Ben Jones looks at the England batter’s first Test century on home soil.
As England’s new leadership group looked ahead to the 2022 summer, there will have been key landmarks laid out. Boxes that needed to be ticked. Last week at Lord’s may have dealt with the biggest and most obvious target – “Win a bloody Test match” – but today at Nottingham we saw another, perhaps more significant tick: “Get the best out of Ollie Pope”.
In a new role at No.3 – a position he had never batted in a FC match before this series – Pope notched his second Test century, his first on home soil, and (remarkably) his first north of the River Thames. In every sense, be it cricketing or geographic, Pope was far from his natural habitat.
Early on in his innings, you could see his attacking instincts kicking in. As Trent Boult angled the new ball across him on the evening of Day 2, almost exclusively targeting that fifth stump line, the elbow twitched and the feet got into position to drive, to cut, to attack. A nick came, the chance went down. Pope was fighting his natural way of playing, and he was losing.
Across the morning session on Day 3 he was deprived of the strike, facing just 30 balls across a spell of 15 overs. Perhaps that explains why, despite his boundary intent remaining as high as the previous night, his scoring rate dropped. Pope managed just two boundaries across the entire session, struggling for fluency on a pitch could not have been more amenable. He wasn’t looking like getting out, but there was little to suggest a man at ease.
It was exactly the sort of internal fight people expected with Pope’s elevation to first drop. A natural middle order player, busy and aggressive, the best arguments for moving Pope to No.3 focused not on his suitability for the role, but on his quality. He would need to change his game to succeed in this position, but England – Key, McCullum, Stokes – were backing him to do it.
And so, over the course of 239 deliveries, we saw this battle between role and instinct play out. Pope would leave, leave, then leave again, before unleashing a full blooded cut or drive, occasionally a flick to the legside, that would find the ropes. You won’t often say this about an innings with quite so many boundaries, but it was one defined by a huge increase in patience, and reserve. On route to his century, Pope left just under a third of the deliveries bowled to him. That’s high for any Test batter, but it’s about as far from Pope’s game as you can imagine; the previous highest figure he’d recorded in a FC century was 15%, an innings played against Hampshire only a few weeks ago. Evidence again of a young man growing into a new style of batting, learning a new tempo at the very highest level.
The vast majority of those leaves were respectful acknowledgements of the Kiwi bowlers getting their length right. Whenever the seamers found that 6-8m zone, Pope was cautious, scoring at less than 2rpo, but he cashed in whenever that accuracy lessened. When they went too full or too short, Pope was almost run-a-ball.
Pope will encounter tougher conditions in his career up the order, there is no getting away from that. This week has seen a Trent Bridge surface that has been conducive to exciting strokeplay and attacking batting, but not necessarily particularly engaging cricket. The ongoing saga with the rapidly softening Dukes balls only furthers the idea that for all the skill involved in the four individual tons we’ve seen in Nottingham, it’s not been a particularly typical England home match. The summer ahead will bring greater challenges.
He does however appear to have moved back to a setup and method which could make those challenges more manageable. It wouldn’t be a Pope innings without some discussion of his guard and setup, but today was a more intriguing contribution to the debate than we often suffer. As has been noted, Pope has returned from a period of batting on off stump, and is now setting up in a more orthodox manner. The consequence of that is clear. Suddenly, the offside is opening up, particularly the area through point which was so productive for Pope when he first came on the scene. In that sense, this innings felt like a throwback; 60 of his runs came through point and cover, the true bounce and lightning quick Nottingham outfield allowing Pope to hammer boundary after boundary through the infield square of the wicket.
On the one hand, this was an innings which showed the value of testing your natural game, of pushing your mental capacity for self-control as far as it can go. In all but the rarest of occasions, patience is a virtue for a Test No.3, and learning that patience is key. But on the other hand, this was a knock which showed the importance of not straying too far from the player you are at heart. Pope’s cut shot was the bane of county attacks, and his range of strokes through the offside more generally is encouraging, enough to fuel a successful career at this level. By seeking to cover a weakness, Pope’s change of guard weakened an essential strength.
Ultimately, that has been the story of Pope’s Test career so far, a four year attempt to work out which elements of his county-conquering technique need to stay, and which bits need to go – where does he fight his instincts, and where does he allow them to take over. The success in Nottingham doesn’t change that, and the conversation will still be ongoing. Changes, sacrifices, they all still need to be made. What Nottingham has done is show the reward that justifies the work.