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Yes he can, yes he did: Ollie Pope vindicates England's show of faith

First home hundred in new role at No. 3 marks overdue arrival of England's perennial coming man

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
12-Jun-2022
These have been lean years for the production of England Test batters. Since Joe Root's debut almost a decade ago, a succession of candidates have auditioned without looking the part. Ollie Pope was different, picked out as the heir apparent - but success only came in fits and starts. If there was ever a poster in the dressing room, in the style of the stencilled portrait that accompanied Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, only with HOPE replaced by POPE - well, it was getting a bit tatty around the edges by now.
Finally, here at Trent Bridge, almost four years since he made his debut against India, Pope delivered on his promise with a first Test century at home. It came in only his third first-class innings at No. 3, having been recalled following a difficult winter and anointed once again as English batting's great whites hope. Could he cut it in the pivotal spot in the order, where some say your best batter should be deployed? To borrow from the Obama campaign once again: "Yes he can!"
That was certainly the mood of adulation and appreciation which spilled forth to greet Pope's scampered two after pushing Matt Henry into the covers shortly after lunch on day three. Ben Stokes, his new captain, led the standing ovation on the England balcony, while Joe Root, who was in charge for Pope's first 23 Test appearances, fair leapt across the 22-yard strip before racing over to enclose his partner in a congratulatory embrace.
England's current regime, overseen by Stokes and Brendon McCullum, is all about pumping the players' tyres, but there can be no greater confidence-booster than actually producing the goods. Despite the flatness of the surface, and conditions in Nottingham that continued to be on the fill-your-boots side of hospitable, there were still moments when Pope's technique and temperament were tested. An attack featuring Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kyle Jamieson rarely gives up easy runs.
Pope had reached fifty on the second evening, having survived a sharp chance to first slip off Boult, and England's batting coach, Marcus Trescothick, emphasised the faith being placed in the 24-year-old, who had never previously batted at first drop before last week's Lord's Test.
"That's what we see a lot in county games, and if we can draw that out and continue to let him grow in that position, then we know the player that's in there," Trescothick said. "Hence the reason why he's in the team, and we've pushed him up to No. 3, because we all appreciate that he has the talent. It's nurturing it and bringing it through to be the player he can be."
For all Pope's silky qualities, his progress at international level has been far from serene. Two brief appearances in 2018 - again thrust into an unfamiliar position at No. 4 - brought him 54 runs at 18.00, and he spent 15 months out of the side before going on to record a maiden hundred on the 2019-20 tour of South Africa. After 10 Tests, which included an innings of 91 against West Indies in Southampton, Pope's average stood at 43.38.
Few would have predicted the subsequent slide but, either side of a shoulder operation, his returns dried up while concerns about his technique grew. After the winter's Ashes ended with Pope being scuttled by Pat Cummins, bowled behind his legs to add to English ignominy, his average had fallen below 30 and he was relegated to carrying drinks in the Caribbean.
Since then, as Pope told ESPNcricinfo before this series, he had returned to Surrey and worked on stripping his game back. "I've just tried to keep it as simple as possible and put a big focus on my decision-making rather than thinking too much about my technique," he said.
Watch Pope bat for any length of time and you will be left in no doubt about his ability to ping shots around the ground. But coming in at No. 3 in Test cricket is only likely to increase the scrutiny on that aforementioned decision-making - as his dismissals for 7 and 10 at Lord's made clear. The ball from Boult that did for him in the second innings, a searing seam-and-swing skidoosh into off stump, had the air of the unplayable; but Pope's skittering feet and slightly closed bat face suggested there might have been better ways to attempt to play it.
At Trent Bridge, in more benign circumstances, it was again Boult and his left-arm interrogation that would prove Pope's greatest challenge. The eighth ball he had faced, after coming in early on the second evening, produced a waft in the channel that could only do Pope damage, and it was Boult who found the edge at the start of his second spell, only for Daryl Mitchell to spill the catch going low to his left.
That let-off came during an adrenalin-fuelled counter, mainly off the bowling of Henry, in which Pope zipped from 11 to 50 in the space off 22 balls. Two top-edged hooks flew into the stands, but there were several more authentic strokes besides, Jamieson drilled through the covers and then cut away for two fours in the space of three balls to complete his first Test half-century since last September.
He resumed on a balmy Sunday morning with no doubt about what another expectant full house was hoping to see. With Alex Lees providing positive vibes at the other end, enthusiastically cover-driving his way to a first Test fifty, Pope was able to ease himself back in. There were a couple of anxious fiddles at Boult, another outside edge falling narrowly short of Mitchell, before an authoritative response three balls later as he stroked his first boundary of the day.
For a while, as Lees' cover drive brought his downfall and Root made a typically busy start to his innings, Pope was becalmed, facing just 28 balls during a 15-over period in the lead-up to lunch. He went into the interval on 84, but did not dally after the resumption, aided by four overthrows and then gliding through the 90s in the space of seven balls. The elation, and the relief, was palpable as Pope's helmet came off, the bat swung vigorously in celebration. England's coming man had finally arrived.
There was time for some fun afterwards, as Pope and Root looked to make good on Neville Cardus' assertion that Trent Bridge was "a lotus land for batsmen, a place where it was always afternoon and 360 for two wickets". Henry was ramped for six, then thrashed impudently for four more after switching ends. Root slipstreamed his way to a 116-ball hundred, before Pope eventually fell to another attacking stroke after tea.
Pope walked off as only the third man other than Root to score a Test hundred at No. 3 for England since the retirement of Jonathan Trott in 2015. The HOPE in the dressing room now is that there will be a few more to come.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick