As far as inspiration for a young batsman on the cusp of an international Test career goes, Sachin Tendulkar isn’t a bad shout. After all, Tendulkar was just 16 years old when he made his Test debut against Pakistan at Karachi in 1989: Ollie Pope, at 20, could be seen as a seasoned old pro by comparison.
Speaking to ESPNcricinfo, Tendulkar maintained age should not be a criteria in selecting players such as Pope or England’s other 20-year-old tearaway, Sam Curran. Youth could, he claimed, be an asset because it often brings with it a certain fearlessness. If you haven’t experienced failure, you’re less likely to be afraid of it.
When Pope, whose boyish demeanour somehow manages to make Joe Root look like a grizzled old campaigner, was told of Tendulkar’s words in his first press conference in an England shirt, he thoughtfully agreed.
“I think so yeah. It’s almost that naivety in the whole thing,” said Pope. “I think I’m probably similar to him [Curran] – just ready to put the shirt on and just want to perform at my best. We’ve both played a fair bit of county cricket now and things have gone on an upward spiral.
But yeah, completely – looking back on people like him [Sachin Tendulkar], what was he, 16, 17? He’s quite a good person to listen to in terms of that. I think it’s the fearlessness. Hopefully we can play and express ourselves the way we want to.
“Everyone always says – if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. It’s nice hearing those stories. Just knowing I’m not one of the first ones to play when I’m young or after not a huge amount of games. Hearing those stories are pretty inspirational – they make you realise what you can do.”
On Sunday morning Pope was on his way to Chelmsford, to play for Surrey in the Vitality Blast, when his phone rang. Looking down he saw Ed Smith’s name on the caller ID: it wasn’t necessarily expected, but it could hardly have been a complete surprise. His name was floating around Edgbaston with growing expectation as Dawid Malan’s struggles continued and Pope had seen media reports suggesting he was on the cusp of selection. But for a batsman with just 15 first-class games under his belt to potentially be in the frame to bat at No.4 against India at Lord’s is still a remarkably rapid rise.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” said Pope. “If someone told me I’d be in the squad for the second Test at Lord’s at the start of the season, I wouldn’t have really believed them. Likewise last year: if someone told me I was going to make my Championship debut last year, I wouldn’t have believed them. Same too that I was going to be playing all the T20s. It’s just one of those sports where things happen so quickly. It’s nice to do it with Sam in the same team. When I made my Surrey debut, there were four 19-year-olds in there at the same time. Things happen quickly. It’s exciting.”
Pope has been in outstanding form for Surrey in the County Championship this year, scoring 684 runs at an average of 85.50. He credits his early season form to his decision to spend the English winter playing grade cricket in Australia where he joined up with Camden-Campbelltown Cricket Club in southwest Sydney.
“I didn’t really have a coach, I just had to ask people to throw balls at me mid-week,” said Pope. “Playing week in, week out, Saturday and Sunday, getting to know my game a bit better. The wickets were flat, so I got time in the middle that I needed. That’s a massive thing for a young lad to do, especially when you’re just finding your way in the game. Just being on your own two feet and getting to know your strengths and weaknesses, learning from your dismissals and the games you play well in and score runs in.
“That helped me kick off the season quickly, I didn’t feel like it was the first game of the year, I didn’t feel like I had been in the nets all winter. I was game-ready in the first one against Hampshire. That was a step ahead, helped me kick off the season how I wanted, found a bit of form and my method for now. I need to just keep riding the wave.”
If Pope is selected in the playing XI, it presents England with the choice of shuffling the batting order or slotting him in at No.4 as a direct swap with Malan. Pope bats at No. 6 for Surrey and came in at 5 for England Lions against India A last month but he says he would be comfortable batting higher up the order.
“If required, yes,” said Pope. “Especially against this Indian side. They bowl a lot of spin, so I don’t think there’s a massive difference. When I bat at 6 I can be in in the 10th over or for the second new ball. Four to six region, I don’t think there’s a massive difference in the way you play.”
Being a right-hander has undoubtedly played in Pope’s favour with selectors, particularly given R Ashwin’s success rate against left-handers. The prospect of facing one of the world’s best spinners isn’t one that seems to faze him.
“He’s not your regular off-spin,” said Pope. “He bowls a ball that swings away and one that swings back in. You play him like a normal off-spinner, you’ve just got to watch him a bit closer out of the hand. You need to know what ball’s coming down at you – you can’t just premeditate an off-spinner with him. That’s probably the main difference. I’ll have a closer look before the game, if picked, and I’ll have my game-plan before. Not a massive difference, just got to look a bit closer I think.”
Fearless of reputation, at the prospect of batting at No.4 when the opposition incumbent is Virat Kohli, of the idea of walking out at the Home of Cricket on the first day of a Test match against India. England will be hoping Tendulkar is right and Pope’s callowness bears fruit.