It remains just about possible – if Jofra Archer makes a late bid for selection on Wednesday – that England could go into the third Test in Port Elizabeth with six players under the age of 25. They have only done that once before*.
It is a statistic that underlines the period of transition in which this England side find itself. Whether by design or not – in a perfect world, the side might well contain James Anderson, Rory Burns and Moeen Ali or Jack Leach – England are in a rebuilding phase. An investment has been made into young players. They are likely to be given time to develop.
At the heart of this young side is Ollie Pope. While some of the other young players – Zak Crawley and Dom Bess, for example – are taking advantage of the misfortunate of first-choice players, Pope is a first-choice pick. In the eyes of most of the England management, he is the most promising specialist batsman to come into the Test team since Joe Root in 2012. There are whispered hopes he will develop into a 100-Test player.
Such was Pope’s promise that he was first selected for the Test side when just 20. By then he had played 15 first-class games and scored four first-class centuries. That is, in context, only two fewer than Jos Buttler in his 104 match first-class career.
But England, bursting with men who could bat in the middle-order, asked Pope to fulfil a role that was unfamiliar to him. Despite batting at No. 6 for Surrey, despite never having come in before the 20th over of a first-class innings, he was required to bat at No. 4 on Test debut. In his first three innings he came into bat in the ninth, 13th and 12th overs. Unsurprisingly, he struggled. Perhaps more surprisingly in these days of continuity of selection, he was dropped after those three innings despite the fact one of his dismissals was down the leg side.
But if the use of Pope was wrong, the identification of his talent was surely correct. He has, at the time of writing, an average of 71.31 in first-class cricket for Surrey and 58.06 in all first-class cricket. After 30 games, he had a higher first-class average than any English player in history.
But for a dislocated shoulder, sustained while fielding for Surrey last April, his recall would have come earlier than November. But as it is, he has been assured of a run at No. 6 – the position Root started out in Test cricket – and, over his last few innings, started to provide returns on that investment. Two of his three most recent innings have been half-centuries, with the first, in Hamilton, showcasing an improved tightness in his game and the second, in Cape Town, providing something of a masterclass in batting with the tail. He scored 29 of the 35 posted for England’s tenth-wicket and later took the catch that sealed the win.
After the Cape Town victory, a small group of the younger players – Pope, Bess, Dom Sibley and Matt Parkinson – hired an apartment in Camps Bay and enjoyed a few days’ beach holiday. But now, back in training with the rest of the squad, it is clear Pope is relishing being part of a young team who are enjoying the new experiences and each other’s successes.
At the moment I feel like I’m in a good place with my game. I know I’ve got the technique and mindset to do it [at Test level]
“Winning this series would be an amazing achievement for us, especially where we’re at as a side at the moment,” Pope said. “We’re quite young side with a lot of players just coming through.
“The Cape Town result says a lot about what we have within the camp, but we also realise that it’s not something that happens overnight. Putting this side together will take time, but if we can win this series will be a great achievement.
“The first time I was picked I felt like it was almost a bit of a lottery. I was thinking ‘hopefully I’ll get a score but if I miss out then so be it.’
“At the moment I feel like I’m in a good place with my game. I know I’ve got the technique and mindset to do it. To have those scores under my belt is a real positive for me.”
Perhaps it says something for Pope’s ambitions that he was inspired by Steven Smith and Virat Kohli when batting with the tail in Cape Town.
“The way I went about my innings was just remembering how some of the best players in the world have done it,” he said. “I remember watching Smith and Kohli from when they played against England and how, even when they were nine down, they were trying to face almost every ball. It was pretty new for me.
“The way Stokesy did it at Headingley was slightly different because he can just whack every ball out of the park and clear the men on the rope. Us smaller lads have to go about it in a bit more of a smart way and try and find a way of facing as many balls as you can. If you get a boundary option, then great, if not then try and face five balls and get a quick single at the end and get a boundary next over.
“If you ask any young batsman coming into the game, Smith, Kohli and Joe Root are the guys you want to be like. They have been the main run-scorers in international cricket over the last however many years and hopefully I’ve got a game where I can follow in their footsteps.
“I wouldn’t say I tried to copy their techniques, but the one thing they have in common is having solid foundations. They can build their game around that and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
While Pope acknowledged the comparisons with Ian Bell – it was Andrew Strauss who first mentioned it to him – he insisted they are accidental. But since his first spell in the side, when his expansive off-side play could leave him looking loose at times, he looks even more like Bell now: more compact; more disciplined outside off stump; more prepared to be patient and make the bowlers come to him. In short, a player who has learned to harness his talent.
“I think Bell is an amazing player and I used to love watching him bat but it’s not been anything that I’ve tried to emulate,” Pope said. “But it’s a big compliment because he is a pretty class player to watch. I’ve seen that a lot on social media. He was an amazing player and I loved watching him play.”
His favourite players were, instead, keeper-batsmen such as MS Dhoni and Adam Gilchrist and he has not given up hopes of fulfilling a role as keeper in the years ahead.
“I still want to keep that going in my game,” he said. “I definitely will be practising my keeping. I’m still the second keeper at Surrey. It’s only going to be a positive if I can keep nailing that side of my game, but I’m also more than happy playing as a batter as well.”
With a youthful look to the side, it is probably even more important that the more experienced players provide leadership. And Pope said Ben Stokes had taken him under his wing and demonstrated the fitness levels required to excel at this level.
“In New Zealand I realised what was needed,” he said. “I’d go under Stokes’ wing a little bit and, after the warm-up games, we’d run back to the hotel and do a running session the day before the games.
“If you can get into those good habits, if you control everything in your power to make sure you are as fit as you can be and you’re training as well as you can, then hopefully good things will happen. It’s good to see the way these guys go about it. Hopefully I can learn from that and keep following in their footsteps.”
England’s players were given a day off on Tuesday. While some, including Pope, went on safari, others played golf. Only Root, accompanied by batting coach Graham Thopre, took to the nets where he had a long session.
*The previous occasion was at Leeds in 1993, when Australia won by an innings
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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