Even on a day with only 32 overs of play, to see England 116 for 6 and Ollie Pope not just with 61 of them but unbeaten would have come as a surprise.
On a literal and figurative stormy Wednesday, with thunderbolts sent down from the four quicks of the Proteas, it was the 24-year-old who weathered it out. Surviving and thriving as the senior trio of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes together managed just 28.
In real time, it was composed as it was fortuitous. Of the 69 deliveries that made up his first 51 runs, 32 per cent drew false shots, according to CricViz. He was flighty, mesmerising, free form, and perilous, at times inside the same over. And in the period between play halting at 2:09pm for rain after Ben Foakes, the last of the recognised batters, was dismissed, and then called off altogether at 4:30pm, the overriding conclusion to all the pontificating of Pope’s knock was that it was an innings well played. Sometimes you get away with flying a kite in lightning.
“I thought he was fantastic today,” said England’s assistant coach, Paul Collingwood, at stumps. “Our mantra of trying to put the opposition under pressure, he did that brilliantly.”
Putting opposition under pressure is an intriguing thing as a batter, because it essentially means… batting. Or rather, batting to score. As Collingwood pointed out with a shrug, the game is about scoring more runs than the other team, so trying to do that on a pitch that has plenty to offer both bowling attacks is a pretty clear path to take, even with the Kagiso Rabada potholes and Anrich Nortje spikes sticking out from the ground. But it also tallies with Pope’s unquenchable lust to feel bat on ball.
There are many ways to describe the Surrey dasher, all very complimentary. But on the other side of the spectrum to “Baby Bell” is of a player who is perhaps one of the most unnatural leavers playing Test cricket today. He lets the ball go by with a twitch, like he knows it’s bad to throw your hands out there because an adult told him so. After each one comes the shadow batting of the shot he wanted to play. A phantom scratch of the itch that went unscratched. The only time he replayed a leave was when he guided into the cordon when attempting to offer no stroke, which happened twice in his first 15 balls.
Now, all of that reads like criticism. Because, well, it is. But these are the associated risks that come with being a natural shotmaker. When the boundaries look as good as they do, the cuts (laced through gully and lassoed over the cordon) and drives (square and through cover), all while being the one batter who got under the skin of the South African attack and made them think about the ‘B word’, the rough is bearable.
Ironically, with the ball moving around as it did, Pope’s attraction to it helped negotiate the inswing Marco Jansen used to trap Root leg-before, and prevent Nortje (the quickest on the day and this summer, but on the receiving end of all of Pope’s four boundaries) from having it his own way. Arguably the shot of the day – if you’re predilections are based on flair verging on rogue – was a pick-up through midwicket from a delivery outside off-stump as Lungi Ngidi tried to get into a groove in his opening spell (five overs, none for 12).
“You’re going to have to try and find ways to get them to change lengths,” Collingwood said, explaining the modus operandi handed down from above which Pope was implementing in trying conditions. “Knowing that if they do miss their lines and lengths, they’re going to get punished.”
Pope will return on Thursday, knowing he will have to keep his positivity going with Stuart Broad and the rest of the tail for company. It is already a third score at No. 3 in the Stokes-McCullum era, all coming in precarious situations. The first was a bumper 145 in the second Test against New Zealand having come in at 6 for 1, the second 82 at 17 for 1 in the pursuit of 296 against the Blackcaps in the third. This one here (also beginning at 6 for 1) looks like it should take England to a score that could mean parity going into their second innings if the bowling conditions are as amenable when James Anderson and Co. get their go with the newer, improved Dukes.
Stepping back, the queries over Pope as a viable Test No. 3 remain, but there is an assurance of sorts that his inability to curb his natural instincts isn’t quite the barrier it once was.
As Collingwood stressed, this isn’t a dressing room who have a number in mind when it comes to first-innings totals. Thus, strikers like Pope have a degree of freedom. And all told, in an economy increasing the rewards for hitters at an exponential rate, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world if Pope doesn’t lose his penchant for a shot.