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Ollie Pope, Zak Crawley, and “Being Backed”

Ben Jones looks at the excellence of England’s No.3, their struggling opener, and how England have managed both.

Given quite how bad England have been in Test cricket for the last 12 months, the rapid approach of history is a shock. No team in Test history has successfully chased 250+ three times in a single series, and yet remarkably, England are odds on to do so. The development of a distinct playing style, and a marked improvement in results, has been quite incredible given the low point at which English cricket found itself two months ago. 

This particular heist is, at present, being masterminded by Ollie Pope. Unbeaten on 81* overnight, the Surrey starlet played a cool, assertive innings to set England well on their way to another record-bothering chase. 

After losing Alex Lees early to a confused run out, Pope was in early again. New Zealand’s bowlers were a way off their excellent first innings performance, struggling to find swing on a blustery Sunday afternoon in Leeds, but it was still a dangerous inflection point in the Test. As Pope walked in, England had a 43% chance of victory, the chase becoming a white-ball style straight shoot out as the draw became less and less relevant. 

And then, Pope took control. As that faltering early movement eased, England’s No.3 found his way into a clean, crisp pattern of play. The good length balls, consistently the most dangerous even on this relatively placid surface, were met with defensive rigour: 38 such deliveries brought only 14 runs. The rest went the distance, that trademark crouch unfurling into a dismissive whip to send the full balls away (at 5.8rpo), and rising to take the short balls (4.7rpo). If New Zealand got it wrong, Pope got it right.

As far as spin went, on a wearing pitch that was offering considerable assistance for both Jack Leach and Joe Root, the Surrey boy was ruthless – Michael Bracewell was hit out of the attack. For 33 runs from 29 balls, Pope’s always nimble feet were confidently disrupting a spinner who, despite having alluring natural assets, has none of the grooved base to return to when being hit, having bowled “properly” for a only matter of years. It was a sign of maturity from Pope, aided by Root in typically sparkling form, to remove the “0.5” from New Zealand’s 3.5-man attack.

It wasn’t all maturity though – for the newly adopted ‘Bazball’ devotees, there was still plenty to enjoy. 44% of the deliveries bowled to Pope were met with an attacking stroke, the highest figure for any of his substantial innings in Test cricket. Yet this wasn’t a reckless knock, not noticeably “brave” or “aggressive” in the manner of Bairstow’s recent chaos. Pope played with a false shot percentage of 15%, the exact average for Test cricket, as normal as it comes. And that’s the word which stuck out, when reflecting on his serene progress through the late afternoon and evening – Pope looked remarkably normal

That’s not always been true of Pope in Test cricket. His debut summer he was a prodigy, batting a foot outside leg and hammering the point boundary, drawing wholly unfitting comparisons with Ian Bell through comparable stature more than style or setup. Since then, he’s been cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof against spin, or batting on off stump, shot a ball, never settled. Even when his innate ability has shone through, it’s never done so calmly. Not before today.

In promoting him to No.3, England’s hierarchy put a huge amount of faith in Pope this summer. He had never batted in that position in a FC match before this series, and had been generally projected as an outstanding talent but one more at home in the middle order.  By putting him in the prime position, ahead even of Joe Root, England were vocally backing their Golden Boy.

The less generous interpretation is that the faith was actually more of a demand. Stokes and McCullum were rightly, understandably, encouraging Pope to stop batting like a child, and start batting like a man. No longer were innings down the order, the odd 50, some casual contributions, going to be enough to keep him in the side. These weren’t bonus innings while he grew into a Test player – this was the real thing, a real test, a real fork in the road. Sink, or swim. 

This summer, they asked that question to another member of the top three. In contrast to Pope’s excellence, this has not been a good series for Zak Crawley.  The opener has averaged just 15 in these New Zealand Tests, with an increasingly sense of almost random chaos. He has been lined up by the visistors’ opening attack and his record, when compared to other Test openers, has been appalling. 

It’s not hard to draw together the careers of these two young men. At the end of the 2020 summer, Crawley made 267 at No.3 against Pakistan. Since then, he’s batted just six times in that position. In Sri Lanka and India last year he was immediately promoted to the top of the order, where he did have some fleeting success with an assertive half-century in Ahmedabad, before being briefly moved back to first drop. Quickly he was under pressure, averaging just 11 over seven Tests before being dropped ahead of Lord’s and a visiting Indian side. The press release announcing his deselection was almost poetic in its praise for Crawley – noticeably less so regarding his opening partner Dom Sibley – but in retrospect, his development was handled poorly.

Yet as recently as February, these two players were in wildly different situations. Crawley’s second innings knock at the SCG had offered hope that he was about to break through; Pope was dropped for the Caribbean tour, placed on the bench. At the end of the Ashes, Crawley’s Test average was 28.21, and Pope’s was 28.66. Now, they stand respectively at 26.68 and 31.65. 

The nature of backing a player, of placing faith in them to succeed, is always slightly more nuanced and contextual than it seems. England have unquestionably backed Crawley, as they have Pope, but have arguably given neither the optimal chance to succeed. For all of Pope’s quality, he is still not suited to this first drop role. For all Crawley’s strokeplay ability, he is not a Test match opener. What we have seen is that Pope is a good enough batter in the abstract to work against his own natural game and adapt to the role required. We have also seen that Crawley is not.

And what’s more, he never really was. Pope was introduced to Test cricket with one of the highest FC averages ever; Crawley’s own FC average is a fraction above 30, and were Kent a more impressive side at present, one wonders how quickly it would take them to drop him when he returns to the county grind. “Backing” a player to “step up” to Test cricket is, in reality, quite an act of vanity. County cricket is not overburdened with quality, but the bare facts of runs and wickets do still carry weight, and asking a man who has shown no ability to thrive in the tier below to thrive in Test cricket is far from benevolence. It’s moving towards not bothering at all. 

The reason why the Stokes and McCullum revolution has felt a touch more durable than it should, why it’s inviting the relatively even-tempered into believing, is that the boys they have been “empowering” have a track record of being exceptional in other formats, or for other sides. Jonny Bairstow can present a reasonable case for being the best ODI opener ever, an IPL starter and a World Cup winner. Asking Root to turn it up a notch just feels sensible in the light of his own relentlessly good form. Continuing to select Jack Leach is understandable given his record as clearly the best red ball spinner in England. Stokes himself is still waiting for a gear in which he can’t play red ball cricket. 

The faith paid in Pope, a genuinely historic batter at County Championship level, falls under that umbrella. Crawley does not. It’s a good, solid barometer for whether a player is worth rolling the dice on in this new-age, ultra-aggressive environment, and for all the excitement around this team those tentpoles of selection, those rules of thumb, do still apply. As England look to take this summer fling into a committed, fully fledged methodology, they’d do well to remember that.

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