Three years on from his Test debut against India in 2018, Ollie Pope could return from injury for the third Test of England’s 2021 series against the same opponents. This time, the potential inclusion would be as critical to Pope as it is for an under-fire England batting line-up, writes Seb Evans.
On the back of the demoralising defeat to Virat Kohli’s men on the fifth day at Lord’s, Chris Silverwood and Joe Root recalled Pope and Dawid Malan in an attempt to bolster a batting line-up that failed to bat 60 overs to save the match in north London last Monday.
The abject manner in which England succumbed to India’s aggressive bowling in the second Test has left England fans despondent, and was the final nail in the coffin for Dom Sibley’s Test stint, in the short term at least.
Pope is set to compete with Malan for a place in the team, with Malan seemingly favourite to get the nod to bat at three or four. That Pope is struggling to make the England Test side at all would have been unthinkable 12 months ago, when he was in a rich vein of form, but is the result of his stark loss of Test form since his hugely successful tour of South Africa in 2019/20.
Whereas Dom Sibley’s idiosyncratic technique created a limit to his potential as a Test cricketer, and eventually caused his downfall, Pope was seen as a precocious talent set for a long Test career when he scored an impudent 135 against South Africa in 2020.
While the Surrey batsman caught the eye with audacious ramps off Kagiso Rabada during his innings in Port Elizabeth, it was Pope’s classical technique that singled him out as a player who is well-built for Test match batting, and drew comparisons with a young Ian Bell.
In 2020, Michael Vaughan went as far as saying that Pope was the best young player he’d seen in the England team since Joe Root. High praise indeed, given the England captain’s Bradman-like form in recent months.
The problem facing Pope is that his Test record has yet to live up to the expectation surrounding him. Notably, his average after 19 Tests of 31.5 is 15 less than Joe Root’s (46) after the same number of matches. Root also had four Test hundreds after 19 Tests, while Pope only has one.
For all the hype surrounding him, Pope is failing to deliver on the promise he showed in his remarkable innings in Port Elizabeth. Three years into his Test career, the excitement surrounding his potential is starting to become tiresome conjecture.
It is not as if he has looked out of form, however. Pope averages 61 from seven County Championship matches in 2021, including a mammoth 245 against Leicestershire in April. He also looked in decent touch in the two-Test series against New Zealand earlier in the summer, but failed to build in solid-looking starts. He passed 15 in all four of his innings against the Kiwis, but didn’t kick on past 23 in any of them. He got in, and got out.
Such a trend suggests Pope struggles with lapses in concentration, a trait which doesn’t bode well if he has ambitions to become an elite Test batsman. All the great Test batsmen have a strong mental fortitude to complement their skill with the bat, and Pope needs to develop this quickly if he is to have success against Kohli’s marauding seam attack. In this regard, he would do well to observe his captain Root, whose outstanding form in 2021 is built on his improved powers of concentration as much as his water-tight technique
When England beat South Africa 3-1 during their 2019/20 tour, their victories were built on impressive performances from the team’s promising young players: Zak Crawley, Dom Sibley, Dom Bess, and Pope himself. However, with Bess out of the reckoning, and Crawley and Sibley now dropped too, it is up to Pope to prove that what we saw in South Africa was not a false dawn. Given his performances in the County Championship over the last five years, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be establishing himself as a senior batsman in the England team, despite being only 23.
However, judging by Pope’s most recent performance for his county – bowled through the gate for nought as he unfurled a loose, footwork-less drive in the One Day Cup – Chris Silverwood might be wise to turn to Malan instead of the Surrey batsman for the third Test against India. The mode of Pope’s dismissal against Durham was the shot of a man short of match practice, and would have left England fans wincing, having seen Jonny Bairstow dismissed in similar fashion so frequently in Test cricket.
For England to have a chance of defeating this indomitable India side, or even competing against Cummins and Co in the Ashes, Pope must address his footwork and concentration quickly. If he doesn’t, he could become helpless prey to Jasprit Bumrah’s in-swingers, and leave England to wonder if one of their most exciting young players is not all he promised to be. Whether Silverwood picks him for the third Test or not, it could be now or never for Ollie Pope’s immediate Test future.