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Ollie Pope: 'I've always seen myself as a top-order batter. I know I've got the game to succeed'

England batter excited by promotion to No. 3, and focused on decision-making not technique

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Ollie Pope believes his promotion to No. 3 is a vote of confidence from England's management  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Ollie Pope believes his promotion to No. 3 is a vote of confidence from England's management  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Ollie Pope's dismissal on what turned out to be the final day of the Ashes four months ago confirmed what had long been clear: that a player marked out by England as one of their brightest young batters had a scrambled mind which was clouding his judgement.
Pope was batting so far across his stumps that he was bowled around his legs by Pat Cummins, stepping outside off and looking to clip a straight ball away off his pads. It was his fourth single-figure score in six Ashes innings, bringing his overall Test average down to 28.66.
Four months later, Pope is sipping a coffee at the Kia Oval as the rain interrupts a training day, reflecting on his status as England's new No. 3. "There's a lot of people who have their opinions about whether you should be in the team or not, and that's fine," he tells ESPNcricinfo, "but I know that I've got the game to succeed at this level."
Pope's promotion is a gamble - he has never batted above No. 4 in first-class cricket - but Ben Stokes, his new captain, called him last week to underline that it shows how highly England rate him. "He called me after [Brendon] McCullum did and said it's a great opportunity - of course it is," Pope says.
"He said that rather than seeing it as a leap of faith, [I should] see it as 'this is how much we back you'. Hearing that from a guy like him is awesome - that's the sort of thing that gives you the confidence to go and do well. He's great for us youngsters and gives us really good confidence and clarity."
Pope asked Stokes and Marcus Trescothick - England's batting coach, with whom he worked closely on the tour to the Caribbean - whether he should shift up to No. 3 for Surrey in their game against Kent two weeks ago, after reading that Joe Root would return to No. 4, but they told him to stay put for the time being.
"The feedback was that if you're scoring your runs at No. 4, they're similar roles. The fact that I've had a good season batting at No. 4 gives me good confidence. There's a lot of chat about the fact that I bat No. 4 at Surrey but there's also one ball's difference between No. 3 and No. 4: you can still be in at 10 for 2 sometimes."
In practice, the difference between the two positions is around 10 overs, based on data from Tests in England over the last three years - but do not expect him to reinvent himself as a defensive batter in his new role. "Your top three don't just have to blunt the attack," he says, "but this year I feel like I've really tried to tighten up and be a bit more specific and controlled.
"Obviously I might be in a little bit earlier but it doesn't change the way I play. It might be a slight mental adjustment, but that's okay. I'm excited to get up the order. I've always seen myself as a top-order batter in red-ball cricket. I see it more as a vote of confidence, rather than anything else." He is relishing the prospect of working with McCullum, whom he describes as "one of my idols… one of my favourite cricketers growing up".
Gareth Batty, Surrey's head coach, is open to Pope switching roles with Hashim Amla - the county's main overseas player and current No. 3 - in the future and he agrees that it would be a sensible move. "If that's where England see me - and hopefully I can make that spot my own - then yeah, absolutely, I'd like to keep practising it here as well," he says.
When Pope walks out to bat against New Zealand at Lord's next week it will be one year since the start of a series against the same opposition, one which saw his technique and approach scrutinised in minute detail for the first time in his career. He had struggled in India earlier in the year, averaging 19.12 across eight innings, but the extreme nature of those conditions meant he avoided the spotlight to the same extent.
"My technique had only been praised before then and in county cricket I'd done really well batting where I was batting [on off stump] against New Zealand. [Tim] Southee got me out at Lord's with a good ball and everyone was like, 'if you'd be standing on middle, you'd have hit it'. But no: he actually just set me up nicely, rather than me falling over it.
"I tried not to listen to that too much but at the time, I actually probably did too much. Looking back on it, I know where I'm at with my own game now and I can keep chatting to my coaches and the people that I trust from a cricket point of view. People sat on the sofa at home can have their opinions but I use my people I trust a lot more now."
While Pope maintains that his problems - he has averaged 21.27 in the last 12 months - did not come from his guard alone, he concedes that "tinkering" with his technique left him thinking about "where my bat is, where my head is" throughout his innings, filling his mind and clouding his judgement.
He spoke to Vikram Solanki - Gujarat Titans' director of cricket who worked closely with Pope when coaching Surrey - at the start of the season and agreed that rather than adjusting his guard based on which bowler he was facing and their angle of attack, he should "just make a decision and stick to it".
"I start on middle and then trigger just outside, but I'm closer to middle than off now," he explains. "I know there's a lot of chat about it. I sat down with Vik and he said: choose one, you'll make it work. That's what I've done and it's felt really good. That's probably my biggest learning: although you're going to have small changes, I've probably been too quick to make them over my time [with England] so far.
"I've tried to make my movements a little bit smaller. I realised in the Ashes that when your beans get going a bit, they can become a little bit bigger and then you can start doing things slightly differently which can mess up your alignment. 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.
"I've looked back at two of my best innings this year [127 against Hampshire and 96 against Kent] and realised my hands were doing slightly different things, but I felt just as good in both because I was making good decisions. That's a good lesson for me. It's not all about technique: it's about being sharp."
Pope's Championship form for Surrey has been typically strong with 417 runs in six innings this season and he will turn out for them in the T20 Blast on Friday night - coincidentally, batting at No. 3 - after spending Tuesday and Wednesday with the Test squad at St George's Park, England's footballers' training base.
"It's just another game under the belt," he explains. "I've never struggled with the movement from red-ball to white-ball… in my eyes, cricket's cricket. People might ask why I'm playing at T20 when there's a Test series in six or seven days but I'll be hitting more red balls off the pitch than white balls."
Rob Key, England's new MD who chaired the interim selection panel, said last week that he hopes McCullum and Stokes can "unlock" Pope's potential - potential which has been glaringly obvious for a number of years, to the extent that Ed Smith backed him to bat at No. 4 as a 20-year-old on debut in 2018.
He has shown glimpses of his best in Test cricket, not least in his maiden - and, so far, only - hundred against South Africa but nearly four years after that debut, his average is the wrong side of 30. His record is almost identical to that of Zak Crawley, who is also 24 and will open the batting alongside Alex Lees next week.
"We chat a lot," Pope says of his relationship with Crawley. "We've had some great opportunities to tour places where you've had the extremes of Australia to Ahmedabad. They've obviously been tough tours but we've learned a lot from them as well and if you look at other countries, there's not a massive amount of guys our age who have either played that much or who are in their team doing really well.
"Test cricket is tough and you've got to learn your lessons quickly. Of course there are pressures on us but we're both looking to kick on and both feel like we've got the game for it. Hopefully, we can show that this summer."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98