'Future England Captain' tag not on Ollie Pope's mind as he prioritises No. 3 role
England batter focused on learning as much as he can as they gear up for the Test series in New Zealand
"Cheers Broady!" beamed Ollie Pope, smiling from ear to ear, cheeks tinged with a bit of embarrassment.
Moments before he sits down for Friday's media engagement at the team hotel, Pope is informed of the words of Stuart Broad, who had been in that chair five minutes earlier.
"I think Pope is a great leader in the group, actually," Broad said after Pope captained an England warm-up match for the second time in three months, this time acting as Ben Stokes' understudy in Hamilton against a New Zealand XI, after a first go in Abu Dhabi against England Lions ahead of the Pakistan series.
"He's grown so much in the last year, the way he operates, the confidence and responsibility he's been given. He speaks really well in the group, he's got a great cricket mind. There's no doubt you can see him as a future England captain.
"He's been probably the most impressive growing cricketer in the group that I've seen over the last year. From where his confidence was to where he is now. How Popey has grown as a character is very impressive."
There aren't many better to gauge what makes a good Test captain given Broad has played under six of them across his 16 years and 159 caps at this level. The 36-year old was covertly given vice-captain duties last summer and came close to stepping up for the main job at Headingley against New Zealand when Stokes was battling with an illness. As such, his lauding of Pope as one in waiting carries considerable weight.
Pope, while appreciating the compliment, is in no rush to get to that point. Nor does he quite regard himself as a FEC (Future England Captain). His only previous dalliance with captaincy in professional cricket came in September 2021, when standing in for Rory Burns for Surrey's County Championship match against Glamorgan. Beyond that were games at the helm for Surrey under-17s and Cranleigh School.
"I don't necessarily see that. I'm going to keep developing my cricket brain," Pope said. "If that opportunity came up in the future I'll make sure I can learn as much as possible before then.
"But at the same time, I realise I've got a big job at number three to keep doing. If I can keep impressing there who knows what the future holds. But I'll keep learning and developing as an all-round cricketer as much as I can. If that happens (becoming England captain), great. If not, that's okay."
There's no doubt Pope's new home at number three adds to the overriding sense of maturity around the 25-year old. Even the acquisition of the role spoke of a kid wanting to fast-track himself to seniority: calling up Stokes not long after the allrounder had been made Test captain and all but demanding the only available slot in the batting order.
"I can see cricket from a bit more perspective. It's still my priority, I'm not one of those players who've had kids and seen a new side of things. It's more that I've allowed the pressure to be taken off a little bit and trust you can bounce back after some low performances."Ollie Pope
Results, so far, have been sound, averaging 40.82 - above the career rate of 32.56 - from 10 Tests at first drop, with two of his three centuries to date. It is clear from those numbers we are still at the early stage of all this with Pope, as we are with the Test side under Brendon McCullum.
For a batter who had the whiff of arrested development at the highest level in his first 23 appearances, beginning with a wide-eyed debut at Lord's in 2018 against India aged 20, this phase of his career has been somewhat overdue. It is something Pope acknowledges, not least because he recognises how conducive the environment has been to his evolution into a senior member of the changing room after those early growing pains.
"I think that tough (period) however long it was - and it felt like a long time - allowed me to get to where I am now. We've got this great mindset as a team at the minute and as a batting unit we're not fearing getting out and I think we spent too long worrying about our techniques and worrying about how the bowler is going to get us out rather than work and score runs.
"That's probably showing in the way we are playing at the minute with our strike rates and things like that. But it's also allowing us to feel like it is our team and stop spending time dwelling on too many negatives. That's come down from the top: Stokesy and Baz have been top drawer in terms of simplifying Test cricket for us all."
Pope admits to being more robust emotionally, too. Back in the pandemic summer of 2020, he was the first cricketer to open up about the "intense and challenging" bio-secure bubbles. It was a welcome admission, especially as many of his team-mates felt the same but had not yet articulated as much.
"I'm not that experienced now - I'm only 25 - but I'll be able to deal with that a lot better now. I guess Pakistan was a similar environment in terms of you're not really allowed to get out of the hotel. But the way we deal with it as a team now is a lot better.
"We ended up playing X-box and playing cricket and then spending too much time doing those two things, probably, for that whole summer. It was so hard to switch off and I let my cricket performance affect the mood I'm in as a person, which is a pretty bad way to be, I think, especially at this level when there's so much pressure on.
"I can see cricket from a bit more perspective. It's still my priority, I'm not one of those players who've had kids and seen a new side of things. It's more that I've allowed the pressure to be taken off a little bit and trust you can bounce back after some low performances. If I was to go back into that Covid bubble then I'd deal with it a lot better than I necessarily have done or did do in the past."
Focus, for now, will be squarely on batting. The distraction of wicketkeeping, which crept up on him on the previous tour of Pakistan when Ben Foakes fell ill on the morning of the first Test, and carried over into the second Test for tactical reasons, looks to have come to an end. Unless there is another spanner in the works, which was the case back on the 2019 tour here when Pope took the gloves in Hamilton after Jos Buttler broke a finger. He has his own with him this time, having borrowed Foakes' in Rawalpindi and Multan.
The most intriguing aspect of the next two weeks will be how New Zealand approach these two Tests, starting in Mount Maunganui on Thursday. They were the first to be stung by the new era at the start of the last English summer, whitewashed in emphatic fashion. Pope, like the rest, expect a reaction. Perhaps even a replication of the fast scoring, particularly with Tim Southee exhibiting some McCullum-like qualities in the early days of his Test captaincy.
"I'm interested to see that: see if they adjust, how they play, slightly. But obviously at the same time that series in the summer we won three-nil but in each of those Test matches there were points that it could have gone either way so they'll probably see it from that perspective and they'll stick to what they do well and probably trust what they do in their own conditions.
"It's exciting, we've sort of seen glimpses of the way we play going to other teams at points and so it'll be interesting to see if anything that we've done has rubbed off on them."
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo