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Ollie Pope finds home comforts in tough surroundings to power England revival

Crucial 81 bolsters the batting as England inch into the ascendancy at the Kia Oval

George Dobell
George Dobell
England have kissed a few frogs in the search for a world-class Test batter over recent years, but it really does seem as if they may have found their prince.
It's one thing for Ollie Pope to have made runs against a fine attack. It's quite another to have made them with the match, the series and, perhaps, his own career in the balance. Only time will tell, but if feels as if England have, for the first time since Joe Root's emergence, found a specialist top-order batter who could and really should enjoy a sustained career at this level.
This felt like a crossroads moment. England were 62 for 5 shortly after Pope emerged from the dressing rooms. Hopes of a substantial first-innings lead had soon crumbled into fears of a deficit and there were legitimate doubts over Pope's ability to handle the crisis. He had not reached 50 in his 15 previous Test innings, after all. The series might well depend on how he fared.
More than that, though, Pope is something of a barometer player for the English system. He looks, by some distance, the best young England batter of his generation. He averages 69.02 for Surrey in first-class cricket and, ridiculously really, 101.80 at home in those matches. The worry for English cricket is that if such a player can't make it at international level, you start to wonder if anyone can. It's been a long time - almost a decade - since Root strode out to bat in his first Test in Nagpur.
The influence of Root is obvious upon Pope. From the moment he emerged on to the pitch, he was copying his captain's mannerisms - the shadow strokes; the skips to ensure his feet are moving - and later admitted he had watched the way he had gone about amassing runs in recent months. Well, you would, wouldn't you?
As a result, he has made some technical adjustments. While Pope had, at the start of the season, been taking an off-stump guard, here he batted on middle. With a minor back-and-across trigger movement (to the seamers, at least), a slightly open front shoulder and a front foot pointing towards mid-off, he has found a way to bring his bat down straight while retaining decent balance at the crease. There are still moments when he over-balances a little towards the off side, but he appears to know exactly where his off stump is and has a range of strokes to score all round the wicket. He really does have all the ingredients to enjoy a fine career.
Initially, at least, life was tough. Jasprit Bumrah beat him twice in his opening minutes at the crease, also taking him on the shoulder with a bouncer and testing his defensive technique. But he came through, generally showing good judgement about which deliveries to leave outside off stump and defending with a reassuring sense of composure.
The introduction of the support bowlers made life much easier. At one stage Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj conceded seven boundaries in 10 balls (including one lot of four leg-byes) as Pope and Jonny Bairstow released the pressure. Later there was a flowing cover drive off Bumrah and, even though the boundaries dried up once he made 50, such is his Root-like ability to manipulate the ball around the field, he continued to accumulate without drama. The partnership of 89 between him and Bairstow was England's second-highest stand of the year that did not involve Root; proof indeed of their reliance upon their captain.
Some caution is probably required here. It is more than three years since Pope made his Test debut and one innings, especially one played on an increasingly benevolent batting track and at Pope's home ground, doesn't answer all the questions. We had thought we had witnessed breakthrough innings previously, too. His century in Port Elizabeth, in particular, suggested the arrival of a major talent. He out-batted Root in that innings.
But his progress has not been as smooth as anticipated. For a variety of reasons - not least being asked to bat at No. 4 at the start of his Test career; a position he had never batted at county level - he struggled to turn his potential into achievement. He has also been asked to keep wicket in one Test, suffered a recurrent shoulder injury which necessitated surgery and batted on a succession of fiendishly tough surfaces. It might be relevant, too, that he spoke of the mental demands of living in a bubble last summer. You suspect the nagging doubts which plague most batters are particularly persistent with Pope. All that hope and expectation is not always easy to deal with. This is his 20th Test and that average, 33.20 even after this innings, is disappointingly modest.
He is still just 23, though. And here, against a fine attack and in a position when his team were heavily reliant upon him, he delivered with not just runs but runs made with grace and style. There will be ups and down in Pope's future, no doubt, but if he is not still playing for England in 10 years with an average in excess of 40, something will have gone pretty badly wrong.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo