By Chris Stocks
There were two critical moments during this most golden of summers for Ollie Pope where the 20-year-old Surrey batsman catapulted himself into Test contention.
Many saw Pope as a surprise pick to replace the out-of-form Dawid Malan for this week’s second Test against India at Lord’s.
But he was on the radar of two of the most important people in English cricket many weeks ago.
Joe Root, England’s Test captain, was the first of those after spotting Pope’s potential when he played against the youngster for Yorkshire against Surrey at The Oval in May.
In a County Championship match where no-one else scored more than 95, Pope set up a commanding innings victory for Surrey with a masterful unbeaten 158.
If that was the most eye-catching of Pope’s three hundreds during a summer where he averages 85.50 in the Championship, it was a match-winning unbeaten half-century for England Lions against India A at Worcester last month that was probably his most important innings.
Watching on from the stands was Ed Smith, the new national selector. Sharing a dressing-room with Pope was Alastair Cook, England’s all-time leading runscorer who hit 180 in the same match.
Both were left hugely impressed by Pope’s skill as a batsman and temperament both on and off the field.
That fed back to England coach Trevor Bayliss, another selector, and so when the decision to drop Malan after last week’s Edgbaston Test came there was only one choice to replace him – Pope.
Joe Clarke, another batsman who has impressed England, and James Hildreth, who has scored more Championship runs than anyone outside of runaway leaders Surrey, could feel hard done by.
Yet Pope’s elevation was not a knee-jerk decision by the selectors but a carefully-considered one borne over many months.
Time will tell if it was the right one but Root, speaking before the Lord’s Test, spoke of why he believes Pope has what it takes to prosper on the biggest stage over the long-term.
“He’s played some very important knocks under pressure for Surrey, and got a very good all-round game,” said Root.“That’s a very exciting prospect for such a young man, to have the ability to play in that manner.
“He’s very mature for a young man. I can see that he thinks about the game a lot and has a very good understanding of where he’s at within his own game – which is a really good sign coming into this environment. I hope that will stand him in really good stead.”
Pope, who spent the first day of the Lord’s Test against Pakistan in May with England’s squad, had an inkling he was on the verge of a call-up.
“I read an article or two that I was tagged in on Twitter, clicked out of curiosity,” he admitted. “I didn’t really take them in, because you don’t want to get your hopes up too high or you’ll get let down. But I had an idea.”
For one so young, it has been a remarkable rise, especially when you consider he has played just 15 first-class games for Surrey.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” admits Pope. “If someone told me I’d be in the squad for the second Test at Lord’s at the start of the season, I wouldn’t have really believed them.
“Likewise, if someone told me last year I was going to make my Championship debut last summer, I wouldn’t have believed them. “It’s just one of those sports where things happen so quickly. It’s exciting.”
After making his Championship debut for Surrey last August, it was Pope’s spell playing grade cricket in Sydney over the winter where he really felt he developed as a cricketer and a person.
“I had a really good winter,” he said. “I played grade cricket for Campbelltown, and was on my own two feet a little bit, especially with regard to my cricket, both technically and finding someone to train with me. I didn’t really have a coach, I just had to ask people to throw balls at me mid-week.
“Playing week-in week-out, Saturday and Sunday, getting to know my game a bit better.
“The wickets were flat, so I got time in the middle that I needed. That’s a massive thing for a young lad to do, especially when you’re just finding your way in the game.
“Just being on your own two feet and getting to know your strengths and weaknesses, learning from your dismissals and the games you score runs in.
“That helped me kick off the season quickly, I didn’t feel like it was the first game of the year. I was game ready.
“That helped me kick off the season how I wanted, found a bit of form and my method for now.
“I need to just keep riding the wave.”