OPINION | Pope provides blessing for resurgent England
On the second day of the second Test match against South Africa, in his second spell in the England Test team, Ollie Pope showed us two key reasons why he can, and should, be a key part of England’s plans moving forward. Even before scoring his maiden Test century at Port Elizabeth we all knew he could bat; no one averages 60+ in First Class cricket and 70 in a County Cricket Division 1 career unless they are a serious player, but Pope has proven he can be two different players in this England team.
He can be a reliable middle-order batsman when the top order has (as is often the case with England) failed to propel the side toward a commanding total. We’ve seen Pope come out to bat sensibly and play to the situation – especially in the first innings of a Test match, scoring 29, 75, 61* and now 130* in his past four attempts.
These runs have come at a sensible, if not healthy, average strike-rate of 47.65, which has helped push England along to some respectable first innings totals without being reckless with his wicket.
Pope’s ability to occupy the crease also provides excellent support for Ben Stokes to bat the way he feels comfortable, without any fear that the tail may soon be exposed at the other end. In theory, he should also be the perfect foil for Jos Buttler; rotating the strike and allowing the Lancashire batsman to express himself and accelerate the scoring.
We have also seen the destructive Ollie Pope. The number 6 who plays outrageous reverse-ramp-scoop-sweep style stokes which sent Kagiso Rabada, the world’s fourth best quick bowler, into a sulk and accelerated his own scoring rate, firstly in the morning session as he passed 50, and again once he had reached three figures.
We've seen this from Pope in First Class cricket before. He averaged 80 at a strike rate of 64.78, the fourth highest of anyone to reach 500 runs in Division 1 of the Championship in 2019, whilst also playing the fewest number of games of anyone to reach the 500 run mark. Pope has shown he has the ability and the intent to go after some of the premier bowlers in world cricket – exactly what you want from a middle-order player.
These two versions of Pope are, in many ways, a fusion of the England team’s most recent coaching styles. Trevor Bayliss wanted his players to attack, often with too little regard for the game of Test cricket and the value of their wicket. On the other hand, Chris Silverwood has asked his players to restrain their natural games and occupy the crease, seemingly at the expense of runs (see the slow-motion approach of Joe Denly). Undoubtedly, it was great to see an England opening pair reach lunch unscathed, but scoring at 2.25 an over is unlikely to cut it in modern-day Test cricket. Ollie Pope’s combination of the two styles, much like Ben Stokes, is a real asset to this England side.
Pope also has a collected mindset that marks him out from the crowd, and always comes across well whenever in the presence of the media. His commitment to return stronger from his recent injury proved his resilience and will have taught him a huge amount about international sport and about his own commitment to the game. Alec Stuart described him as “the perfect patient” and recently backed him to be better than ever this summer, with an improved understanding of the game following the lengthy injury lay-off just as his England career was kicking off. This resilience, which he will need in the years to come, was proven by his exploits on return to the County Championship and now this England side in South Africa.
The combination of Joe Root at 4, Ben Stokes at 5, and Ollie Pope coming in at 6 gives England a steadfast, futureproof (barring injury) and potentially devastating middle-order combination. More than ever, it is vital that England’s middle order sustain their run-scoring and counter-attacking tendencies, given the top order’s taste for making starts and giving their wickets away or failing completely.
The inconsistency at the top of the order is still a huge worry for England. Some would say that Rory Burns has done enough in recent series to deserve a place upon his return from injury, but we shouldn’t forget that he still only averages 33 in Test match cricket. This changeability in the line-up and consistently poor performances mean that the middle-order is more important than ever.
But Pope being part of the middle-order, alongside Root and Stokes, gives real cause for optimism. England’s best player, one of their greatest ever batsman and Pope, now statistically the side’s best run-scorer, is enough to strike fear into any Test nation’s attack. It also gives Giles, Silverwood and Root a huge number of options to play with moving forward.
They can keep Jos Buttler at 7 and empower him to play freely and expressively, when the situation allows. Some of his recent dismissals have been tame, almost like he has been caught in two minds, his 1st innings dismissal at Port Elizabeth a prime example. This new threesome at 4, 5 and 6 should allow Buttler to return to the destructive player we know he can be.
Alternatively, Pope's inclusion means England could justifiably drop Buttler due to his questionable form, averaging 27 in his last 6 Tests and only a solitary Test ton to his name, in place of Ben Foakes. He is undeniably the best gloveman in the country, and his Test average of 41.5 is excellent. He did have a down year in the Championship with the bat, averaging only 26.13, but was still third in WK dismissals despite Surrey finishing sixth in the table. This stronger middle order, with Ollie Pope, could allow Silverwood to insert a specialist wicketkeeper, something the side hasn’t had in nearly a year.
It is crucial that the England hierarchy respect Ollie Pope and afford him some time to settle into international cricket. This needs to be done with him remaining at number 6 or, if he must move, still in the middle order where he bats for Surrey. There has been some talk of him being the answer to the much-fabled problems at 3 and he may be, but not for at least a couple of strong years during which Pope can learn his trade at the highest level. Too many times have England batters, newbies or otherwise, been moved to fill the needs of the team to the detriment of their personal run-scoring – this should not happen to this promising youngster whilst there are far more experienced players in the side.
Nor can he be lumbered with the gloves in any shuffle that the England selection panel may choose to employ. He must be allowed to bat. And when he bats long, he shouldn’t then be asked to don the pads. Rather, as has been the base at Port Elizabeth, he should be rested up having a nice massage.
Yes, there is a growing bandwagon around Ollie Pope, but one that was fully deserved even before his Man of the Match performance. He has played superbly whenever we have seen him bat and I am, personally, looking forward to watching him score many more centuries in the years to come.
Dan Steele - Statistics enthusiast and qualified umpire