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Cricket news - Ollie Pope is back and who is surprised?
On the Surrey YouTube page, there are highlights from a T20 Blast game against Sussex in 2017. The clip shows two deliveries from Jofra Archer to Ollie Pope. The first is very full and outside off-stump. Pope, then just a 19-year-old, moves across his stumps and scoops the ball over his shoulder for four. The next ball is shorter. It rises up to the batsman's waist, a tricky delivery to handle given Pope had again moved down low and across his stumps for the ramp or scoop. No bother, though. Pope short-arm pulls the ball over fine leg for six. Archer simply stands there, smiling ruefully.
The 2017 season was Pope's introduction to Surrey's first-team. The club blooded him in the white-ball competitions initially and his play was immediately eye-catching and exciting. Ramping Jofra Archer for six? All in a day's work. By the end of August, Pope had made his Championship debut. In his second match against Hampshire, he scored an unbeaten century in the second innings. As first seasons in professional cricket go, there have been plenty worse.
Pope's rise continued unabated the following campaign with more runs for Surrey. After 15 first-class matches, he was averaging 60. Despite his youth, Ed Smith's selection panel took notice. Less than a year after his Championship debut, Pope was in England's Test team against India.
Two matches were all he lasted, however. Out of the side as quickly as he had appeared and through no real fault of his own. It was the first major setback of Pope's career.
Pope made a couple of nice starts against India, proved he could cope with a high-class attack in helpful conditions, but failed to make a significant score. Batting at number four, a position he had not occupied for Surrey at that point, was a peculiar decision which didn't help his cause and then, when injuries necessitated a shuffling of England's pack, Pope was the one to make way. If it was understandable, it was still harsh.
The impact on a 20-year-old trying to make his way in the game could have been significant. But even in his short career, Pope has proved adept at handling setbacks. Although he was understandably disappointed, unlike so many who are left out by England, he didn't struggle to recapture his form at domestic level. His runs helped Surrey seal the 2018 Championship title. It was a happy ending to a rollercoaster summer.
This season, a recall was top of Pope's agenda. He started well in that quest, making a double hundred against MCC in the county season opener, but hopes of an Ashes place were dashed when he dislocated a shoulder in April. Rather than let the disappointment overwhelm him, he worked hard to get fit earlier than expected and returned just as consistent as before. In his first Championship game back, Pope made 221 not out against Hampshire at The Oval and averaged more than 90 for the rest of the season to seal a place in the Test squad for New Zealand.
The way Pope has successfully responded to two significant disappointments suggests a strength of mind that will be necessary if he is to have a long international career. Not that it will have surprised those at Surrey who know him best. "He's got an old head on young shoulders," Alec Stewart, the county's Director of Cricket, said of Pope last year in an interview with Cricbuzz. "He's understood his game at an early stage which is a real plus. He understands what he can do but also what he can't do. He's very mature."
In truth, Pope has never been out of England's thoughts since being dropped. He was part of the initial Test squad for the Sri Lanka tour last winter before being released to get some game time with the Lions. He was designated as a potential concussion replacement during the Ashes series just gone despite having played no first-class cricket at that point. His absence from the Test team has always felt temporary.
How could it not be with the record Pope has built up? He averages 59 from 32 first-class matches and his average after 30 games was the highest of any Englishman to have ever played the game. He has eight first-class hundreds already, two of them doubles, and when he reaches three figures, he usually makes them count. His average score once he gets to 100 is more than 150.
Stewart thinks there is a bit of Joe Root in how Pope shapes up. It's the bob of the knees and the front foot trigger movement just before the bowler delivers the ball that is the most strikingly similar aspect of his play. When you watch Pope against spin, the way he clips the ball into the leg-side is very Root-esque too. And, like the England captain, Pope likes to be positive. His strike rate in first-class cricket is currently above 60.
"Popey's biggest strength for me is how well he unsettles the bowler and puts the pressure back on you," Sam Cook, the Essex fast-bowler who has bowled a lot at Pope, tells Cricbuzz. "He uses his crease extremely well to combat any lateral movement but is also good on the short ball. You know as soon as you miss your line or length he's going to punish you, which makes him extremely tough to bowl at."
Finding the right balance between attack and defence is Pope's challenge as he embarks on his second spell in Test cricket during the series against New Zealand. In a recent interview with Wisden Cricket Monthly, Pope admitted that his desire to get on with things might need to be scaled back in Test cricket. An ill-advised waft at Mohammed Shami at Trent Bridge cost him his wicket in his final Test innings to date and while the error was understandable for a player so inexperienced, the 21 year-old will not want to make a habit of it.
Those two matches against India were never going to be Pope's last in the Test side, of course. After all, he is the great, young hope of English batting, the player expected to become a fixture in a team crying out for consistent top order batsmen. His record implies he has what it takes. But perhaps more importantly, the way he has overcome the two significant challenges of his short career suggest a player with the steel and character to thrive at the top level. Time will tell.
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