England in South Africa: ‘Ollie Pope belongs in Test cricket’

England in South Africa: ‘Ollie Pope belongs in Test cricket’

Ollie Pope is the real deal.

Every now and then you see a young player come into international cricket and you know that they are on a different level.

Joe Root was the last one England had. There was Alastair Cook and Ian Bell before that. You watch them and think ‘this youngster is going to make it’.

In scoring 135 not out on the second day of the third Test against South Africa, his maiden century, Pope showed that he has everything it takes to have an outstanding career.

There are no signs of tension, nerves or pressure. Sometimes, you see players that are new to the side desperately fighting to prove they are worthy of their place.

Not for players like Pope, who seamlessly move up to the highest level and look like they belong.

The Surrey man, who is only 22, first had a go at Test cricket back in 2018, with two matches against India.

At that time, it was difficult to take anything from those outings because he was batting at number four – two places higher than he ever had for his county at that point – and spent so little time at the crease. It was too fleeting to make a judgement.

Now we can see that he is a very modern batsman, with a sound technique. People will talk about the comparisons with Bell, the lovely late cuts behind square on the off side and the beautiful drives through the covers, but there is also an incredible extension to his repertoire – the ramps and scoops – which have been brought about entirely by Twenty20 cricket.

He is not a big hitter and instead is more of a touch player. He makes things looks so easy and he is an incredibly exciting prospect for this England team.

I have spent a little bit of time with Pope on these winter tours of New Zealand and South Africa.

Often, when they are playing away, England will host quiz nights and invite former players who happen to be in the country, either with the media or travelling fan groups. It is a bit like an ‘England club’, which is a lovely idea.

In New Zealand, Pope was the captain of my quiz team, which is why I now call him ‘skipper’ when I see him. He came across as a lovely young man with a very good sense of humour, albeit with some improvement needed to his spelling.

The hope is that he keeps on track and his game is not forced or pushed, that there is no talk of him being a future captain or anything like that. He should be left alone to enjoy his cricket.

You would want to see him establish himself as England’s number six, behind the settled pair of Root at four and Ben Stokes at five, and not worry about an elevation to number three.

I doubt any of this success will go to his head, especially with a mentor like Alec Stewart at Surrey there to keep his feet on the ground.

We often see young players arrive, do well, then disappear. Something tells me that will not be the case with Ollie Pope.

He did a lot of his batting with Stokes, who made a century of his own.

We are running out of new ways to praise Stokes, but what we can say is that joining Ian Botham as the only England players to score 4,000 runs and take 100 wickets in Tests puts him in outstanding company.

We often think of the great all-rounders as hard-hitting batsmen. Botham certainly was. Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee too.

And that is how Stokes began. As one of the world’s leading limited-overs players, that part of his game remains.

But he has also adapted, tightening his defence to such a degree that you would happily let him bat for your life. He is a proper Test batsman.

England promoted him to number three for one Test against Sri Lanka last winter. Given how technically sound he is, it was not a ludicrous idea. He may well do it again in the future.

When you add that to his natural power and the innovations he has in the short forms of the game, then his bag of tricks is fit to burst.

That is before we even consider his bowling and fielding.

With Stokes and Pope scoring centuries, then Dom Bess chipping in with two wickets late on Friday, England are in a fantastic position to win the third Test and take a 2-1 lead in the series.

If the forecast is accurate, England may get the best of the bowling conditions. The first two days have mainly been hot and humid, with the rain and cloud only rolling in late on the second day.

If England find themselves them in a position to enforce the follow-on, the cool weather could mean that the bowlers are physically fresh enough to do just that.

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