The Next Big Thing: Ollie Pope; England future great
By David Currie
Last Updated: 08/04/20 9:17am
Who are cricket's emerging talents? Every Wednesday, we will focus on 'the next big thing' in the sport and this week it's the turn of 'future England great' Ollie Pope...
Who is England's greatest Test batsman of all time?
The stats will tell you Sir Alastair Cook and his record 1,2472 Test runs. Your eyes may tell you David Gower, given the effortless, elegant way in which he wielded the willow. Your heart might take you in an entirely different direction.
There's the dogged defiance of Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Atherton, the longevity of the likes of Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart.
There's the historical brilliance of Walter Hammond, Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton, and then the utter genius of Kevin Pietersen from the modern game.
The answer may also lie with the current crop of England batsmen; there's, of course, the relentless run-scoring consistency of captain Joe Root. But is there another who could one day be worthy of the mantle?
Ollie Pope. And Root is the perfect man for him to follow.
Pope has swiftly taken to the rigours of international Test cricket, much like Root before him, looking comfortably a class above the 11 top-order batsmen England tried and tested since the skipper's debut in 2012. Better than Sam Robson, better than Alex Hales, better than Ben Duckett, Tom Westley etc.
But they're not the names Pope's body of work will ultimately be compared to. The Surrey and England youngster, still just 22 years of age, looks destined for the far loftier reaches of Root, Pietersen and perhaps even Cook.
And, already, Pope has drawn comparisons to Root, as well another England batting great, Ian Bell.
Sky Sports' Nasser Hussain said in 2018, as Pope made his Test debut: "I watched him bat in the nets the other day and I think he has a bit of Root about him, that fluency of his movement.
"Michael Atherton has said similar, with a touch of Bell too. That's a good combination to have."
Such comparisons are a huge compliment; Root makes up one quarter of what is widely considered the 'fab four' of batting in the modern game, along with Steve Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson, while Bell is England's eighth leading Test run-scorer, with 22 hundreds (tied for third all time) and 46 fifties.
Pope has just seven Test caps to his name.
A magnificent maiden Test century in the sixth of those, an unbeaten 135 in the win over South Africa at Port Elizabeth earlier this year suggests, however, there's many more to come.
On that January day at St George's Park, Pope made it all look so easy. But that was far from the case.
Pope came to the crease with the fall of Root's wicket and facing a fired-up Kagiso Rabada, who had just given the England captain a searing send-off, for which he'd be fined and miss the fourth Test; the tourists were precariously placed at 148-4 on day one of the third Test, with the series very much in the balance tied at 1-1.
With an eye-catching but compact technique, Pope effortlessly went through the gears through to a maiden Test ton, becoming England's youngest centurion since Cook in the process.
Pope outscored even Ben Stokes early on in his innings, peppering the boundary with a couple of crisp, Bell-like cover drives. Not that his game is confined to the textbook. Having brought up his hundred, and left batting with the tail, Pope gave nod to his T20 talents by ramping the rapid Rabada on more than one occasion.
"He's going to be around for a long time, he looks a fine all-round player," Atherton told Sky Sports.
"He's not a limited player in the way that some of England's batsmen are, so that partnership with Stokes at five and six before he eventually moves up the order is going to be a key element of England's game."
And a move up the order will surely follow, but it's important England don't rush Pope.
Root and Bell were similarly heralded as 'the next big thing' in English cricket, with the former scoring a fine fifty on debut in India and Bell registering three scores of fifty or more - including a hundred - in his first three Test innings.
That tag has its price. Root was dropped at the end of England's 5-0 Ashes thumping in 2013/14, despite having earlier that year blasted the Aussies for 180 at Lord's, while Bell's own nightmare 2005 series early on in his development, in which he averaged 17.10, was helped only by England's stunning 2-1 win.
But both serve as a great example to Pope of how to ride the highs and lows of international cricket that are sure to come, with Root and Bell bouncing back impressively from any such setbacks.
Root responded to being dropped with a double hundred against Sri Lanka in his next Test innings, to go with equally impressive scores on 154 and 149 against India in that 2014 summer - not out in all three knocks.
Bell, meanwhile, would finish his career with four Ashes hundreds to his name - three coming in one particularly special 2013 summer - and five Ashes series victories to his name to equal Sir Ian Botham's England record.
One way in which England could help Pope's development is to keep him settled in the side at No 6 for a little while longer. Since South Africa, there has been talk of a swift promotion up the batting order, perhaps seeing Pope assume the problematic No 3 spot.
The Root and Bell comparisons continue: both were seen as ideal fits for first wicket down; technically sound, busy cricketers, capable of catering their approach to the match situation.
Yet, their best cricket has come elsewhere. In fact, their modest records at No 3 a remarkably similar, with both Root and Bell playing 28 Tests at the position, both averaging 38 and registering just the two hundreds each.
Let Pope bed into the team, let him get comfortable and familiar with the rigours of international cricket before placing any extra burden or responsibility on his shoulders.
He could well prove up to the challenge, he could well surpass the feats of Root and Bell, he could well become England's greatest ever.
For now though, just enjoy watching him bat.