014 when he was a spectator. The match? “I watched England v India here as a kid. I came and sat with my mouth open loving watching cricket. Just a little cricket badger to be honest. In the last few years, I’ve been on the other side of the rope. It’s a special place.”
It could be even more so for Pope if he gets the nod on Thursday.
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