Ben Jones takes a closer look at England’s young red ball star.
Before we get stuck into this, let’s get this out of the way. Ollie Pope is special.
Since Pope made his first-class debut, nobody in the world has recorded numbers on his level. Of the 94 batsmen to play as many matches as him, not a single one averages more than him. Nobody in the world comes close.
Since he debuted, Pope has edged or missed just 11% of his deliveries. Only Ravi Bopara has batted in more matches for England since 2006, with a lower false shot percentage. It is the greatest determiner of skill in this form of the game, and Pope is bossing it, before he’s turned 23.
But away from the straightforward achievements, the simple numbers. On a gut level, at the back of your mind – who does Ollie Pope remind you of?
Well, if you’re a sentient human being, you’ve heard the comparisons to Ian Bell. It’s there on Twitter, on telly, in the papers – it’s probably on his birth certificate. The short stature, the high elbow, the general sense of prodigy that accompanies their every movement.
You can see it in flashes. Straight drives, particularly, a swift movement of pistons and joints. The sexiest sort of efficiency.
There are similarities in their rise to the top level, of course. Bell debuted just after he turned 22, Pope just before he turned 21. There are similarities in their early performances at this level. Bell at this point in his Test career, had a wonderfully rounded record against both pace and spin. After 10 Tests, Bell averaged 47 against pace, and 43 against spin; though Pope averages 41 and 108. Since 2000, there have only been 30 players to manage that double, to average over 40 against both pace and spin after 10 Tests; there are some famous names with remarkable records (Sehwag, Smith, Strauss, de Villiers) and some less than stellar records (Handscomb, Ballance, Buttler), but you can’t ask much more of a man at the start of his career.
It says a lot of how demanding England fans were, post 2005, that Ian Bell was somehow held up as flaky, how spoiled they were with the riches of Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Paul Collingwood, Matthew Prior, and Strauss himself. Bell was a phenomenon, unappreciated until his fellow stars had fallen away.
Importantly, there is a fundamental difference between Pope and Bell, and that is discipline. Against pace deliveries wide outside the off stump, Bell attacked just 30% of the time. He knew that, whilst runs were on offer, there was just as much risk involved when going so hard, so far away from your body. For Pope, that figure is 49%.
We can look at a bit deeper, at this generational divide. According our Expected Wickets model, the actual balls that were bowled to Ian Bell would be attacked 23% were they bowled to the average player. In reality, Bell actually attacked less than that; for all that aesthetic aggression, he was intelligent enough to reign himself in. For Pope at this stage, it is absolutely not the case. He attacks significantly more deliveries than the average player would, facing the balls he’s faced.
Perhaps this is the scourge of the prodigy, cursed to struggle while they find their level at the top of the game. Pope is going hard, because he knows he can attack those deliveries, because he’s technically good enough to despatch them to the ropes. When you’re born in an Aston Martin – as Pope is, with that technique – it takes a while to slow down to the streets most people have to drive on.
And so, there’s a flavour of Bell in Pope’s batting, but to claim they are the same is to discredit them both. At the moment, Pope is a sleek, modern version of what might happen if Bell emerged today. If Bell is the Velvet Underground, Pope is The Strokes. If Bell is Tennyson, Pope is TS Eliot. There are shared values here, but they are treated with differing levels of deference. Bell played 34 reverse sweeps in his whole career; Pope has already played nine.
There are other comparisons. The angle of Pope’s bat, 5 o’clock as he drops and runs a single to cover, is pure Virat Kohli. A baby-face from Chelsea is never going to radiate the drive and grit of the Indian skipper, but there are technical similarities, those flavours at the back of the palette that call to mind another drink, from another day, from another time.
Against spin, there are echoes of Michael Clarke. The least appreciated Australian captain since Kim Hughes, ‘Pup’s game against spin is the envy of every batsman brought up outside of Asia, and plenty brought up inside it. His defining characteristic was that swagger down the pitch, those dancing feet called into action once every four balls at Test level, and with which he averaged over 50. Pope only comes down the wicket 10% of the time to spinners, but he has never been out that way in first-class cricket. He dances down with every foot on the beat, every movement as much to the rhythm as Clarke could ever have managed. Pope has come down the track to spinners 30 times in his Test career, and has never hit a boundary when doing so. And yet he’s scored off half of those balls. For him, coming down is a positive, proactive option, but it doesn’t need to be followed by a boundary-shot. Shimmying to the pitch of the ball need not be met with aggression.
If we have to stick with minutiae, then Ollie Pope made 91 unbeaten runs today. He made them leaving just 9% of the balls he faced, the lowest by an Englishman making this many runs in a decade; he made them top edging, outside edging, late cutting, straight driving, front-of-square-pulling. He made these runs in his own way. He made them with the number 687 on his shirt, with his own career on the line, and his own reputation up for debate.
Ollie Pope made 91 runs. And ultimately, he made them in a manner that makes you think that, in years to come when we’re all collecting pensions and shuffling through turnstiles, we’ll overhear others in the crowd, muttering;
“Doesn’t he look a lot like Ollie Pope?”
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.