Proclaiming that any young player, in any sport, is going to be a great before they’ve even been tested at the highest level is always an extremely dangerous thing to do. Those of us old enough to remember the hysteria when Graeme Hick had finally qualified and was selected to play for England in the early 90s or Mark Ramprakash’s sadly odd Test career can certainly testify to that. Worryingly, the same might be happening with Surrey’s Ollie Pope.
Anyone associated with Surrey County Cricket Club has proclaimed Pope as the second coming since he broke through into the first team there four years ago. His rise was rapid and a little over a year later he was earning his first Test cap at Lord’s against India and despite some missed games here and there, he has now played in 17 Tests and averages just under 32.
Everyone needs time to adjust to the increase in levels once you reach the pinnacle of your sport but besides a couple of innings in South Africa, where he registered his only Test match hundred to date, he’s not looked like succeeding at this level yet and looks increasingly like someone who has a lot more learning to do before he should become a permanent member of the team.
This isn’t a slight on Pope I will say now. He clearly is immensely talented but at the moment he looks like a rabbit in the headlights and it isn’t just recency bias about what has happened in India. During the 2020 summer he looked like someone you just had to bowl a fourth stump line to and eventually he’d try something too clever and get out. Youthful exuberance I believe it is called, and it sums up Ollie Pope’s game perfectly as this moment in time.
The danger of over inflating someone’s own sense of their own ability is that they believe it and they believe that they are destined for greatness. I’m not for one second suggesting Pope is lazy here or that he just assumes greatness will land in his lap, but he also looks like someone who hasn’t really experienced failure and sometimes, in order to be able to improve again at a higher level, there needs to be an admittance that perhaps it has been tougher than you imagined and that you might need to tailor your game if you want to succeed.
Great players are great players because they are able to do things that other people cannot. Or perhaps more succinctly they can do it more frequently than others can do, or certainly on a more consistent basis. Succeeding in Test cricket isn’t just about what shots you can and can’t play but which ones you choose to play and which ones you might perhaps play less frequently.
During the third Test this was encapsulated nicely as he brought out the reverse sweep, the late cut, the lofted drive but rarely did we see a compact forward defense before he was bowled by a straight ball from Ashwin. It’s great that he has all these shots and feels that he can execute them in this environment but it’s the ability to know when to play these shots that seems to escape him at the moment. It’s almost like he has too many options in his mind for every ball and as a result we see the muddled output.
Perhaps also he might need a move away from Surrey. The Oval has always been the best batting pitch in the country but it also sadly over inflates some players as we’ve seen with Rory Burns recently. Maybe a move to Nottinghamshire or Sussex might get him out of his comfort zone and would get him playing on a bigger variety of pitches to aid his development.
He doesn’t need major changes but if he is to succeed at the highest level on a regular basis and become the player some think he can be, he needs to learn how to be more selective in his approach. Sadly, at the moment he looks more like a white ball player who needs to hit every ball rather than a Test player who is prepared to scrap and fight for a score.
Calling for players to be dropped immediately after a humiliating run of defeats is pretty standard for the English press, but in this case some time away would help Pope in the long run I think. A certain Joe Root had to go back and work on his game after enjoying some initial success in his Test career and sometimes being dropped shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. In the long run it might be the making of him.
By Andy Hunter