As young batsman Ollie Pope is called up to England’s Test squad for the second Test at Lord’s, Ben Jones analyses the rise of the Surrey star.
Ollie Pope is, to put it mildly, a prodigious talent. His rise from First-Class debut in the summer of 2017 to potential Test bow on Thursday at Lord’s is remarkable. For English cricket fans, the arrival of such a precocious young batsman is thrilling.
However, unlike many prodigious talents, Pope hasn’t been called up on a hunch. This isn’t a pick based on some selectorial spidey-sense, on some inkling that a young batsman has the potential for greatness, but hasn’t yet proved it. No, Pope’s statistical record is staggering, to the extent that he is, even with just 15 FC matches under his belt, the obvious choice. If England are finding a top-order batsman then they should first look at the man with the highest batting average in the country – this season, that man is Ollie Pope. He is head and shoulders above anyone in either division.
In his brief first-class career he has recorded astonishingly strong numbers against pace bowling, averaging above 70 and scoring rapidly. Some sceptics might preach the need for caution, for an increased level of circumspection as Pope comes up against a different level of seam bowler; equally, this season he’s faced Kyle Abbott, Dale Steyn, Stuart Broad, Fidel Edwards and Tim Bresnan and averaged 98, scoring at 4.66rpo. As much as he already can, Pope’s proved he’s a Test quality batsman.
As you would expect from a young player, he appears to have a clear set of prolific scoring zones. A player often touted for his elegance, Pope scores the vast majority of his runs through the covers and point; he averages 78.20 with the drive, and 141 with the cut. By contrast, very few of his runs come in the V, which may encourage the Indian seamers to bowl very full against him, assured he won’t play too straight. Though Ishant and co may be so concerned by giving him width that such plans seem overly aggressive.
As well as this clear off-side dominated technical base, Pope is an audacious white-ball player. In T20 cricket he has never been dismissed playing the reverse-sweep, scoring at 11.7rpo with the shot. He hooks at 13.71rpo. He is a scandalously gifted batsman, of the like that English cricket, for all the doom and gloom, is starting to produce in relative abundance. In his brief (and in truth, rather exciting) tenure as Head Selector, Ed Smith has shown a willingness to place his faith in white-ball skills. The fact that Pope has the County Championship numbers to support his limited overs pyrotechnics is likely welcome relief for Smith, a man who has had cause for extended justification of his recent picks.
There are some who will suggest that Pope owes the Surrey groundstaff a thank you for his success and subsequent call-up. It’s true – Pope has made an awful lot of his runs at The Oval, a venue that has been something of a batting paradise this season. To call it home is a stroke of good luck for any young batsman hoping to force his way into the national side. It may prove to be an issue; his average of 123 at home this season does drop to 63 on the road.
However, whilst it’s been a pitch that has given more to the batsmen than the bowlers, of all the Surrey lads who’ve been lucky enough to ply their trade at The Oval, none have averaged more there than Pope.
On the flipside, Joe Clarke may be quietly frustrated by his omission. He is a more established red-ball player, and is more regularly carded in the top four, whilst Pope has never batted that high in Championship cricket. It’s also fair to note, when praising Smith’s aggressive selection of such a young player, that of the reasonable options to replace Dawid Malan almost all fit into the mould of “bold” picks. Clarke, Pope, James Hildreth – even James Vince – each carry their own unique risk. In many ways, of the likely candidates Pope is arguably the most conservative, backed as he is by huge runs and in the midst of remarkable form. However, if he comes off it will be the third in a series of bold successes for Smith’s regime, off the back of Buttler and Rashid’s re-introductions.
If Pope does get the nod ahead of Moeen Ali to play on Thursday (though rumours of a slow, dry surface may see the Worcestershire all-rounder preferred), then he will be the fifth player aged 22 or younger to debut for England in the last 12 months. English cricket is putting it’s faith in youth, and if his record in County Cricket is anything to go by, then Pope should be a roaring success.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.