You should never get too high or too low. Except sometimes, when you should. Ollie Pope’s Hyderabad heroism is such an occasion. An innings that will dominate press coverage for days, be a talking point for weeks and a reference point forever. It was 48 hours that changed Pope’s legacy for a lifetime.
“I have never seen a better exhibition of sweeping or reverse sweeping in these conditions,” said India’s head coach Rahul Dravid of Pope’s knock. “That was a one-of-a-kind, generational knock,” said Joe Root. “I think that’s the greatest innings that’s ever been played in the subcontinent by an English batter,” said Ben Stokes.
The defining mantra of the Stokes era is to inject the fun back into playing. To make an adult profession the childhood dream it was meant to be; it is an ethos that Pope, as vice-captain, is subscribing to.
“I thought it would be pretty cool to do in style,” Pope joked of his dismissal on 196. Clean bowled attempting to reverse ramp Jasprit Bumrah for four, his irritation lying in missing out on an anecdote as opposed to a milestone.
Despite being 39 Tests into his career and a pulled hamstring away from the captaincy, this innings represented a cementing of Pope within the set up. His ability against spin is one of a number of questions against his suitability to bat number three for England that have only ever been a few low scores away from being raised.
His shoulder injury sustained in the Ashes meant this was his first match in almost seven months. His high score in India in eight innings before this series was 35. His troubles against the offspin of Nathan Lyon were well documented and his position at number three is itself still viewed sceptically in some quarters. Pope has always been promoted based on potential throughout his cricketing career. Seemingly anointed by whatever god of English cricket was serving at the time. And for some that rankles.
All this meant that before Harry Brook departed from the tour for personal reasons, Pope was far from a certainty to start this series. And after his first innings, which lasted 11 miserable balls and was, to both the trained and untrained eye, bad, it meant that Pope’s name was first on the lips of those wondering who would miss out should Brook return later down the line.
But instead of finding himself defending his place in the team, Pope is batting away compliments with a smile. Safe in the knowledge that what he is being told is true, but also that humility demands he couldn’t possibly agree. When Dravid’s comments were put to him in the post-match press conference, Pope’s eyebrows raised as if he’d discovered the girl in the year above fancied him, with Stokes to his right giving him a nudge in the ribs for good measure.
“I don’t think I nailed my first 20-odd runs,” Pope said in self-deprecation of whether it was the greatest overseas innings by an England player ever. “I was thinking ‘why is it not hitting the middle of the bat’.
“I mean, it’s a great compliment but I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. That’s huge, but I’m sure someone has played something just as good, probably better.”
The confidence born from the bat was then evident in the field. In the dying moments of day four, with Stokes on the boundary’s edge, victory just a wicket away and Pope in the ring, he was barking instructions and moving the field. Not as a man out of control and above his station, but on a long leash from a captain who has always believed in him more than anyone else. It was Stokes after all, who gave the green light to Pope’s move to number three when his Test average was 28. In the 16 matches that have followed, his average reads 46.
“From what he has been through,” said Root, “a serious injury and missing out on half of the Ashes series, to have all that time away and come back as vice-captain and stand up and deliver like that shows his character and skill as a player. To be able to manoeuvre the field the way he did, manipulate the ball into the gaps, to find ways of scoring all around the wicket made it very difficult to bowl six balls and build pressure on him. For him to do that so clinically and ruthlessly was an absolute masterclass. I’m so pleased for him.”
Historically, the saying has been wait for the bad ball and attack – Pope waits for the good ball and defends. And even then he’ll be more likely to reverse sweep.
“You pretty much know where each ball is going to land,” Pope explained of the method behind the masterclass. “If you try to defend each one there’s probably more chance to get out than if you play a cross-bat shot.”
The beginning of Pope’s 196 started in stuttering fashion, a missed reverse sweep second ball followed by a frenetic three overs. But the body language of the man betrayed what was an overall calm mentality. Even his first-innings dismissal, edging to slip, was one he was at peace with. Concerned with protecting his stumps and front pad, Pope’s irritation in this series will lie in being dismissed LBW or bowled. And if that means he edges the odd one behind then so be it.
“I immersed myself in the game a bit better than I did in the past,” Pope reflected on his dream return to England colours. “I’ve worked hard on my game while I’ve been injured. I feel really good, but it was about getting my head around putting a big innings together. Fortunately, that happened and the win with it means a hell of a lot more.”
Pope was appointed vice-captain on the promise of the player and leader he had the potential to be tomorrow. Now he holds the position because of the player and leader he is today.