Jul 24, 2020
George Dobell at Old Trafford
When Ollie Pope made his Test debut, the comparisons with Ian Bell, while obvious, seemed flattering.
Bell was a great of modern England cricket, after all. He scored nearly 8000 Test runs and was involved in five Ashes-winning sides. Pope? Well, he was stylish, for sure. But there have been plenty of stylish pretenders; James Vince and Tom Westley, to name but two. Invariably, they have lacked the substance to complement that style.
You wonder, though, if by the end of Pope’s career, it may be Bell who is flattered. Yes, it’s a big claim. Particularly about a man who came into this match averaging 16.16 in home Tests and who has currently scored 21 fewer Test centuries.
But while this was an innings studded with shots that Bell might play – the late cut, in particular, is uncannily similar – it was an innings, as a whole, that he probably could not. Not at the comparative stage of his career, anyway.
For Pope is just 22. And while Bell made his Test debut at 22, it was not until he was a few days short of his 28th birthday, in Dhaka in March 2010, that he finally reached three figures in an innings without a team-mate getting there first.
Let’s be clear: Bell’s reputation as a scorer of soft runs is not fair. From the South Africa tour of 2009-10 onwards, Bell delivered plenty of times when England were under pressure, culminating in a player of the series award for the 2013 Ashes. An average of 42.69 speaks for itself: Bell was a high-class player.
It’s just Pope might be better.
England’s hopes of winning this series were teetering in the early stages of his innings. Having dropped a batsman to accommodate an extra bowler, England didn’t want to see their captain run himself out before lunch on the first day. They had Jos Buttler, averaging 21 in the last year, in at No. 6 and Chris Woakes, averaging 5.75 with the bat in his six most recent Tests, due to come in at No. 7. So at 122 for 4, there were no guarantees a total of even 200 could be achieved. They needed Pope to succeed.
And succeed he did. After battling through an unconvincing start, he feasted against a wearied seam attack of which too much has been asked this series. At one stage, there were six fours in 17 balls as the miles in the legs of Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach and Jason Holder started to show. There hasn’t been a more fluent innings this series. There hasn’t been a more fluent innings from an England batsman since Pope’s maiden century in Port Elizabeth in January.
“There wasn’t the same noise from them out there towards the end as there had been at the start,” Pope said later. “You could tell the difference in atmosphere. They’ve played the same seam attack in each of the three games. We tried to cash in.”
Pope hasn’t quite achieved that milestone of being the first in the team to score a century – bad light saw to that – but he has already kept his side afloat in this game and ensured their hopes of winning the series are still live. This was an innings played under pressure. And it’s under such circumstances that it took Bell so long to answer his critics.
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One of things that stood out here, as it stood out when Pope batted with Root in Johannesburg, was the younger man looked the better player. Here his ability to score freely took the pressure off Buttler and allowed him time to play himself in. It was, at times, as if Pope was shepherding him back to form.
A note of caution is required here. We are prone, in cricket, to judge entirely by the bottom line. But just as a bowler can perform well and suffer from dropped chances to finish wicketless, so a batsman can enjoy plentiful fortune and go on to register a century. While Pope played beautifully once he had reached about 40, it would be disingenuous to pretend he didn’t enjoy quite a lot of luck in the early stages of this innings.
But that’s okay. And the fact he weathered the storm, wore down the bowlers and capitalised later all bodes well. He’s stylish like Bell, yes. But he’s tough like Alastair Cook, too. And while Bell hardly scored an ugly run in his career, Pope looks to have the temperament to do so when required. He’ll be tested by spin in Asia; he’ll be tested by pace in Australia. There will be tough days, but he has no obvious faults, no glaring concerns. He looks to be the best batsman England have produced since Root.
“Today sums up batting pretty perfectly,” he said. “In the first innings of the series, I didn’t play and miss at all; I nicked one straight away. In the next Test, I chopped one on when it could have gone to fine leg. Today I edged one just short of slip. Luck is involved sometimes and you have to make the most of those chances when they do come around.”
That phlegmatic attitude bodes well. It is a crazy game in which an in-form player can edge a beauty and be dismissed and an out of form player can miss and survive. Trying to make sense of it has driven many batsmen to the edges of their sanity.
But, under that calm exterior, it’s clear Pope’s lack of runs – albeit in only two Tests this summer – has been eating away at him. It may be pretty obvious to those of us watching on from afar that he is going to excel. The man himself, living in a bio-secure bubble without a chance to entirely clear his mind, is clearly taking nothing for granted.
“I’ve missed out in those first two games,” Pope said. “You try to keep upbeat. But you do have more time on your own, more time to dwell. I’ve played four Tests before this in England and haven’t scored the runs I’d have liked. People talk; I’ve seen some comments. You’ve got to try to stay level.”
That “people talk” phrase is interesting, too. It would appear to be a reference to social media; the second this week from an England player struggling to deal with its nagging judgements – the doubts it sows and equanimity it disturbs. Jonathan Trott once remarked that Root was the only batsman to have emerged to enjoy a substantial career for England in the age of social media. It is a considerable challenge.
But you would back Pope to find a way through it. He has all the tools; he’ll not lack for support. These are early days and many of these compliments might have been written about Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash. Young players don’t come with guarantees. But Pope is 22 and on the edge of a century which could define a series. He looks the real deal.
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