Maiden ton puts England gem Ollie Pope in exclusive company

Around the time he reached his half-century, a landmark achieved with successive cuts for four, Ollie Pope took his Test batting average above 40 for the first time.

No young player comes with guarantees. Pope is probably no more talented than Graeme Hick or Mark Ramprakash and they probably didn’t, by the ridiculously harsh standards we set for these things, fulfil their potential as Test batsmen. But, as Pope celebrated his fifty, it was hard not to wonder if his average would ever dip below the mark again. It may well go significantly higher.

Pope looks, by some distance, the best specialist batsman to come into this side since Joe Root in late 2012. He has a wide range of strokes, he seems to have plenty of time for the ball, and has the appetite to bat for long periods. He also has, now, a compact technique and an ability to leave well outside off stump, giving him a game which shows no obvious weaknesses. This first Test century will surely be the first of many.

ALSO READ: Superlative Stokes approaches batting fulfillment

It is worth listing those men who have scored Test centuries for England at a younger age than Pope’s 22 years and 15 days. They are: Denis Compton, Jack Hearne, Len Hutton, Alastair Cook, David Gower, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey. There are only seven names there and six (Hearne is the one to miss out) can probably safely be described as among the greats of English cricket. Already, Pope is in exclusive company.

He is used to that, of course. After 30 first-class matches, he averaged more than any England player in history. He made his Test debut, aged just 20, after only 15 first-class game and is now England’s youngest maiden centurion since Cook in 2006. “That’s a nice little stat,” Pope said with a bashful smile afterwards. “He was a great player.”

His first captain at Surrey, Gareth Batty, had never heard of him until he turned up to training one day. Pope was 17 or 18 at the time and had only just signed for the professional staff from the prolific Surrey academy. But he was taking apart Surrey’s first-choice T20 attack and the club captain’s attention was seized.

“Jade Dernbach was reversing it sharply and Stuart Meaker was overstepping and bowling fast,” Batty recalled. “And Ollie was smashing it and scooping it everywhere. Straight away I thought, ‘Hello, what have we got here?’ He was obviously special.”

“He has to be in every side we have,” was the gist of Dernbach’s comments to Batty once the session finished. And he pretty much was, Surrey being Surrey. Until he was promoted into the England system, Pope was on the brink of a leadership role at the club, too, aged 20 and talked of as the captain after Rory Burns. “He’s definitely leadership material,” Batty said.

Surrey deserve some credit for this success. The last four maiden Test centurions for England – Pope, Dom Sibley, Burns and Ben Foakes – all came through the Surrey pathway to one extent or another. While Foakes developed at Essex, the other three, including Sibley (who had moved on to Warwickshire by the time he represented England) all came through Surrey’s academy where Neil Stewart, brother of Alec, and Gareth Townsend, the coaches, are clearly doing a terrific job for club and country. Sam Curran progressed along the same path.

But it speaks volumes for Pope’s character that it was from a setback that his game took its most pertinent improvement. At the start of the 2019 season, having been dropped by England, he suffered a dislocated shoulder which kept him out of the game for three-and-a-half months. Many young men, some of whom might well have played for England in recent times, could have taken the opportunity to get away from the game. To take a holiday. To chase girls, drink too much and enjoy the high life.

Not Pope. Instead, he sat down with Vikram Solanki, assistant coach at Surrey, and worked out a way he could use the time constructively. And, reflecting on his first brush with international cricket, when a certain looseness outside off stump was exploited by better bowlers than he routinely encountered in county cricket, they worked out that he should change his guard so he was further across the stumps. That way, he could judge which balls to leave with greater certainty of where is off stump was.

“I sat down with Vikram, and we decided the way I was getting out most was pushing at those fifth-stump balls that I should probably be leaving,” Pope said.

“So we decided that I should move across slightly in my crease. From a technical point of view that was the main thing: allowing me to line up off stump so I could leave the ball well and actually defend close to my front pad. I’ve still got that strength of cutting and off my legs as well.”

The period also reinforced to him how much he wanted to succeed in the game. He had experienced a first taste of the international game – two Tests against India in the English summer of 2018 – and he desperately wanted more. So he resolved to put away those airy drives and render himself a far tougher batsman to dismiss.

“From a mental point of view, I go back to those three-and-a-half months,” he says now. “It gave me a real hunger to come back. It made me that bit hungrier, I think.”

As he showed in the latter stages of his innings, though, he still has all the shots. To see him reverse-pull Kagiso Rabada, or ramp Anrich Nortje was to see a special talent just starting to blossom. He may play within himself most of the time, but he clearly has the ability to go up a gear when required. There’s no reason at all he shouldn’t thrive in England’s white-ball teams in due course, as well. They have a bit of a gem here.

But limited-overs cricket can wait. As can a move up the order in Test cricket. It was a mistake to put him at No. 4 on debut and it was a mistake to hand him the gloves, albeit in an emergency, in New Zealand. He needs the sort of management Hick and Ramprakash lacked. With confidence to add to his talent, he can serve England for a decade and more.

“A lot of people chat and say ‘he can do this, he can do that’ but you’re the one who has to go and do it,” he said. “So knowing I have it ticked off is nice going forward. It makes you feel more at home in the side. It makes you more confident in yourself and your ability.”

There are other architects in this success. For a start, Pope owes a drink to Ben Stokes who persuaded him to call for a review in the nick of time when he was given out leg before on 74. “I thought I’d be walking back to the changing rooms,” Pope said. “Stokesey told me to review with two seconds left, but I thought we were clutching at straws. It was a great feeling to see the replays.”

England’s top-order batsmen, Sibley and Zak Crawley in particular, contributed, too. As Pope put it, “the opening partnership set it all up. The amount of balls they faced meant they took the shine off the ball and we were able to capitalise.” This is a team game, after all, and it reflects well on Pope that, in his moment of triumph, he remembered the people who had helped him along the way.

There are some caveats to all this. The Port Elizabeth pitch is unusually slow and Vernon Philander is clearly a man coming to the end of his international career. There were moments in the field when he looked as if he were performing a passable impression of Oliver Hardy. Australia will, no doubt, test him with the short ball – though Rabada and Nortje are hardly slow – and tours of Asia will, no doubt, test his ability to play spin. There will, of course, be some rainy days on his journey. But of all the players in this emerging Test side, perhaps only Jofra Archer has as bright a future.