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Pope enjoys Blast freedom as he seeks 'ruthless' Test edge

England's No. 3 has welcomed red-ball break while honing leadership skills in T20

Ollie Pope swings leg side during his innings of 40, Vitality Blast, Surrey vs Somerset, Vitality Blast, The Oval, June 2, 2024

Ollie Pope on playing in the Blast: "You can express yourself, hit balls, strong shots on the up, pick up length quickly and hit good pull shots"  •  PA Images via Getty Images

It was Laurie Evans who broke the news to Ollie Pope that his unbeaten 100 in vain against Sussex last Friday was one short.
Surrey's Vitality Blast captain had arrived early in a chase of 214, lasting the course as they fell 36 runs short for their first defeat of the campaign. With an improbable 38 needed from the final two deliveries, Pope clocked the Kia Oval scoreboards, which showed he was on 99 not out.
"It's probably the one time you can be a bit selfish," Pope says. "You know - 'oh go on then, I'll take the easy single'." A snick through to the keeper on the bounce brought the run, followed by a sheepish raise of the bat.
Alas, the scoreboard was wrong. Pope was actually on 98 when he faced the penultimate ball of the innings.
"I got back into the changing room and Laurie Evans came up, shook my hand and went, 'Nice 99 mate, well played!' I was like, 'What?!'" It would have been Pope's first limited-overs century.
"It was obviously annoying, but at the same time, we lost the game. If I did get a hundred, we still lose the game. That's the thing that's wrong with cricket - people think that one run should make a difference. It's obviously nice to get those milestones. But when you lose, it doesn't really matter."
Last Friday's hiccup aside, Surrey have enjoyed a strong start to the Blast, winning three out of four and sitting third, with Somerset and Sussex above them in a strong South Group. Regular skipper Chris Jordan's presence at the World Cup - one of three Surrey players in the England squad, along with Will Jacks and Reece Topley - presented Pope, England Test vice-captain, with the opportunity to enhance his leadership CV. He admits the last couple of weeks have been a crash course in captaincy, particularly game management.
"It's been good so far," Pope says. "The thing for me is that I haven't really played T20 cricket, so I was a bit behind - not the rules, but I guess just managing it. You forget how hectic and frenetic it can be out there. That first game [against Hampshire] we had to field with five inside the ring for the last over because we were slow between the overs. I felt like I couldn't go any quicker! So there are a few things like that you need to sharpen up as quickly as you can.
"The bowlers have bowled nicely overall, which makes my job easier. The last game [against Sussex] was probably the first time we've been put under some real pressure. They played nicely and it's just trying to find a way to keep your calmness around the group. And also be at peace in T20 cricket that someone might get you. If someone hits the ball you want to bowl for four or six, then you have to be at peace with that."
Despite the new challenges, Pope is glad for the Blast after an uncharacteristically tough start to the County Championship season. Surrey sit top, but Pope is averaging 24.00 from nine innings, a paltry return considering he arrived into the summer boasting an average of 70.31 in first-class cricket for the county. Off the back of a tour of India, which began with a match-winning 196 in the first Test at Hyderabad before falling away to finish with a series total of 315, it was the last thing he wanted.
"I've had some good runs, good innings and then periods like the back end of India. If I can get an early score, can I back that up in the next game and the game after that? It's about being ruthless"
Ollie Pope on his Test form
"Coming back from India, I was like, 'Right, have a couple weeks off and get stuck into the county stuff'. There was always this expectation for me to just go and score runs week in and week out. And then when I don't, it's like, 'Why is this happening?'"
"I had a couple of low scores early, made a sixty [63 against Worcestershire] and a forty [44 against Warwickshire] and just struggled to get going. It has been kind of frustrating, but at the same time I think it's quite a nice time for this T20 block to come. You can go and express yourself; you can hit balls, strong shots on the up, pick up length quickly and hit good pull shots. Sometimes, playing county cricket, it can feel like every ball is around the knee roll. It's a great challenge but freeing up can help my red-ball game as well."
It speaks to how strong India finished the Test series, moving on from Hyderabad emphatically to triumph 4-1, that Pope's memories of his century - one that drew rave reviews from many, including India head coach Rahul Dravid - are minimal, to a point.
"It wasn't until I got back and people were like 'well done in India' that I was like, 'oh yeah - thanks!' I've got high expectations of myself so I was disappointed with how the rest of the series went."
Hyderabad, he says, will always have a special place in his heart, the best feeling he has had in Test cricket, though he has not watched the innings back. But the fits and starts that followed - two 23s, a 39, three single-figure scores, including two ducks, then 11 and 19 in the final Test - still irk. Three dismissals in particular.
"The last two [in Dharamsala] were annoying because I felt good on a good pitch. I ran past Kuldeep and top-edged a sweep off Ashwin. The other was my first innings [in Ranchi, the fourth Test], where I ran down the wicket when it was nipping around a bit. Somehow DRS said it was out, but, again, the shot I wasn't too happy with after. Everything I've worked on over the last few years is trusting my defence, which I didn't do.
"You get a few good balls - you always do - but there were dismissals where I'm thinking, 'Why did I do that?' They're the learnings I can take. You become a better player by learning from those mistakes."
The summer is an opportune time to channel those frustrations. Pope will play the remainder of Surrey's Blast matches in this block ahead of the return of the County Championship at the end of June. He will play away to Worcestershire, starting June 23, before missing the next round ahead of the first of three West Indies Tests, at Lord's on July 10. Three more Tests against Sri Lanka follow, before tours of Pakistan and New Zealand before the year is out.
Though England's batting remains largely settled, they are likely to broach the prospect of a new wicketkeeper in a bid for more consistency after Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes shared duties over the last two years. Pope's Surrey team-mate Jamie Smith has been touted as an option, likewise Lancashire's Phil Salt, who has been in impressive T20 form.
But what of Pope, who has fulfilled the role for England on three occasions? Would he be game? He laughs when the option is put to him. The last time he kept wicket was the second Test of the Pakistan tour at the end of 2022 - one of only eight times he has done so in a first-class match.
"I'd do whatever is required from me," he answers diplomatically. "Me as a keeper, I've always been a keeper, but batting at three over the last two years back in the Test team, that's been my focus.
"My volume of keeping hasn't been up to what it should be. I've not been able to train much with it. I'd never say no to anything like that, but it'd mean I'd have to get my keeping gloves and dust them off. I'm not sure. I've not kept in a good while but if that's the case, it'll be crack on and work hard."
The No. 3 position he has assumed since Ben Stokes took the captaincy in 2022 is going well - averaging 41.75, set against a career Test average of 34.04 - even if he does want to adopt a more bloody-minded streak. That, at this juncture, remains his primary focus.
"I'd like to keep making it my own and churn more consistently in that spot. I've had some good runs, good innings and then periods like the back end of India. If I can get an early score, can I back that up in the next game and the game after that? It's about being ruthless."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo