AAugust 2018 and England play India in the Third Test at Trent Bridge. They lose, 32 for two in the fourth inning and 489 runs behind. Joe Root is in the game, beating out the team’s last call, Ollie Pope. Pope had made his Lord’s debut the week before, when he became their youngest middle-order batsman since Denis Compton 70 years earlier.
Here he hits his first ball from cover for a four and his third through the ravine for another. Beautiful shots, but they also betray a vulnerability. Indian bowlers hold that line outside the stump and soon enough he catches a third slip for 16.
England dropped Pope for the next game. It was a tactical decision, they wanted to play Moeen Ali as a second spinner, but it suggested they didn’t think Pope was quite ready. He took the hint and he did the right thing.
Shortly after, he suffered a dislocated shoulder and in his spare time met with his batting coach in Surrey, Vikram Solanki, to talk about what he needed to do to pass the test of cricket. “We decided that the way I got out the most was pushing on these fifth-strain balls that I should probably leave,” Pope later said. They decided he needed to make two changes.
One was technical – Pope moved to an off-stump guard – and the other was temperamental: he decided to tighten up and stop playing so many loose shots. He said the injury gave him “a real hunger” to play Test cricket.
Four years later, England face Australia in the fifth Test in Hobart. They are down, again, 81 for four in the first innings and 222 runs behind. Pope is present. He plays because Jonny Bairstow’s injury means he was unexpectedly called up after being dropped.
Considering his poor form on the tour and the series scoreline, the match could be his last chance to test cricket for quite some time. It started well. There’s another one of those gorgeous cover drives for four and a few limits across the midwicket. He has reached 14 years old and Scott Boland plays bowling.
There was nothing cunning about Boland’s plan. He gave Pope a ball outside, Pope played and missed. He gave him two more in the same place and Pope left them. The fourth ball went in his direction and Pope blocked it. The fifth ball was wide again and Pope couldn’t help it, he stretched and shoved his bat at it. The edge flew to the keeper and he was out for 14.
Pope wasn’t the only bad firing, there were others just as bad. Rory Burns was passed an inch because of a moment of hesitation, when a dive for the line could have saved him. But it’s worth picking, as it says a lot about the confused state of English cricket.
Pope is, most people agree, just about the best young English batsman in county cricket. He’s 24, has made over 4,000 first-class runs at an average of 51. Although it’s starting to feel like a long time ago, he’s had some success in Test matches. He won South Africa’s man of the match award a few years ago when he netted 135 in Port Elizabeth.
And here he is, struggling, on and off the team, making the same mistakes. Everyone has their own theories why. Three former hitters, Nick Compton, Rikki Clarke and Owais Shah, argued about it on Twitter. Compton felt it was temperamental, a lack of discipline and patience, and said players had forgotten how to strike for long periods. Shah felt it was technical, taking guard on the stump was a mistake and it was time to move on to another young batsman because Pope had already been given enough rope.
Clarke argued otherwise, he felt it was down to the team environment and the volatile effect of player rotation in and out of the team over the past 12 months.
It was an interesting disagreement. He explained how the loss of the Ashes opened up English cricket and exposed the myriad of problems within it. It will take some smart thinking from management to figure out which needs to be fixed first and how to do it.
Team general manager Ashley Giles says we need systemic change. He may be right. I would ask why the man everyone considers the best young batsman on the tour is making the same mistakes he made as a rookie.
Pope isn’t the only good young player who seems to have slipped since joining this English setup. Zak Crawley, who scored 267 against Pakistan, is another, Haseeb Hameed, who scored 82 against India on his debut, is another, Dom Sibley, who scored centuries against South Africa and the West Indies, is a third.
Root is about the only player on the team to have played anything like his best while Chris Silverwood was in charge. Giles and Silverwood might wonder why English cricket doesn’t provide their team with better players, but equally, English cricket might wonder why Giles and Silverwood don’t make more use of the best that has been provided to them.