The kids are alright, you know. For the fourth time in 2018 alone, and for the fifth time since the selection of Haseeb Hameed on the last tour of India in November 2016, England have plumped for youth over experience, excitement over stability, the bold approach over the same old narrative with interchangeably seasoned campaigners.
At the age of 20 years and 219 days, Surrey’s Ollie Pope will bat at No.4 for England in the Lord’s Test – a position that effectively leaves him man-marking one of the game’s all-time great batsmen in India’s captain, Virat Kohli, the scorer of 200 formidable runs in last week’s Edgbaston Test.
With just 15 first-class matches under his belt, Pope slots into England’s Test history as their third-youngest specialist batsman behind Denis Compton (19 years and 83 days) and Hameed (19 years and 269 days), and does so in the wake of his Surrey team-mate and fellow 20-year old, Sam Curran, being named as Man of the Match for a precocious allround display in the first Test.
Throw into the mix the bloodings of Mason Crane (20 years and 320 days) at Sydney in January, and Dom Bess (20 years and 306 days) for the Pakistan Tests in May and June, and is clear that the only thing being fast-tracked more quickly than young English talent is a sense of revolution from the new national selector, Ed Smith, who whiled away his time during England’s nets session by patrolling the Nursery Ground outfield with phone glued to ear and with shades and rolled-up shirtsleeves transmitting a stockbroker’s air of urgency.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything and nothing, in the opinion of England’s captain, Joe Root (who was himself a grizzled 22-year-old when he made his own Test bow at Nagpur in 2012-13). Before this sudden baby boom, England had chosen just 19 under-21s in their first 140 years of Test history – most recently Steven Finn as a last-minute replacement on the tour of Bangladesh in 2010. But with the team’s current Test record perhaps as erratic as it has been in a generation, there is arguably a perverse prudence to such an abrupt change of strategy.
“If you’re old enough, you’re good enough,” Root said. “A lot of the selections of late have been quite bold, we’re not shy of being a little bit brave and doing things slightly differently. It’s worked out for us so far.”
“I think when you give exciting young talents responsibility, they tend to surprise you,” he added. “We’ve seen that so far. The challenge for them moving forward is to try and sustain that and not put too much pressure on themselves and too much expectation on them to deliver on a really consistent basis.”
The issue of youth and renewal is one that cuts to the core of everything in English cricket at present. The question of whether the likes of Pope and Curran are truly ready for the step-up in class is perhaps secondary to the sense of purpose that their inclusions project.
Much as was the case with Adil Rashid’s recall at Edgbaston (and maybe, if you want to extrapolate even further, the ongoing mayhem that is The Hundred), the noses that get put out of joint by the ECB’s sudden predilection for thinking outside the box are less important than those outside the game’s usual confines who get wind of this disruption to the status quo, and poke their noses in for a first sniff of the action.
Certainly Root was at pains to make it clear that the door is not closed to county performers who earn their recognition through the more traditional formula of runs and wickets over time. But, tellingly, he also seemed less interested in immediate dividends, even with a series as important as a five-Test rubber against India on the line. The long game is what really matters as England attempt to reboot their red-ball fortunes.
“I think we’ve got to be really realistic that these guys are exciting young players and they will do some very good stuff,” said Root. “It might not all happen straight away and we have to be a little bit patient with that.” Join us for the ride, in other words, and invest in these guy’s stories. Whatever transpires, it is unlikely to be dull.
Even India’s captain seemed rather engaged by Pope’s tale. “We want to try and knock him over as early as possible, but on a larger front, I am happy for him,” Kohli said. “As a cricketer I understand how important it is. I will tell him to enjoy the occasion, and not get too many runs!”
The prospect of Pope having his credentials scrutinised by the best batsman in the world may be daunting, but it is not as if England’s rookies are being thrown into the fray without a serious support network behind them. In Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad – not to mention Root himself, whose 6000 Test runs are still only the start of what he could achieve – this team’s senior pros are among the most senior ever to have played the game.
“We’ve got some very good experienced players around them so they can learn and mould their games at the highest level,” said Root. “For young guys coming in, that’s exciting for this team, and for people around it, seeing a young man in Sam performing how he did last week with a real bright future, it’s exciting for English cricket. That should fill a lot of other lads around the country with a huge amount of confidence.”
And if the beauty of Test cricket lies in its narrative, then what could be more beautiful than these kids-turned-veterans, looking back in 15 years’ time on the priceless nuggets of wisdom that they received first-hand in their earliest outings? It may be wildly out of kilter with everything that English cricket has preached about Test cricket in the course of its first 990-odd engagements. But since the turn of the year, there’s been a turning of the page. And are you not entertained already?