Of all the things that could have happened in the second innings of this Test match – and you can never quite be sure with Bazball around – no one could have predicted that Ollie Pope would post the highest score, that he would get out on 196 playing a ramp shot trying to bring up a double century, that he would single-handedly revive England, who had been suffocating in the Hyderabad heat.
Not after he fell so tentatively in the first innings for one run from 11 nervous balls. Not on this dusty dry pitch, against this bowling attack, when the one recurring critique of Pope’s game has been struggles against spin.
Joe Root was left agog. “It’s one of the best knocks that I’ve ever seen,” said a man who has played a few special ones himself and witnessed many more. It was put to Root that he himself was the benchmark for playing against spin in India, and that Pope had perhaps taken some lessons. “I’m not any more, I think that’s the benchmark,” Root said. “Honestly, I might have scored a few runs in the subcontinent, but not on a surface like that, against an attack like that.”
Pope was uncertain to even make this tour, with his fitness and selection both a source of doubt. The 26-year-old had not played since the second Ashes Test at Lord’s last summer where he dislocated his shoulder. He recently underwent surgery to fix the recurring problem, and on a squad plump with attacking batters, there was no guarantee he would travel to India, let alone play.
But Pope has always had fierce backing from both his captain Ben Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum. They have stuck by him through some leaner patches, insisting he is the sort of player who needs confidence and freedom to take Test matches by the scruff of the neck. Their decision to make him vice-captain was testament to that faith.
Pope’s natural talent has certainly never been questioned. The Surrey batsman was playing first-class cricket at 19. The winter following his senior breakthrough, he was selected by the ECB for its overseas placement programme, and proceeded to dominate the New South Wales Premier Cricket League for Campbelltown-Camden, on the outskirts of Sydney, coming up six short of 1,000 runs.
The following year he averaged more than 70 as he led Surrey to the County Championship. The year after that, he averaged 101.
International call-ups quickly followed: a Test debut against India at Lord’s in the summer of 2018 yielded 28 runs, before a score of 75 against New Zealand in Hamilton in 2019. His statement innings came in January 2020, in Port Elizabeth, producing a fluid 135 not out which helped England to a dominant victory in the third Test, and ultimately the series.
Such is the respect of his teammates that he has been tipped to captain his country by mutliple players, multiple times. “I think Popey is a great leader in the group,” said Stuart Broad 12 months ago in New Zealand. “He’s grown so much in the last year, the way he operates, the confidence and responsibility he’s been given. There’s no doubt you can see him as a future England captain.”
The obvious aesthetic comparison for Pope has always been Ian Bell. Bell held a similar stature and appearance, and if you squinted your eyes from high up in the media centre at Lord’s, you could almost see Bell’s immaculate cover drive in a flowing Pope innings. That punching shot, left elbow up by his nose – it has always come naturally to Pope too.
But what Pope showed during this first Test were the other weapons in his armoury. The humility to go away and work on his technique, so that he might arrive in India with a reverse sweep to confound Ravindra Jadeja and the rest. The ability to improvise with those impudent flicks over his shoulder to the boundary. The audacity to play the kind of dominant innings an Englishman almost never plays on the subcontinent.
Afterwards, Pope reflected on the knock of his career so far, and so soon after his shoulder operation.
“I think to do it in a winning cause has topped it off today, it wouldn’t have meant nearly as much,” he said, before collecting his player of the match award. “It’s probably one of the hardest places to come as a batter, so to come out and perform in the first Test in a match-winning cause, I’m very proud of a very special few days.
“I think it’s been about seven months now, some long days in the gym, but these moments make everything worth it. I always had the goal to be fit and ready and as ready with the bat as I possibly can be for this series. It’s nice to get over the line in this first one.”
There are still four Tests to go, plenty of time for India to recover in the series. But beyond the scoreboard, England have sent a message that they are hear to play hard Test cricket in one of the toughest places on Earth, and they are here to win. To stop them, India are going to have to do a lot of things extremely well. Chief among them is stopping Pope.