Ollie Pope believes that India paid England a back-handed compliment in preparing a trio of spin-friendly wickets for the final three matches of this winter’s Test tour, after revealing how Virat Kohli warned him midway through England’s first-Test victory in Chennai that life for the batsmen was about to get much tougher.
After winning the toss and batting in the series opener in February, England posted a matchwinning first-innings total of 578 thanks to Joe Root’s 228, with Pope contributing 34 from 89 balls in his first Test appearance since dislocating his left shoulder in August.
However, England were bowled out in 46.3 overs for 178 in the second innings, and though that was ample to seal a convincing 227-run win, Pope acknowledged that the seeds of their series loss were sown there and then.
“In the second innings the pitch started spinning quite a lot,” Pope said during Surrey’s pre-season media day at the Kia Oval. “I remember standing at the non-striker’s end and Kohli came up to me and said ‘this is the last of the flat wickets’. At that point I knew it was probably going to be quite a challenging rest of the series from a batting point of view.”
For the rest of the series, England never came close to such batting serenity, with a highest total of 205 in their six subsequent innings. Instead, India’s greater prowess in their own conditions set them up for three comprehensive victories, including two in the space of five days’ play at Ahmedabad.
Pope himself finished the series with 153 runs at 19.12, a return that he conceded was “frustrating” after reaching double-figures in all but one of his visits to the crease. However, he insisted that he would chalk the tour up for the experience, safe in the knowledge that, at the age of 23 and with 17 Tests now under his belt, he has encountered one of the toughest challenges that will ever be thrown his way.
“Chatting to the more experienced guys like Joe Root and Ben Stokes, those guys were pretty much saying exactly the same: these are the toughest conditions they’ve played in,” Pope said. “If those guys are saying it as well, you know how challenging it is.
“I’m not saying [India] felt they had to produce those wickets, but the fact they’ve gone away from their flat wickets for three days, then spin on day four and five, which is generally the theme out there, it was quite a compliment to us in how we went about our business and a compliment to our bowlers.
“That shot us in the foot a little bit but it’s a good compliment to us as a team because they obviously felt they had to change their gameplan.”
This winter’s challenge was a far cry from Pope’s breakthrough campaign in South Africa 12 months earlier, where he scored his maiden Test hundred to set up a series-turning victory in Port Elizabeth, and where he was identified as one of a core of young players – Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley among them, with Dan Lawrence now joining that number – who could form the backbone of England’s Test team for years to come.
And so, even though the challenge of winning in India proved to be beyond England on this occasion, Pope was still able to reflect on the development of the team in tough circumstances, and recognise that such harsh lessons can only stand them in good stead for future campaigns.
“There’s not many international teams out there with a 25-year-old and three 23-year-olds [in the top six]. It’s not about managing expectations but it’s also realising this is a great learning experience for us.
“We’ve played on bouncier wickets in South Africa and we’ve played a little bit in England now and we’ve had the extremes of the subcontinent in Sri Lanka and India. Moving forward hopefully we can keep scoring runs, stay in the side but hopefully for our return in India we know exactly what it requires to be successful – that’s a massive positive for us going forward.”
One of the key lessons, Pope acknowledged, came from watching India’s batsmen at close quarters – often, in his case, from under the helmet at short leg. In particular he singled out Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant, whose methods may have been distinct, but whose mastery of the conditions both stemmed from an unwavering faith in their techniques.
“They trusted their defence really well, but they’ve got some great boundary options as well which allowed them to turn the pressure to the bowler a little bit,” Pope said. “Defending, you do need a little bit of luck, you need your plays-and-misses, you need to hope your nicks drop short, but if you can just really nail your boundary options that’s a good way of turning the pressure over.
“On those kind of wickets, it’s going to be difficult to accumulate runs in a low-risk fashion. That’s probably my main takeaway: knowing your defence but also knowing your boundary options.”
Pope is now back in pre-season training with Surrey, gearing up for next week’s County Championship opener against Gloucestershire at Bristol, and relieved to be free of the bubble lifestyle that has been his lot since the first week of January.
“The Indian bubble was a pretty tough one,” he said. “They were quite business-like hotels so there’s not a massive amount going on, there’s no real outdoor space to get used to, have a run-around or kick a ball around or anything normal.
“So being back and strolling to go and get a coffee or anything like that, it’s just that bit of normality that I think humans need, really. It does have its challenges and everyone deals with them in slightly different ways but it is very nice to be out of those bubbles and let free a little bit.”
He is feeling some freedom in his shoulder too – an ongoing concern given that last August’s dislocation was his second in as many seasons, following a similar injury that ruled him out of the 2019 Ashes – and with eight Championship matches looming in the lead-up to England’s first Test of the summer against New Zealand in June, Pope is confident of getting the game-time required to set up another big season.
“I’ve got the positive of sorting my shoulder out, hopefully for good,” he said. “I was diving around in India without really thinking about it, which was good, so it should hopefully not pop out of position again. Hopefully there’ll be no more surgeries and I can dive and do everything I need to do with it.
“I’m really excited to be back at Surrey,” he added. “I think my last game was against Nottinghamshire which was more than a year and a half ago. We’ve got eight Champo games now which we can settle into and from a personal point of view, it will be great to just get used to batting in the middle.”
Pope expects to bat at No. 4 in Surrey’s early-season games, and is looking forward to passing on the wisdom that he himself has spent the winter gleaning from his England seniors, as he prepares to embrace the heightened status that he has earned since he was last a regular in the Oval dressing-room.
“I like to think these guys look up to you a little bit because you’ve had the experiences in international and Test cricket,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good, young batters that are coming through the ranks so if I see anything in their technique or mindset, I like to try to help out wherever I can.
“It’s a different role and something I’ll enjoy. In that England side, we’re looking up to the Joe Roots, the Ben Stokes and those guys who have played 100 Tests. It’s nice to be seen as a senior figure and have that slight leadership role off the pitch. I’ve drawn a lot of experiences from them so I’d like to help out the youngsters and the other guys wherever I can here.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket