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County Championship 2021

Ollie Pope and the merits of cashing in on flat tracks

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Ben Gardner appraises Ollie Pope’s latest masterwork, and wonders if the 23-year-old could be on the verge of a special winter.

The final day of the County Championship season at The Oval was, in many ways, a non-event. A draw became inevitable about two days out. Glamorgan used all 11 of their fielders as bowlers. Hashim Amla kicked some stuff away.

But on that final afternoon, as time became meaningless and all happenings blended into one, strange things began to happen, a heat mirage on an unusually balmy September day. A wicketkeeper in his 103rd first-class game, having earlier in the match made his maiden double hundred, bowled a hooping inswinger. A man with a century on Test debut claimed a maiden scalp in his 115th game. And an English 23-year-old extended his fourth first-class double to a mammoth 274, and the general reaction was to shrug the shoulders and go back to reading the papers.

This is the kind of prodigious output that should be shocking, a young player taking the opportunity of a dead game to confirm himself as a generational talent. And yet it didn’t feel like it, for a few reasons. Pope’s grand arrival has come in stages, looking the part on Test debut as an Ed Smith punt before dropping out after two games, plundering county runs whenever his shoulder wasn’t injured, and then integral to a batting unit that increasingly looked the part over the winter, culminating in that caressed Port Elizabeth hundred. The 2020 summer contained two sparkling fifties and not much else. And then came another shoulder blow, and the India tour that tore all of England’s plans asunder, and then another injury, and now here we are, with a player for whom county success is no struggle but who is yet to properly figure out the top level.

There’s also where those Surrey runs have come, at his home ground, where he can buy a coffee on the walk in and then set to work in a setting he feels comfortable. He is quite literally Bradmanesque here, averaging 99.94 at the People’s Ground, but elsewhere he’s more mortal, with an average a tick below 40. Nine of his 12 first-class hundreds have come at home.

It’s a fact which is increasingly held against him, fairly in some ways – averaging 100 at Chester-le-Street would, all things considered, be more impressive. But each mammoth total at The Oval is now held against him, evidence that he can only make big scores when it’s flat. That’s not true, of course. Even if he’s innately attuned to batting south of the river, he’s still got the wherewithal and the brain to come good elsewhere. Take, for example, his sublime 62 in the Miracle of Manchester last summer, coming in at 12-3 and dashing England to somewhere halfway competitive before being ripped out by a savage Naseem Shah special. That knock showed that sometimes there will be a ball that you have no answer to, but sometimes there won’t be, and going on and on and on when you can’t be got out, is something that basically every other player available to England finds difficult. There are surfaces outside south London that don’t do much. Not least in Australia, where, if you hadn’t heard, England are due to tour this winter.

The defining defeat in the 2017/18 Ashes came on a road. Day one at Perth ended in rousing fashion, Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow having proved whoever their doubters were at that moment in time wrong, England four down with 300 on the board. Soon enough they’d crept to 400, a total about 200 under par, and had to suffer the ignominy of watching Mitchell Marsh grind them into submission. The urn had been surrendered. If only England had had someone with Pope’s greed.

It is a thing of beauty to watch him bat in those conditions, the perfect blend of invention, proactivity, and surety. The strike-rate hovered around 70 throughout, Hashim Amla playing the foil, Pope finding pretty much a boundary an over, driving square or straight of cover depending on where he was placed, or else getting down to dab and scoop to keep the spinner ticking. You could look away for a time, safe in the knowledge that whenever you looked back, whatever Pope was choosing to do, he’d be doing it perfectly and pristinely. It might not look as impossible as battling to a hundred on a green one, but if it were easy, everyone would rack up doubles there.

There’s a point to be made here about county cricket, and what purpose it serves. At tea on the final afternoon, Surrey’s head groundsman, Lee Fortis, could be seen in conversation with incoming chief executive Steve Elworthy by the pitch on which Pope had prospered. If Surrey have hopes of winning next year’s County Championship, they will likely want surfaces that offer a bit more, be prepared, as Shane Warne would say, to lose to win.

This pitch was, perhaps, a bit too flat. But just as county batters have lost the ability to cash in, so too have bowlers to hang tough. Glamorgan’s attack is well primed for taking 20 wickets on most of the surfaces they come across. Until that stops being the case, a few days of toil will be a small price to pay in order to hoover up wickets elsewhere.

Had Pope come through at another club, he would be a different player. If you play half your games on surfaces you can’t trust, you begin to doubt everything. Look at other batsmen coming through and their techniques are uncomfortable amalgamations of attempts at answers to questions which contradict each other. ‘If the ball jags back in then I should miss it and my pad will be in the way, which is better than being bowled, and if it goes the other way hopefully I’ll miss it or at least edge it softly enough to be OK. Oh, what should I play? I guess maybe if it’s really short and wide or full and on leg-stump I could have a go…’

They ask, ‘But what if’, whereas Pope’s says ‘Imagine…’

Pope was caught up in the long grass for a time, moving across to off-stump and drawing the ire of Nasser, Butch and the rest. During his 274, he batted basically where he wanted, changing his guard depending on the bowler and middling everything wherever he was. The difference was his tempo and temperament. Whereas at times he has begun frenetically, he looked a man at peace, knowing that he could bat for long enough to the score he wanted. He knows how to make big hundreds when things are in his favour. This winter, he should get plenty of chances.

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