Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98
Asia Cup (2)
Irani Trophy (1)
IND v SA (1)
PAK v ENG (1)
WI-W v NZ-W (1)
Legends League (2)
Having made his maiden Test hundred in front of thousands of travelling fans in South Africa, Ollie Pope wondered whether he might be in for a bit of a letdown as he walked off nine runs short of his first home ton against West Indies this summer. The following morning, he was dropped at slip, then had his off stump uprooted by Shannon Gabriel without adding to his overnight score. In international sport, it is never wise to get ahead of yourself.
"That's why I missed that ball on 91 - I thought I'd save it [his first hundred in England] for when there's a crowd in," Pope jokes, reflecting on what he labels an "average" season in terms of his own performances. "It looks like there's promising news with the vaccine, so hopefully next summer I'll have kept my place in the side and get to play in a home series will full crowds in."
This time last year Pope was preparing for his second Test series, and his first in over a year, as England travelled to New Zealand with a new coach and an emphasis on posting big first-innings totals. He started well enough, posting a maiden half-century in the bore draw at Hamilton, but it was in South Africa that he really started to deliver on his potential.
ALSO READ: 20 cricketers for the 2020s (TCM)
First, he made a vital half-century in the win at Newlands, top-scoring with 61 not out in a fitful first innings of 269 all out. Then, at Port Elizabeth, he reached three figures for the first time with a masterful 135 not out to set up an innings win and cement his status as England's most promising young batsman in a decade.
But after the tour to Sri Lanka was cut short by the pandemic, the summer yielded mixed results. In nine innings, Pope made 215 runs at 26.87 with two fifties - while he got some good balls, there were also a couple of dismissals that left him disappointed.
"If I'd had one more score then I could have called it a good summer," he says, "but I played and missed two straight balls in my last two innings which was pretty frustrating. There were some good lessons learned and I was happy to contribute to two series wins where I did, but from a personal point of view, another score would have been nice."
There were difficult days off the pitch, too. "It was intense. Going back to a room that overlooks the pitch, it's quite hard to escape. It was tough. I guess it was well worth it to be back playing again but it did have its challenges as well."
Perhaps most frustrating was the injury he suffered diving in the field as the final Test against Pakistan petered out towards a draw. After dislocating his left shoulder in 2019 - an injury which left him unable to press his case for Ashes inclusion and kept him out for three months - he thought that he had only bruised the muscles around the same shoulder this time around. In fact, he had to go under the knife for bone fusion surgery, and is not expecting to be fit before the start of next year.
"It was a bigger operation than last time, but I suppose if it avoids anything happening again then happy days," Pope says. "The days are pretty repetitive, to be honest, and it can take its toll on the mind - when you know you've still got a decent way to go in the rehab process, it can be quite hard to get up for it every single morning.
"The physios are doing whatever they can to avoid the rehab being too repetitive. I'm hoping to pick up a bat fairly soon, just to do some easy, underarm, tennis-ball drills. I've got a CT scan to find out how the bone has fused in early December, and that will tell me a lot more. The last part of the puzzle will be getting back diving on it and getting in awkward positions."
And having developed a reputation as an excellent short-leg fielder, will he be happy to go back under the helmet? "I've got confidence in the physios and the surgeon, and they've said my left shoulder should actually be stronger than my right [after this]. Naturally, I'm sure I'll be a bit tentative about diving at first but once I'm back playing I'm sure I'll be happy to chuck myself around. As for short leg, I don't know what's best for my shoulder - whether it'll be damaged if I get hit in there - but I'll trust what the physios tell me."
Pope has not put an exact date on his return, but is targeting the scheduled tours of Sri Lanka and India in the spring - even if he is not fit for the first Test, he hopes to be in the final stages of rehab as a minimum. He lives on his own in South London, but with the UK back in lockdown following a rise in Covid-19 cases, has staved off loneliness and boredom thanks to his new golden retriever puppy. He has initially planned to call it Joey - "Tribbiani from Friends, not Joe Root," he insists - but settled on Jaxson after being "talked out of it" by his mum.
After being awarded a Test central contract last month, he was one of a number of players to undergo fitness testing at Loughborough last week. It was the first time he had been separated from Jaxson, and he hopes that he has not become too attached knowing that he will have to leave him with his parents when he next goes on tour.
Last time he hurt his shoulder, Pope used the break to watch footage of himself batting and shifted his stance from middle to middle-and-off. The move worked well, and this time around he has sat down with Surrey coach Vikram Solanki to discuss areas for minor improvements in his method against spin and reverse swing as and when he returns to the nets ahead of consecutive series in Asia.
While Pope insists that your place is "never necessarily safe" in an international side and that "you're probably only a few bad performances away" from being left out, it is hard to see England dropping him any time soon. Perhaps with that in mind, he is open in stating his aim to be "a three-format cricketer" and admits to some frustrations around how little white-ball cricket he has played.
Largely due to his injuries, Pope has not played a T20 for over a year or a List A game in 18 months, having made his first-team breakthrough at Surrey as a tricksy innovator in their middle order. He might have joined the English contingent at the Big Bash - "there were a few opportunities about" - but for his surgery, and is unclear on his availability next summer due to the uncertainty over the schedule. Given the One-Day Cup's clash with the Hundred, it is quite feasible that Pope's next 50-over game will be in an England shirt.
"I feel like I haven't played enough of it recently," he says. "Whenever an opportunity comes around I'll definitely be putting my hand up because I feel like I can take that game to the next level as well. I feel like I've got all the tricks, lots of good boundary options, but it's just the game time. There's a lot of very good players in the one-day sides but I just need to score as many runs as I can and see where it takes me."