August 2018 and England are playing India in the third Test at Trent Bridge. They are losing, 32 for two in the fourth innings and 489 runs behind. Joe Root is in, batting with the team’s latest call-up, Ollie Pope. Pope had made his debut at Lord’s the week before, when he became their youngest middle-order batsman since Denis Compton, 70 years earlier.
Here, he hits his first ball through cover for one four and his third through gully for another. Handsome shots, but they betray a vulnerability, too. India’s bowlers hold that line outside off stump and, soon enough, he edges a catch to third slip for 16.
England dropped Pope for the next match. It was a tactical decision, they wanted to play Moeen Ali as a second spinner, but it suggested they did not think Pope was quite ready. He picked up on the hint and he did the right thing.
Soon after, he suffered a dislocated shoulder and during his time off he got together with his batting coach at Surrey, Vikram Solanki, to talk about what he needed to do to succeed in Test cricket. “We decided the way I was getting out most was pushing at those fifth-stump balls that I should probably be leaving,” Pope said later. They decided he needed to make two changes.
One was technical – Pope moved across to an off-stump guard – and the other was temperamental: he resolved to tighten up and stop playing so many loose shots. He said the injury had given him “a real hunger” to play Test cricket.
Four years on and England are playing Australia in the fifth Test at Hobart. They are losing, again, 81 for four in the first innings and 222 runs behind. Pope is in. He is playing because Jonny Bairstow’s injury means he has been given an unexpected recall after being dropped.
Given his poor form on the tour and the series score, the match might be the last chance he gets in Test cricket for a while. He has started well. There is another of those gorgeous cover drives for four and a couple of boundaries through midwicket. He has made it to 16 and Scott Boland is bowling.
There was nothing cunning about Boland’s plan. He gave Pope a ball outside off, Pope played and missed. He gave him two more in the same place and Pope left them. The fourth ball came in at him and Pope blocked it. The fifth ball was back out wide again and Pope could not help himself, he stretched across and prodded his bat at it. The edge flew through to the keeper and he was out for 14.
Pope’s was not the only poor dismissal, there were others just as bad. Rory Burns was run out by an inch because of a moment’s hesitation, when a dive for the line might have saved him. But it is worth picking out, because it says so much about the confused state of English cricket.
Pope is, most people agree, just about the best young English batsman in county cricket. He is 24, has made more than 4,000 first-class runs at an average of 51. Although it is beginning to feel like a long time ago, he has had some success in Test matches. He won a man-of-the-match award in South Africa a couple of years ago, when he made 135 at Port Elizabeth.
And here he is, struggling along, in and out of the team, making the same mistakes. Everyone has their own theories why. Three old batters, Nick Compton, Rikki Clarke and Owais Shah, got into a back-and-forth about it on Twitter. Compton felt it was temperamental, a lack of discipline and patience, and said players had forgotten how to bat for long stretches of time. Shah felt it was technical, that taking guard on off stump was a mistake and it was time to move on to another young batsman because Pope had already been given enough rope.
Clarke argued otherwise, he felt it was down to the team environment and the unsteadying effect of the way players had been rotated in and out of the team in the past 12 months.
It was an interesting disagreement. It spoke to how losing the Ashes has cracked open English cricket and exposed the multitude of problems in it. It is going to take some smart thinking from the management to figure out which one needs fixing first and how to do it.
The team’s managing director, Ashley Giles, says we need systemic change. He might be right. I would ask why the man everyone reckons is the best young batsman on the circuit is making the same mistakes he did when he was a rookie.
Pope is not the only good young player who seems to have gone backwards since he came into this England set-up. Zak Crawley, who made 267 against Pakistan, is another, Haseeb Hameed, who made 82 against India on his debut, is another, Dom Sibley, who has scored centuries against South Africa and the West Indies, is a third.
Root is just about the only player in the squad who has played anything like his best while Chris Silverwood has been in charge. Giles and Silverwood might ask why the English cricket is not providing their team with better players, but equally, English cricket might ask why Giles and Silverwood are not getting more out of the best they have been provided with.