Ollie Pope knows how suddenly opportunity can come knocking… then turn around and slam the door in your face.
So, rather than panic when illness robbed him of a fifth Test appearance for England at Centurion last week, he just rolled with it. Pope has learned a lot over the past 18 months or so, you see.
Having played two home Tests against India in 2018, Pope was bumped from England’s tour of Sri Lanka to make way for Ben Foakes, who scored a century on debut in the first Test at Galle. Pope was then overlooked for England’s Caribbean campaign at the start of 2019 and a dislocated shoulder injury then curtailed his English summer before he found himself on Ashes standby and playing a further two Tests in New Zealand. All that and he is still just two days shy of his 22nd birthday.
Now, having declared himself “pretty much 100 percent back to normal now” ahead of the second Test against South Africa starting in Cape Town on Friday after succumbing on Christmas Day to the illness doing the rounds of the England camp, Pope can be forgiven for yearning for a touch of normality in his burgeoning international career.
“Absolutely,” Pope said. “It’s been a bit of a weird start to my career … I think the weirdest time for me was after I got told I was leaving that Sri Lanka tour, which was completely understandable with Foakesy coming in, scoring that hundred just put me one down. I wasn’t going to play.
“Hoping I’d be on that West Indies trip, not being on that, not really hearing much and then doing my shoulder. I had no idea how far away from it all I was. That was a pretty frustrating time and I had a lot of time to think, overthink things.
“As soon as I found out I was the next batter in for the Ashes, that concussion replacement, that was a massive boost for me. Then coming back – last week sums it up. I’m very rarely ill as well so that was annoying. If I do get a go at Newlands… I don’t overthink it really. I try to just take it in my stride… If I do get a run – brilliant – then hopefully I can take that and make it my own. “
Pope made his debut batting in the unfamiliar position of No. 4, scoring 54 runs in three innings against India. Initially included as the spare middle-order batsman in Sri Lanka, Foakes’ performance, combined with the presence of Joe Denly in the squad and Jonny Bairstow making his way back from injury, made him surplus to requirements. In a twist, it was Bairstow’s omission that handed Pope a chance in New Zealand – where he scored 29, 6 and 75 – and it is Bairstow who could make way again in Cape Town if Dom Sibley also recovers from illness in time.
How things can turn in an instant.
“I was looking at the county scores while I wasn’t playing and I was thinking about all these players that are probably ahead of me, in line, just purely because I wasn’t really sure even how I’d come back from the injury,” said Pope of his recovery from shoulder surgery which culminated in a double-hundred for for Surrey against Hampshire and a call-up as a potential, but ultimately unused, concussion substitute for Jason Roy, who was hit on the helmet in the nets in the lead-up to the third Ashes Test at Headingley.
“Next thing you know I’m nearly playing a Test in the Ashes. That week was a good way for me to gain my confidence back and know where I’m at with this England side. And, having put a score under the belt, that was a massive boost for me as well. That was a strange week but that week hopefully set it all up.”
Making Pope’s illness setback over this past week more frustrating was the fact he had scored 132 off 145 balls in an innings full of the attractive stroke play that is a distinctive feature of his game during the warm-up against South Africa A. But it has him straining at the leash to taste South African Test conditions for which he feels prepared, having faced down county team-mate Morne Morkel in the nets at Surrey.
“Obviously these pitches will be a different challenge to what I’m used to,” Pope said. “But we’ve come across some quick bowlers in the county circuit, we’ve faced a lot of Morne in the nets – someone who is tall and gets a lot of bounce like a lot of their bowlers do.
“In the warm-up games, felt good with it, they had some nice pace and in the nets when I get them to ramp it up on the bouncier decks, then same really. I feel confident in my game to deal with their pace and bounce.
“I’ve gained the confidence in myself and my game over the last, probably – and it sounds stupid because I was injured for so much – but over this season and the back-end of last season. There’s no need to put myself under any more pressure.
“I definitely don’t see it as ‘I definitely have to score runs in this game’ because I understand how cricket works. If you just stay pretty level across it all then I’m sure the good will come with the bad.”