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News

Ollie Pope: 'I can't imagine Surrey without Alec Stewart'

England batter will feature in season opener at Old Trafford, as club begins Championship hat-trick bid

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
26-Mar-2024
Ollie Pope receives his first Test cap from Alec Stewart, at Lord's in 2018  •  Getty Images

Ollie Pope receives his first Test cap from Alec Stewart, at Lord's in 2018  •  Getty Images

Ollie Pope has made himself available for Surrey's opening match of the County Championship, against Lancashire at Old Trafford, and says he's fully focused on giving Alec Stewart the trophy-laden send-off he deserves, as Stewart embarks on his final season as the club's director of cricket after 11 transformative years in the role.
Pope, whose 196 against India at Hyderabad was the outstanding performance on England's recent Test tour of India, has turned down the chance for a break - in part to make up for lost time after he missed seven months with a shoulder injury sustained during last year's Ashes, but also because he feels "frustrated" by his failure to kick on in India, where he was limited to 118 runs at 14.75 in the final four Tests.
"I feel pretty fresh," Pope said during the launch of Rado as the official timing partner of England cricket. "If I had scored another three 70s or something in the series, I might be feeling slightly differently, but I almost feel frustrated. I feel like I'm in really good nick without putting together those scores. So hopefully I can go and find that rhythm of putting together big scores at No. 3, unless Stewie drops me!"
Pope's nadir in India came with a pair in the fourth Test in Ranchi, although his twin dismissals in the series finale in Dharamsala - stumped on the stroke of lunch for 11 in the first innings, then caught off a top-edged sweep for 19 in the second - led to criticism for his frenetic approach at the top of an innings.
"I understand it," he said. "I think the issue for me in that series is something that I've worked hard on in England and I've got better, I think, to make myself a bit more consistent in these English conditions.
"In that second innings of the first Test when I made that score, I tried to be busy, so I think it is a fine line. When it doesn't go right, it looks frenetic. When it does go right, it looks busy and good."
Little wonder therefore that he is keen to get straight back into the middle with his county. "There's no question I just want to play," he said. "We've got 12 Test matches so I probably won't play every county game, but I might miss one in that first seven or eight games. I'm itching to get back to just scoring runs and representing Surrey, without making myself knackered.
"This club is a great place to play cricket and it's a good way of just challenging myself going forward. I'll get to face the likes of Nathan Lyon in that first game as well. I'd be nice to try and keep improving my game against him before another Ashes series away, potentially. There are always small gains to be made. Especially while I feel as fresh as I do."
Pope's availability is a bonus for Surrey as they begin their bid for a hat-trick of County Championship titles, a feat last achieved by Yorkshire in 1968. But on a personal level, as one of the core of young players - alongside the likes of Sam Curran, Tom Curran and Will Jacks - around whom the club's recent success has been built, Pope admits he is "gutted" by the news of Stewart's impending departure, which was broken to the squad last Thursday.
"I sadly missed the meeting when he announced it to the boys, but I had a phone call with him straight after," Pope said. "I can't imagine a club where you don't see Stewie in at 6am every day, on the rowing machine, or on the treadmill, or doing some weights. That's because he loves the club and loves being here. And he's also ridiculous at his job as well."
The pair's personal relationship is encapsulated in two photos, taken 11 years apart - the first from 2007 when, as an eight-year-old, Pope received Surrey's Under-9 Player of the Year award from Stewart at The Oval, and then at Lord's in 2018, when the same man presented him with his first Test cap.
"Every player in the club, and every member of the coaching staff, feels like they've just got so much to owe him," Pope said. "Whether he sees the talent in you, or sees the good person in you, he brings it out. So he's going to be a massive, massive loss for the club. It's going to be sad when he leaves but hopefully we can win a couple of trophies for him this year to give him a good send-off."
Success may be taken as read at Surrey under Stewart, but Pope admitted that, as a player in the youth set-up, he'd been conscious in his early years at the club of the difficulties behind the scenes, particularly in the wake of the death of Tom Maynard in June 2012, and the subsequent inquest into the club's behavioural standards.
"It was kind of an unspoken thing, and you'd see it eke in now and then," Pope said, recalling the period in which Stewart was parachuted in as first-team coach following the sacking of Chris Adams at the start of the 2013 season. "You can see why Stewie is how he is, because he obviously ran a pretty tight ship at the start.
"There's a lot of freedom within the players. But I think a lot of what the club has achieved - and hopefully we can go on to achieve a lot of good things in the next few years - that largely will be because of what he's created here and set the tone for.
"Some of what happened in the past, there are obviously some sad stories that came from it, and it obviously needed a slight change. And that's what happened. And Stewie was probably the main leader with that.
"He makes you feel like you've got a personal relationship, but he's also got the job to give you your contracts or release you sadly, if that's part of the job as well. I met him when I was seven or eight. I've got a great picture of him giving me my Surrey Under-9 player of the year award, which is one I'll always have, and he presented me with my England cap, which again, the video and the pics of that are seriously special.
"The way he does his role, I've just got a lot of respect for him. Hopefully he can stay around the club as much as he can, because it won't feel the same without him."
Pope also paid tribute to Stewart's brother, Neil, a long-standing batting coach in Surrey's youth set-up, and one of his key mentors within the club.
"He's one of my favourite batting coaches. Him and a guy at school called Stuart Welch, who was very good as well. I worked very closely with Neil for five or six years during my academy days. He was the one who actually gave me confidence in my game.
"When I was 14 I felt like I was bang average but he was the one who always said 'you're going to play for Surrey; you're going to play for England'. From a technical point, he was brilliant as well. They're very different blokes but they're both got ridiculous cricket brains so credit to the Stewart family for that."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket