Show of faith or leap of faith? Ollie Pope heads into the unknown at No.3

Surrey coach Batty backs batter, but promotion shows lack of communication

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Ollie Pope has never batted higher than No. 4 in a first-class match but Rob Key confirmed on Wednesday that he is in line to bat at No. 3 for England in their first Test against New Zealand.
The decision represents a monumental show of faith in a batter who has averaged 22.29 in the last two years across 29 Test innings. Candidates were relatively thin on the ground after Ben Stokes had agreed that Joe Root should return to No. 4 but Dawid Malan - still centrally-contracted and the third-highest run scorer in Division One - would have been a sensible, pragmatic choice.
But by backing Pope, Key and his selection panel - Stokes and Brendon McCullum were the others to cast votes - have underlined just how highly they rate him. There is a huge disparity between Pope's averages in Test (28.66) and first-class cricket (51.52) but several iterations of England management teams have made clear that they believe the latter to be a more accurate indicator of his ability than the former.
Pope's Ashes series ended in grisly fashion, bowled around his legs by Pat Cummins on the final evening in Hobart when getting so far across to the off side that his leg stump was exposed. He ran drinks in the Caribbean but a run of 58, 127, 47, 5, 84 and 96 for Surrey - all at No. 4 and with a simpler stance - has helped convince England that he is still the most promising young batter in the country.
"With a lot of these guys now," Key said, "the bet is that with the talent they have, this environment, these coaches, Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes can get the best out of one of our most talented cricketers. And Ollie Pope is one of those that, if we can unlock him, which I think they can, there's a seriously good Test cricketer there."
That Pope will bat at No. 3 for the first time in a Test match, rather than for Surrey, exposes the leadership vacuum that emerged at the ECB after England were thrashed in the Ashes. Gareth Batty, Surrey's interim head coach, is open to the idea of moving Pope to No. 3 in the Championship if England make a request, but with no managing director, coach or captain at the start of the season, there was nobody who could have asked.
"If England turned around tomorrow to us and said 'we want him to bat at No. 3 in four-day cricket' then we would obviously have the discussion and see what we could facilitate," Batty told ESPNcricinfo. "We would be very wrong in our jobs if we wouldn't consider that.
"I'm not saying that we would definitely do it, but we would certainly consider it - absolutely. And everybody who is in contention to play for England - red-ball or white-ball - we would do our utmost to make sure they are getting the right, appropriate opportunities with Surrey. Certainly in Ollie's instance, we'd do everything possible to facilitate him getting the best opportunities."
"What is he worried about?" Michael Vaughan asked rhetorically in his Telegraph column. "It can't be pace because that is not an issue in the county game. He is obviously worried about movement, which shows he has a couple of doubts about his technique."
The obvious difference between the roles is demonstrated by the fact that Pope has rarely faced the new ball this season, walking out inside 15 overs twice in his six innings to date. England's opening partnership of Alex Lees and Zak Crawley remains unproven, meaning there is every chance Pope will be in early to face Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson next month.
"Your mental make-up is different, going in at first drop," Batty says. "You might have less information if you lose a wicket early. It is different, but let's be honest: in international cricket, you're going to have to find a way wherever you bat, facing high-quality bowlers against a moving ball at high speeds.
"There are obvious differences but it would be wrong to think that there haven't been huge learnings for him from coming in after [Hashim] Amla and seeing Amla go about his business. It has worked for him for a decent period of time. I truly think that given the time and opportunity at No. 3, he will find his feet there. I don't see it as a huge drama.
"I stick by my stance that, for me - and obviously I'm going to be biased on this - he's the best young batsman in the country. That's backed up with performances domestically and he's shown wonderful glimpses in international cricket without having the consistency of an out-and-out senior player. It's a different role but so far in his career, any challenge that's been put in front of him, he's found a solution and come through with flying colours."
It is not the first time that Pope has filled unfamiliar roles for England, after brief stints at No. 4 in his debut series in 2018 - before he had batted there for Surrey - and at No. 7 as a wicketkeeper in New Zealand. Key played down the importance of his shift to No. 3, using the example of Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott who batted No. 3 and No. 4 respectively for Warwickshire but switched in the England team. "I have no real issue with it," he said.
"I think he has a technique and temperament, but it's down to us really to get the best out of him. That's my view on all of that: [let's] give him the backing to go and do it, so we can finally see the potential that we all think he has."
Quietly, the decision to promote Pope - and call-ups for Harry Brook and Matthew Potts after strong starts to the summer - represents an endorsement of the Championship by Key, even if Crawley's retention is harder to explain along those lines.
"Ollie Pope wasn't in the side and he's managed to get back in on the back of his county form as much as anything else," Key said. "County cricket actually this year has informed quite a few of our decisions, to be honest. It's been so pleasing to see what's been going on."
While the quality of balls has been poor, cricket in the Championship has borne a closer resemblance to Test cricket this year than for a long time; England will hope the same is true of Pope's run-scoring by the end of the summer.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98