Ollie Pope may have had a twinkle in his eye when he remarked that the series decider that starts on Thursday against South Africa is being played at the “Home of Cricket”, but his love for the Oval is perfectly understandable.
Having made his debut for Surrey in 2017, Pope averages 88.54 from 21 first-class matches in SE11, including nine centuries and a career-best 274 against Glamorgan. The famous old ground may have a reputation as a batting paradise but the raw numbers are still mightily impressive from the 24-year-old right-hander.
Pope’s returns for England remain a work in progress, with an average of 30 from his 29 caps not yet fulfilling the predictions of greatness that have followed him since day one. In Australia last winter he looked racked with indecision and his tour ended in Hobart with the ignominy of being bowled round his legs by Pat Cummins.
But this summer there is a growing sense Pope is finding his feet. He had the gumption to phone Ben Stokes at the start of the season when he realised No 3 would be the only vacancy in the XI, asking to take on this hugely unfamiliar role, and has since compiled a second Test hundred – his 145 against New Zealand at Trent Bridge set up a barnstorming win – plus a couple of half-centuries.
“I’d like to think so,” replied Pope, when asked if he had made the spot his own. “We don’t talk about those things too much but the feedback I’ve got has been great and the confidence that is given from the top from [the head coach] Brendon McCullum and Stokes has been great as well.
“It’s been new for me but, to be honest, once you’re out at the crease nothing changes. There’s still a ball coming down at you. And it’s a great place to bat – you can dictate how the innings goes. Hopefully, I can become more and more consistent.”
England head into the third Test looking to secure their sixth win of the summer and what would be their best return since claiming all seven home Tests under Michael Vaughan in 2004. They do so with one of their key players absent, however, after Jonny Bairstow slipped while playing golf last week and broke his leg.
Harry Brook is the next cab off the rank. Like Pope, the Yorkshireman has had to deal with great expectations, not least since averaging 107 in the first half of this year’s County Championship and scoring a rollicking 140 against South Africa for the Lions. How this form transfers will be important – not least having dipped during the Hundred – but Pope believes his former England Under-19 teammate will thrive.
“The quality of cricket isn’t necessarily the biggest thing,” said Pope, regarding the adjustment to Test level. “It’s probably the noise if you do have a few low scores. I’ve seen Brooky play and there’s no doubt that he’s got a Test game to go on and be successful. He is a seriously good player.”
A test of this will come in the shape of Anrich Nortje, purveyor of some fearsomely quick spells in this series. Pope fancies Jofra Archer is the closest he has faced, pace-wise, and though wary of the “rib tickler – well, rib-breaker” – he views the inswinger the right-armer has developed since their last meeting in 2019-20 as the bigger threat.
While a rookie is incoming, Pope will not be giving up his spot at short-leg. It is a role he is relishing – “If you can pull off one catch per series, a big player, it could be game-affecting” he said – and, though painful at times, he channelled his inner Brian Close when insisting it has to be enjoyed “or it will hurt more”.
As regards his primary job, Pope has made adjustments to his guard and credits a South African influence for helping him adjust to the rigours of first drop, with Hashim Amla – a triple centurion in the 2012 Oval Test – a hugely supportive teammate at Surrey.
Pope said: “He’s a great role model, not just as a player but as a person. The way he stays so level, he’s scored that many hundreds for South Africa but you wouldn’t know it. It’s a great attribute to have – a humble guy. And we’ve chatted about technical stuff and when I do get runs for England, he’s one of the first to drop me a message.”
The tourists may not be thanking their former captain here as they look to bounce back from the heavy innings defeat at Old Trafford. Marco Jansen, the 6ft 7in all-rounder, is expected to return to their XI while Ryan Rickleton could replace Rassie van der Dussen in the middle order after the latter broke his finger in Manchester.