Of the many reasons for positivity following England’s dominant series victory in South Africa, the performances of Ollie Pope with the bat were perhaps the most significant when looking ahead to the future of the Test team.
Mark Wood, whose nine‑wicket haul in the final Test in Johannesburg offered hope of a bright second chapter in the fast bowler’s Test career, and Ben Stokes, man of the series as he followed up his stellar home summer with more all-round heroics, are established figures on the international scene.
Yet for Pope this 3-1 series victory, during which the 22-year-old scored a maiden Test century and averaged 88.66 from No 6 in the order, was a breakthrough moment.
Speak to anybody, either inside the England camp or outside of it, and the opinion on Pope is the same – no young England batsman has looked more at home at this level so early in their career since Joe Root, who seven years on from his Test debut at Nagpur is now England’s captain and the team’s best batsman.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” says Pope. “It’s been really nice to spend some time in the middle and establish myself a little bit more and it’s nice to contribute to a winning side.”
Pope, whose initial chance for England came at No 4 in two Tests against India in the summer of 2018, is aware there is still much hard work ahead to fulfil his potential. However, the example of Root and Stokes, who along with Dom Sibley were the only England batsmen to score more than Pope’s 266 runs in this series against South Africa, are providing the youngster with a template for success.
“This is an amazing feeling and I’m going to enjoy this and the fact I’ve managed to get a few runs. But looking at the guys around you, you definitely never stand still. You’re learning from Rooty and Stokesy – they set a benchmark from a batting point of view. They’re always looking ahead, always thinking about that next series coming up and how they can prepare themselves best for that. That’s definitely what I’ll be learning to do from now on.”
The next challenge for Pope and England’s Test team comes in Sri Lanka in March, with a two‑match series in very different conditions to those they have encountered in South Africa.
“At the start of the winter in New Zealand we realised we’ve got a young group of players, we’ve got a pretty new set of lads together as a team and we knew it [success] wasn’t going to happen overnight,” says Pope.
“Our target was to go and win this series out here and it’s been an amazing experience to do that. But we also realise hopefully it’s just the start. Looking ahead it’s been nice to get some games under our belt, and a series win, and now it’s massive taking that into Sri Lanka.”
Pope was part of the squad that won 3-0 in Sri Lanka last winter, although the Surrey batsman was released to play for the Lions in the United Arab Emirates after the first Test in Galle. This time he will play a full part and he knows the challenge against spin will be a tough one.
“It’s going to be completely different cricket to what it is out here from a batting point of view,” says Pope. “We play on pretty quick wickets out here and you might not face many overs of spin.
“In Sri Lanka, they might open with spin. But from that time out there, I learned that you can go about scoring runs in different ways. I chat to people like Rooty who’ve done very well out there and I bat in a similar tempo to him. I’ll try to pick his brain a little bit and take that into that first Test if I do get picked out there.”
Having had early success at Test level, where he averages 47.77 after seven matches, Pope is also looking to break into England’s white-ball teams. “My dream is to play all three formats for England,” he says.
“I see myself as a white-ball player as well but our team is pretty established at the moment, they’ve got a great batting lineup, a great middle order so if I want to get in that white-ball side I’ve got to bide my time, score my runs in county cricket and hopefully keep scoring some Test runs and that’ll look after itself.”