When Ollie Pope was first picked by England two summers ago against India, he was asked to bat at No 4, when he’d spent his young career coming in at No 6 for Surrey. But on this evidence, No 4 is precisely where he could end up.
He hadn’t scored many runs in this series before yesterday, but I didn’t read too much into that. This was a reminder of how pleasing he is on the eye. More than that, he’s busy and fluent – just the kind of batsman Jason Holder didn’t want to have to deal with after West Indies had kept control of things until tea.
At that stage, England were 131 for four off 53 overs, which was a run-rate below 2.5. A couple of quick wickets after the break, and Holder would have felt vindicated by his decision to field first. But Pope didn’t allow any of the bowlers to settle, and as he grew in fluency and confidence, so did Jos Buttler at the other end.
People have made the comparison already with Ian Bell, another England stylist who drove elegantly and had the same lovely back-cut that Pope seems to enjoy. I know what they mean, but there is a slight technical difference.
Whereas Bell’s hands were close together and therefore worked in sync, Pope has a very modern split grip: the hands are further apart, and so they can work against each other when he goes on the drive.
What that means in practice is that sometimes Pope can hit the ball in the air when he’s driving on the up outside off stump. It’s what India preyed on a bit in 2018, and he also got out that way in New Zealand before Christmas. On bouncier pitches in a country like Australia, he’ll have to be careful.
But these are nitpicks – because that shot is also a strength, as we saw when West Indies offered him too much width. He took advantage superbly, and ran them ragged.
I really enjoyed the way he played the two off-spinners, Rakheem Cornwall and Roston Chase. The key to playing spin is not to get trapped in that in-between position where you’re neither forward nor back. And Pope provided a masterclass, either getting fully forward or moving right back.
There was a lesson there for Dom Sibley, who doesn’t get out much to spin but doesn’t score very quickly against it either, because he works everything to leg. Pope messed with the bowlers’ lengths, which opened up both sides of the wicket.
He was also excellent between the wickets, dropping the ball into the off side and pinching singles. And by rotating the strike so often, he made sure the bowlers couldn’t get into a rhythm against one batsman. That’s a fielding captain’s nightmare.
Above all, he changed the complexion of the day without ever being reckless. Yes, he did get away with one or two miscues, but when you’re that busy as a batsman it’s a risk you have to accept.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay him is that he looks an absolute natural at the crease, and plays with an almost innate hand-eye coordination. No disrespect to the likes of Sibley and Rory Burns, but in comparison they appear a little manufactured, as if they’ve had to hone their games on the bowling machine. Not Pope. He looks a serious prospect.
The other thing we’ve seen so far in this series is that Pope looks adept under the helmet at short leg, taking two very sharp catches in last week’s second Test. England are supposed to be playing a Test series in India in the winter – and they may be playing their rescheduled series in Sri Lanka too – so he could prove a useful aid to the spinners. If a batsman’s going through a rough trot, being able to offer something in the field can count in your favour.
Not that you’d expect Pope to go through too many rough trots if he continues to play like this. These are early days, of course, but when the time comes for Pope to move up the order on a more regular basis, I have no doubt he’ll be ready.