(Photo: Getty Images)
By Roderick Easdale
At the Kia Oval against Yorkshire in the most recent round of championship matches, Ollie Pope made an unbeaten 158 in his only innings. Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root aggregated only three more runs than this in their four innings combined – and Bairstow had batted like a god in his first innings 95. But sometimes, it appears, Popes can be higher than gods.
Pope had come in with Surrey in difficulties, or as Scyld Berry put it in The Daily Telegraph: “Pope appeared at 69 for four, which is not the sort of triumphal entry that Popes have normally made, at least not since the Avignon schism.” (A triumphal entry to The Kia Oval had been beyond Pope in another way – the night before he had filled up his new car with petrol. Problem was, it was a diesel model.)
His 158 was the highest of his three centuries in his career – it was only his 10th first-class match. It was also made in front of the England captain,
a piece of timing as felicitous as those of many of the drives and flicks that punctuated his innings. Root was “very impressed – on a wicket that offered a bit. Ollie played really well and put our bowlers under pressure. He has a good all-round game.”
Yorkshire’s bowlers, marshalled by acting Yorkshire captain Root, had seemingly no answer to the Chelsea-born 20-year-old. When they gave him width on the offside, Pope was quick to dispatch the ball, often square of the wicket, from either front or back foot. When the bowlers tightened their lines he whipped the ball through the legside, one such shot, to wide mid-on, bringing up his century.
“He is a 360 batsman, for he can play anywhere around the ground with regulation and reverse shots,” explains Surrey director of cricket Alec Stewart. “He’s an exciting talent.”
Much press talk was of a Surrey wicket-keeper batsmen ascending to England’s Test honours as a batsman. But maybe the one we should have been concentrating on was not Ben Foakes, but Ollie Pope? Foakes may average 42 in first-class cricket (comfortably more than Stoneman, Malan, Buttler, Stokes or Vince), but Pope now averages 58. Now that is one triumphal entry to first-class cricket.
Dean Elgar, who is uniquely well placed to judge Pope as he played with and against him, is in no doubt where Pope is going: “It was a fantastic knock. It was really tough out there as they are seasoned, campaigned bowlers who knew what they were doing. Ollie’s really impressed me this season, as
I know he has others in the Surrey dressing room. But he had impressed me last year when I played against Surrey. He’s still a young kid and got a lot to learn, but so far he has really done well and I’m sure he’s going to have a bright future for England.”
Surrey clearly reckon he is someone unlikely to be fazed by the big occasion. When they gave him his county debut, in 2016, it was in the Royal London Cup semi-final. He made 20. Surrey won by 19 runs.
His early games for Surrey were all in white-ball cricket and Pope has taken his white-ball game into the first-class arena – “to be honest I’ve got a pretty basic game and I try, whether it’s one-day or four-day cricket, to play much the same way.”
Last winter he went to Australia, to play Grade cricket in Sydney for Campbelltown Ghosts – “a really good experience and hopefully the rewards will keep showing from that.” He played 23 games for them all told and in a dozen First Grade games he averaged 64.
So does he put his excellent form this season – he tops the division one championship averages with 427 runs at 85.40 – to his time Down Under? “Partially – playing matches all winter has been pretty useful. But we had a long pre-season as well and the conditions here are very different.”
He played for Campbelldown as a wicket-keeper batsman. He is also keen to remind you that he kept wicket for the South last winter versus the North. “Obviously Foakesy takes a bit of getting past, but I am still working hard at my keeping so if ever an opportunity comes up I’m ready for it.”
This is as far as he will state publicly on the subject of ambitions: “I don’t really look too far ahead. I try to take each day as it comes, and you never know where that may take you. I just try to score my runs and catch my catches and that’s all I can do.”
Will Pope play for England? Is the Pope a Catholic?