Ollie Pope partly owed his mould-breaking international selection this summer to his proficiency against spin.
The first batsman to be picked as a debutant at No 4 by England since Michael Vaughan 19 years ago provided the necessary weight of runs to be watched, and caught the eye of the national selector Ed Smith for the ease with which he played the turning ball.
And as he departs on his first senior tour later this month, the 20-year-old reveals his hockey-playing days at Cranleigh School shaped his array of conventional and reverse sweeps. Banned from playing football in Year 13 due to the terms of his Surrey contract and status as an England Under 19 player, he returned to another field sport that winter.
Ollie Pope has revealed what has helped him to break into England’s Test side this summer
Coming in so early during his two Tests against India, Pope failed to showcase the dexterity inherited from such wristwork but, with Joe Root’s team expected to be smothered by spin in the coming weeks, his chance could come in Sri Lanka. As an indication of what lies ahead, Suranga Lakmal, the one pace bowler in the home XI, recently sent down just 6.3 overs in the 2-0 Test series win over South Africa.
‘To be honest, cricket and hockey come hand in hand, probably more so in Twenty20 than any other format.’ he says. ‘I’ve found myself seeing a gap behind me and asking ‘what can I do to get the ball there?’ In hockey, it might be the same kind of action to make a deflection. I made a name for myself at the start with Surrey by playing these wacky shots, getting the ball into a weird position.
‘There is not a massive amount to sweeping, it’s just backing yourself, backing your hand-eye co-ordination, getting into the right positions and not pre- meditating. Seeing the line of the ball early is important so, if it’s the off-spinner, the one you want to sweep is the one outside off-stump — if you miss it, it is hitting you on the pad outside the line.
Pope failed to showcase his talent against India but has the attributes to shine in Sri Lanka
‘If you go in with a mindset of defend, defend, just trying to survive in those conditions you are likely to have a ball with your name on it, especially if a bowler like Rangana Herath is consistently hitting the same spot.
‘So, whether it is going over the top like a few lads will do or sweeping and reverse sweeping, having the scoring options is pretty essential.’
Pope finished the international summer out of the Test team as England accommodated a plethora of all-rounders, including his close friend and county colleague Sam Curran. But he wants to be mentally in tune for Test cricket, ‘prepared to play so that whenever I do get my shot I can make the most of it’.
He will attempt to become so from Tuesday onwards at Loughborough, where he will work in the nets alongside the squad’s other specialists like Stuart Broad — confident of proving his fitness following a rib injury — in a heated marquee covering the kind of scrubby surfaces expected to be encountered on the island known as the teardrop of India.
Pope finished the summer out of the Test team while close friend Sam Curran (R) was in it
Whatever happens during his first winter as an England player and beyond, though, Pope is committed to the small print of what turned him into a Test cricketer.
Pope has adopted two quirks from his Surrey mentor Alec Stewart, who enjoyed a lengthy and successful career at international level — the chewing of gum on his way out to bat and the bending of his knees before every delivery he receives.
At 20, and with a first-class average of 54.72, the recently crowned Professional Cricketers’ Association young player of the year admits he is yet to encounter failure. So remembering the finer details of what got him picked for his country after just 15 first-class appearances, he says, will be crucial when he does.
‘Me and Stewie spoke about dealing with it in my appraisal at the end of last year, but luckily this year was a good year too,’ says Pope, who heads to Colombo as part of England’s 16-man squad later this month.
The 20-year-old wants to be mentally in tune for Test cricket so he’s ready to grab his chance
He also revealed that he picked up ‘chewing gum before I bat’ from his mentor Alec Stewart
‘I will go through times when it does get a little bit tougher. This year when I didn’t get my big scores I was still getting 20s or 30s in the Championship which meant I didn’t ever really find myself in bad form. But the main thing I will do when that happens is use my trigger points.
‘I have a couple of them and whether I am in the best form of my life, or the worst, I am still going to focus on them because I was doing them when I was successful and I know success will come again. They are not even anything to do with cricket.
‘Chewing gum before I bat and dipping my knees when I am out there. Whatever happens before I do my dip doesn’t matter but as soon as I’ve done it I am ready to go. It actually turned out that I chewed gum before I got a hundred against Hampshire. I walked out to the middle and only then realised it was in my mouth.
‘So I chucked it onto the outfield and now do the same every time.’
The chewing and dipping — Australia’s Steve Smith does something similar — have been a part of Pope’s set-up for 13 months and are regular features of his chats with Surrey’s psychologist, Andrea Furst. But it is to a former team-mate — Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka’s most prolific Test batsman — that he will turn for trip-specific advice.
‘He has had a massive influence on me,’ reveals Pope. ‘Firstly, coming into a side as an 18-year-old alongside a star player like Sangakkara is unbelievable for making sure you’re not getting too far ahead of your own station.
He won’t be changing those habits, which helped him win the PCA young player of the year
Pope will turn to former Surrey team-mate Kumar Sangakkara for advice about Sri Lanka tour
‘Then, he was so good at training. Whenever he’d had his hit he would normally stay behind after and watch you play. He was always seeing if there was any advice he could give, and there is no better person to speak to.
‘He has seen me play and knows exactly what it takes to succeed out there.
‘But it was actually batting with him that I learned the most. There was a time at Somerset when he changed the way I was playing completely, not by instructing me what to do, but just telling me what I was doing wrong. Suddenly, I was playing five times better than I was before.’
Ollie Pope was speaking at the NatWest OSCAs – recognising the unsung heroes of grassroots cricket.