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England v South Africa 2022

Ollie Pope embraces the mischief and walks at the danger

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 4 minute read

Phil Walker was at Lord’s to witness an Ollie Pope half-century that may be his most important Test innings to date.

Ollie Pope’s unbeaten 61 here under filthy floodlit skies is an unresolved story. Its central function thus far has been to ensure that England haven’t been completely submerged by the puddles which came to form on the outfield across a miserable afternoon. Six down for not many, it has not been England’s day. We will be back tomorrow, 98 overs a day for the next four, and Pope will have to start again, a theme of his staccato career. Only now, shakily ensconced at first drop, with decent runs scavenged against three high-quality attacks this summer, can he at last start to feel secure.

There is a case that this innings, a standout amidst the usual carnival of booming drives and leaden prods, currently accounting for more than half of the top eight’s combined tally, could be his most important to date. He has yet to dominate a Test scorecard. This is his chance.

There was clarity there. He helped the bouncer over the slips, played late and cautiously against the left-armer Jansen’s induckers and rode the extreme pace of Nortje and late swing of Rabada. He prodded a little – he’s yet to discover the transgressive pleasures of the non shot – and skewed a hook shot flukily into space. But these are quibbles. For half an hour up until lunch, he looked like the Pope of our imaginings.

Pope is an easy lad to root for. You will him on, in part because he’s so nakedly desperate to do well. He is a restlessly ambitious cricketer, albeit one whose needs and desires have at times run too deep, inhibiting rather than liberating all that talent. This is not unusual. His spirit father, Ian Bell, went on a similar journey. It’s a consequence of learning on the job, and being very English.

It’s a job he craves more than life itself. Pope is a striver, the kind of upstanding upstart who does well at school, runs the first one hard and gets the kebabs in after a big win. More than that, he’s pushy (in a good way), calling up his new captain to formally declare for the No.3 slot; and he listens, intently, and sometimes to voices best ignored. He takes a lot on, but with that has come a tendency to get enmeshed in the minutiae of technique, leading to a kind of psychological paralysis caused by theory-overload.

For much of the last year, he’s been a batting blur of conflicting theories and techniques, as jittery as a lab rat, jabbed and poked out of shape and mind. His lowest point came at Hobart in January, when he was bowled round his legs in a fuzzy state of nastiness, his shoulders misaligned to his hips, simultaneously closed off and too open, his legs stuck on off-stump, his bat a flailing afterthought.

His brain, in short, had been scrambled. “I tried to change too much,” he later said. “I tried to change things too quickly, rather than stick to what works for me and what I was doing. A part of me wishes I could go back and do it all again.”

That springtime phone call to Stokes reaffirmed a few things. He was told he was valued, rated, and needed. What he probably didn’t know at the time of that call was that he’d be assigned an old-fashioned role for a newfangled era.

To bat at three for England is a privilege and historically a nightmare. Very few players pull it off. Pope’s talent and essential orthodoxy had seen him earmarked for the role basically from the moment he started guzzling hundreds at The Oval. Yet his early forays with England were skittish things, marked by flashes of class, the odd day out, and some vintage Bellian swearing after another fatal dab outside the eyeline. He came into this match with a Test average south of 30.

Under Stokes, it’s beginning to fall into place. The urge to take a step down the track, as he did inside the first half hour today, is embraced, with Paul Collingwood, assistant coach, even applauding the logic: “He used his feet and went across the line to clip it through mid-wicket. You have to find ways when pitches are favourable to bowlers to get them off their line and length. The game is about scoring runs, and finding best options to score runs.”

The philosophy, as we keep being reminded, is always to walk at the danger. It’s about freedom; the freedom from fear. It’s about being who you want to be, and getting loaded, and having a good time.

Indeed it’s possible that what Pope needed after all was an environment where some latent smidge of devilry could be teased out. The buttoned-up world of Test cricket as it’s stood for a century and more and which characterised the cement-and-water era into which he first emerged has been upended by something dizzyingly strange and loose. And it just might work.

Some cricketers, some batters at least, need the straitjacket to secure them to the job in hand. It serves as a protective layer against themselves. Others need to know they won’t be turfed out at the first sign of mischief. England’s team as it stands, individually and collectively, is seeking to locate that line and walk along it. The danger is that they may yet find themselves shackled to all this freedom. But that is for another day. Tomorrow, perhaps, when we go again, and Ollie Pope bounds out once more, ever eager, bat twiddling, feet dancing, leaving and shadow batting, projecting, projecting, on the cusp, again, of getting it right.

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