Matches (12)
BAN v SL (1)
PSL 2024 (2)
WPL (2)
Ranji Trophy (2)
Sheffield Shield (3)
WCL 2 (1)
Nepal Tri-Nation (1)

Ollie Pope at ease with senior England role going into Ashes summer

Surrey batter not looking too far ahead after successful shift up order under Stokes and McCullum

Ollie Pope made a century while standing in as captain in Abu Dhabi last November  •  ECB Images

Ollie Pope made a century while standing in as captain in Abu Dhabi last November  •  ECB Images

Ollie Pope is among many within English cricket watching Ben Stokes at the IPL with bated breath.
Despite nursing a troublesome left knee, Stokes chose to fulfil his commitment to Chennai Super Kings. Reinforced by a cortisone injection prior to travelling out to India, England's Test captain is currently two games into his stint and even bowled in the victory over Lucknow Super Giants on Monday, albeit an over that went for 18. Even with promises from the man himself that he won't take undue risks, and the reassurance offered by head coach Brendon McCullum that the medical team at Chennai - one of McCullum's former franchises - will look after Stokes, everything is crossed he arrives back in one piece ahead of an Ashes summer.
For Pope, the concern is a little more complex. While Stuart Broad was the unofficial vice-captain during the 2022 summer, it was Pope who actually fulfilled the role over the winter, skippering two warm-up matches - against England Lions in Abu Dhabi ahead of December's Pakistan tour, then in New Zealand ahead of the two-match series in February. Granted, they were low-key affairs (both two-day matches which Stokes chose to skip), but the England management gave Pope the opportunities to further his leadership credentials and were impressed by what they saw.
Stokes has been reticent to name a deputy officially. But should he be unable to take to the field at any point this summer - he might even choose to sit out the Ireland Test at Lord's which begins on June 1 - Pope is evidently the next in line. Though he hopes otherwise, Pope backs himself to do the job, if required. His only previous experience in competitive cricket came in September 2021, leading Surrey in a County Championship match against Glamorgan.
"It's not a conversation that's been had, it's just something that if it comes about, then I feel confident," Pope said. "I feel the cricket brain's good enough to allow that to happen. Whether they choose to do that in a Test, I've honestly no idea.
"Fingers crossed, touch wood - his [Stokes] knee's all good. Firstly, that's not something we've spoken about. I don't know if Stokesy did go down, I'm not sure who would do it to be honest, we've not spoken about it.
"There's really one Ben Stokes, isn't there, in England. And I think that's something that if he did get injured and someone had to do it, no one is going to try and replicate exactly what he does, but take the ideas he implemented into the team. Do it slightly in their own way, but continue the messages that he provides if someone were to do it if he did get injured. Again, touch wood, he's all good."
Pope enjoyed leading those warm-up matches and believes it has given him a new perspective on the field. Throughout five Tests in Pakistan and New Zealand - four of them England wins - he watched Stokes a little closer: "What he does with the bowlers and what he does with the fields and how he talks to his bowlers as well."
He seemingly took those lessons on board, and was a more vocal presence in games, whether consulted by Stokes between overs or offering his own suggestions regarding on-field tactics. Coaches are particularly enamoured with how Pope has emerged as a more senior member of the squad, something which is no doubt linked to taking more responsibility as the No. 3 batter in this exciting new iteration of the Test team.
That, ultimately, will be his primary focus this summer. Since moving to first-drop, Pope is averaging 41.63 across 12 caps, a marked improvement from the 28.66 across the previous 13. As impressive as the two centuries and five fifties in that time is the strike rate of 75.04, in line with the positive mantra espoused by Stokes and McCullum.
Pope credits the pair for making him a better player now. The shift in mindset has benefitted him greatly, as has the faith shown in him. This time last year, after being dropped after a dispiriting Ashes series - England lost 4-0 and Pope averaged 11.16 from three Tests - he boldly decided to call up a newly appointed Stokes and request a move up the order. It was a gamble, from both parties, that has paid off.
"I feel a much better player," Pope said. "I've got a better defence and a better game plan. That's come through just constantly playing.
"Our new mindset in that England team means I go into a Test series really excited for it, rather than thinking: 'Oh, if I miss out this time, I hope it's not going to be my last.'
"They should be the best times of your life, playing for England, and they've [Stokes and McCullum] made that pretty clear. Your career's too short for you not to love those moments so that's a good message for me. You've got to enjoy it while you're there."
Surrey begin the defence of their County Championship title on Thursday, against Lancashire at Old Trafford. It will be the first of six matches they will be able to call on Pope before the international season gets going. Having contributed 700 runs at an average of 70 last time around, his aim, for now, is to get the club off to a strong start in Division One. Then he will allow himself to get excited for the challenges ahead, particularly those five Tests against Australia.
"What worked for me last year was that when I was at Surrey and I was around for the start of the Championship, I didn't necessarily think I was going to be playing for England. I wasn't thinking about England.
"That's going to be my plan again this year. I've got half an eye on it just from a mental and physical state, so you know you can peak at the right time. But while I'm here I'm going to 100 percent concentrate on this because that's what'll put me in good stead for the Ashes. It's something to really look forward to, something I'm really excited for. But while you're here in a Surrey shirt, why not enjoy this as well?"

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo