How Ollie Pope learned from his teenage struggles in India and adapted his game | Mark Ramprakash
As I observed Ollie Pope’s impressive and game-changing performance in Hyderabad over the weekend, I couldn’t help but recall a tour to India in 2017 with the England Under-19s team. This team featured three players – Pope, Harry Brook, and Will Jacks – who have now become part of the senior Test team. However, Pope faced difficulties during the tour, with an average of 21.5 in the two Tests and often getting dismissed while attempting a sweep shot.
Many observers noted that the Indian players displayed remarkable skill and technique by using a straight bat and making shots with minimal risk but potentially high payoff. They also utilized the strategy of punching the ball off the back foot into open spaces on either side of the crease. The only instance in which they would attempt a sweep was if the ball was directed towards the side of the wicket. In contrast, the England players struggled against left-arm spinners who aimed to bowl straight, as the sweep shot was considered risky and could result in being out lbw or bowled. This was a recurring theme throughout their trip, but Ollie went against the norm and faced consequences for it.
During the Ashes in Brisbane, I recall standing near the players’ changing rooms during lunch and witnessing Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen preparing to continue England’s innings. While Cook was focused and not engaging in conversation, Pietersen approached me and we spoke for a short time. I mentioned that I would soon be traveling to Sri Lanka with the England Lions team and he responded with, “Oh, spin. Just pick the length and that’s all you need to do.” With that, he put on his helmet and gloves and headed out to face Mitchell Johnson. I was struck by the certainty of Pietersen’s words and it has stayed with me ever since.
When encountering spin, there are two options: either advance down the pitch to meet the ball and gain control, or step back and give yourself more time to react and play off the back foot. This was the strategy we had been practicing, but Ollie had a different approach. As one of the more experienced players on the team, he may have felt pressure or faced unfamiliar conditions that led to his difficulties.
And of course that experience went through my mind as he turned the first Test on its head , and I saw the confidence he showed and the enjoyment he was having at the crease.
Pope tends to be very energetic at the beginning of his batting. At times, he may seem overly enthusiastic, almost hitting his shot before getting into position and starting to run before making contact with the ball. However, if he can make it through this initial period, he can excel, especially in a team like England where the focus is on scoring regardless of the situation, which suits him perfectly. Much has been said about his use of reverse sweeps and scoops, but he also made many well-executed shots by coming down the wicket and using his footwork. This was crucial because it unsettled India’s spin bowlers, forcing them to change their line, length, and pace, and Pope took advantage of this brilliantly.
Of course you don’t make 196 without playing a forward defensive, but he found a wonderful balance where he mixed an array of defensive shots with that mindset of wanting to be proactive all the time, trying to get down the pitch, or get back in the crease, or using his variety of sweeps. He has one reverse sweep where his front foot goes back, his back foot comes out and he turns his body so he’s almost like a left‑hander, and in doing so goes far down the wicket that when he then extends his arms to bring the bat through in a big sweeping motion he reaches the ball on the full toss and almost takes the pitch out of play. It’s such a technical shot, because it is very hard to keep your balance and keep your head still while all that movement is going on, and a lot of work must have gone into perfecting it.
I have noticed significant progress in Ollie’s game since his under-19s trip and recent weekend performance. Despite the challenges he may have faced, I believe he gained valuable experience on that tour. Although his performances may have initially been disappointing, he persevered and put in the effort to improve. Within a couple of years, I could see a significant growth in his maturity as both a person and a player.
Although I was taken aback when he was appointed as England’s vice-captain last year, it was not because of any concerns about his character. He has always been very responsible and well-liked, and I am confident that he will be well-received by the team and serve as a bridge between the experienced players and the younger ones. However, I was uncertain if he had proven himself enough to solidify his position in the team.
When you appoint someone as vice-captain, you are essentially telling them, “You are a part of this team no matter what.” Many people in the game were unsure if he deserved that position. However, Hyderabad has proven those doubts wrong. He has scored well in the past, but this performance was on a whole new level. It was under challenging and unfamiliar conditions, against a strong opponent, and with his team in a dangerous situation. The real test will be if he can continue to perform at this level, but there is no longer any doubt about Ollie’s ability to excel at the highest level and on the biggest stage.