Ollie Pope has long been hailed as England’s most exciting batting talent since Joe Root and the Chelsea-born youngster is finally starting to deliver the goods.
After a rushed Test debut at just 20 against India in 2018, Pope has stood mostly on the fringes of the England squad and his time seems to have finally arrived in the last few months.
For Pope to be earmarked as a talent similar to the ilk of Root, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell is quite the compliment, and he is now starting to show what the fuss has been all about.
Following an ordinary debut Test series against India, the 22-year-old had to wait another 15 months before earning his third international cap. The long hiatus was largely due to a dislocated shoulder Pope sustained at the beginning of 2019, though, he did manage to make a quicker than expected recovery.
A third Test appearance for the Surrey man ultimately arrived against New Zealand in Mount Maunganui in November, and saw him post just 35 runs in his two innings.
Fairly middling returns once again from Pope, but he would deliver glimpses of his immense potential in his next innings against the same opposition. On a flat track at Seddon Park, the right-hander scored an attritional 75 to help England gain a 101-run first-innings lead.
Sharing a near 200-run stand with skipper Root at the crease, Pope looked completely unflustered in a 202-ball vigil that fetched him a maiden Test fifty. That was, however, just an appetiser for the main course Pope served up in South Africa.
Right for the very go in the tour, the Englishman has been in command with a fine 132 in the warm-up clash against South Africa A, signaling his growing confidence at the crease. Despite missing the series opener due to the sickness bug which swept through the camp, Pope’s red-ball credentials were all but confirmed in the second Test in Newlands.
Top-scoring for England in the first-innings with a fighting and unbeaten 61, the young batsman was a picture of calm on a treacherous surface. That innings proved to be the spark for their emphatic turnaround, although Pope’s best was yet to come.
Having chosen to bat first in the decisive third Test in Port Elizabeth, England were in a spot of bother at 148-4 before Pope and Ben Stokes forged an impressive 203-run stand for the fifth wicket. It culminated with Pope registering his maiden Test century and there is no doubt that it was just the first of many more to come in the future.
Having ended the tour with a batting average of over 88 across three Tests, Pope is now looking like the real deal. Across the history of the game, very few batsmen aged 22 and below have been able to come to South Africa and register a Test ton. That exclusive club has just nine members including the legendary Sachin Tendulkar and the late Phil Hughes.
Very few names spring to mind when thinking of other young batsmen currently tearing it up in Test cricket. Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant of India are part of that discussion, though both batsmen are currently on the fringes of the Test side due to various reasons.
Hence, it is easy to see why Pope’s emergence has the England supporters excited. With a calm head on his shoulders, he has displayed the temperament required to succeed in the Test format. Armed with a solid textbook technique, Pope has all the shots in the cricketing book, including a punchy drive and some fine cutting abilities.
While all the orthodox shots are present in his armoury, Pope also has the flair for the unconventional as shown by his ramp shot and switch in the final Test in Johannesburg. The England batting prodigy has made no secret of his desire to succeed in all three formats, but it is in Test cricket where we might see more of him in the coming years.
He has been made to bat at No6 for England so far but his future lies arguably much higher up the order. Former skipper Michael Vaughan has advocated moving Pope up to number three and it not really a preposterous suggestion either.
For a batsman who is being touted as England’s next big thing, a top-order position is a must in the near future. Batting alongside Root at No4 might just bring out the best in Pope given the similarities in approaches of both batsmen. While Joe Denly has chipped in with some valuable 30s for England of late, a more reliable and prolific player like Pope is a more natural fit for the crucial batting position of one-down.
There are already growing murmurs that England might bin Denly for the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka and give Jonny Bairstow a go at No3. Bairstow has not done anything in the past year to suggest he deserves that promotion and England could be better served by giving it to Pope instead.
Whatever be the case, it will be exciting to see how Pope kicks on from here and the series in Sri Lanka will tell us a lot more about what the future holds for him. England are blessed with an abundance of young talent in Test cricket at present, with Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Dom Bess and Sam Curran forming a promising bunch. It is Pope, however, who’s star burns brightest right now and he looks like a superstar in the making.
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