It has now been nine innings since Ollie Pope graced us with a score above 50. We all know that he oozes class, but should he continue to struggle, is his Test spot vulnerable? In this piece, I ask whether it would be a cardinal sin to drop Pope, if England might drop him (or is it smoke and mirrors), and whether I would play Pope for the final test...
When at his best, Ollie Pope is scintillating. His 135* v South Africa at Port Elizabeth in early 2020 was glorious, as was his 91, against the Windies last summer. But while his best is reminiscent of David Gower's beauty, his worst is as tangled as Monty Panesar was with bat in hand. And in this series against India, we have seen his worst, most evident in the two-day test just finished at Ahmedabad.
In said day/night Test, as England were destroyed by 10 wickets, Pope was twice bowled by Ravichandran Ashwin. In the first innings, he made 1 off 12, before playing down the wrong line to see his off stump removed, as the off-spinner came from around the wicket. In the second, Pope got 12 from 15, only to play all around the ball that didn't spin, such was the difficulty.
It has not been a good tour for Pope. In the three tests so far, he has made just 109 runs in six innings, and the only non-dismissal by a spinner saw him caught down the legside off Mohammad Siraj when on 22, his third highest score of the series so far (his highest is 34).
Even last summer, he made two fifties in nine innings. By no means awful, but not as good as England would have hoped. The poor form has made some ponder whether Pope should miss the final test of the series, which is due to start Thursday.
Of course, Pope is a brilliant talent. His first-class average of 51.35 is the highest of all Englishmen (of current players, minimum of 20 matches). His Test average in 2020 was 57.05, which was very impressive for his first full year in Test cricket, after his debut came too early in 2018, playing just two tests that year, and then another two in 2019.
Given how easy it so to moan when the selectors choose players that we believe have failed, or refuse to pick those that we believe are the best in county cricket, it is immensely frustrating. Given his county record, young age, and decent start to Test cricket, I think we should they decide to stick with Pope.
Despite the torrid form in India, the differences in Pope's record at home versus away is interesting. He averages only 24.45 in England, despite his big county runs coming here in the UK. He has just two fifties in his eight Tests at home, but his eight away Tests include his hundred and three fifties, at a very good 40.41, which is remarkable given the awful run in India.
So what next for Pope. My personal view is that, at just 23, and with all his talent, he should stay in the Test side until he retires, baring an awful drop in form, or, obviously, should there be an injury or personal reasons.
But I accept this is not everyone's view.
He is in very poor form now, and so there is a good case to drop him. But, there is just one Test to go in India, and England's batting back-up options are Rory Burns and Dan Lawrence (who are both also out of form) and James Bracey, who has never played a test and averages 34.94 in first-class cricket. He maybe a good future option, but I don't think one Test in India to then not play for a few years is a good option.
It is for this reason, the lack of other options, that I cannot see Pope being dropped.
But, I accept that playing Pope simply because other options are low is poor reasoning. So, here a few positive reasons for him to play:
-He's had two 20s and a 30 so far this series: let's back him to make a conversion. -The best way he'll learn to play spin is playing a difficult game that England are likely to lose against a very good bowling attack, not sitting on the bench.
-We can't do much better than him at short leg. -After this test, he'll be going home, and will have a few weeks rest to refresh before the county season starts, with England's next Test not until June.
Last month, I wrote before Dan Lawrence's debut that we should be patient with him. I'd like to see Lawrence have another go at Test cricket; he is not a failure. SImiliary, some medicore returns at home last year, and a poor series here in India, do not mean that Pope is a failure, and nor should he be dropped. I'd rather give these young talents one game too many, than one game to few.
Furthermore, given that Pope has no chance of breaking into England's gorgeous T20I top six of Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan; and nor will be he breaking into the ODI side soon, with the World Cup winning top six still the best options: Roy, Bairstow, Joe Root, Morgan, Stokes and Buttler; we have no need to fear Pope needing a break, or playing too much cricket. He is not a franchise t20 player, and he has the chance to have a rest, and play some first-class cricket; oppurtunites that the likes of Buttler and Stokes will not have.
[On a side note, when Root decides that he will only be playing Test cricket (I'd guess after the 2023 World Cup), Pope will be the ideal replacement, with the quick scoring rate and ability to rotate the strike.]
So, even if Pope does struggle in the final test, with some time off at home, he should be able to get back into form with Surrey, ahead of what should prove a good challenge against New Zealand in early June.
Of course, should Pope struggle for Surrey, then we are in a difficult scenario. One might say, that were he still out of form, Pope would need divine intervention to take to the field for England in June...