England were on precisely 250 and Ollie Pope on 81 when the 23-year-old reached for a Shardul Thakur delivery and edged it into his stumps. It was his second-highest score for his country, an innings that carried his team from crisis towards a measure of supremacy, and it ended with the batsman heaving his bat into the ground in frustration.
It was an opportunity missed, and not just to assist Chris Woakes in his attempt to take the game away from India in the final session. Because there is something about the pavilion at the Oval that makes Pope particularly enjoy waving his bat at it, and he had seemed destined to get another chance.
More than three years after his Test debut, Pope is back in the side after Jos Buttler’s decision to prioritise the birth of his second child, and representing England at the Oval for the first time. As a Surrey player he might be expected to feel particularly at home on this ground, but not everyone manages to convert that feeling of familiarity into consistently high scores as Pope has. Just ask Rory Burns.
In the County Championship Pope has averaged 38.14 across 23 innings for Surrey away from home. In 19 innings at the Oval he averages 101.8; in his last 14 it is 117.08; in his last six he has only once been dismissed for a score less than 100 – a duck against Middlesex in May – and his average is 185. He has only ever lost one first-class game here, and that was three years ago. Pope may stand at 5ft 9in but in this corner of the capital he is becoming a giant.
It took India only four balls to dispose of Craig Overton, England’s nightwatchman, and bring Pope to the crease. England were 53 for four, soon to become 62 for five when Dawid Malan fell, like Overton, to Umesh Yadav, courtesy of an excellent diving catch at second slip. At this stage India’s once-trifling total of 191 had developed a daunting, menacing distance as the home side toiled on the lower slopes of a molehill.
In the first 13 overs of the day 25 runs were scored, two wickets were lost, and at their conclusion England were 78 for five and still reeling. Jonny Bairstow had four from 22 balls while Pope had yet to settle and had hit a single boundary in his 32-ball 15, a top edge that bounced off his own shoulder before flying high and wide of Rishabh Pant behind the stumps. A few minutes later it was 106 for five, and 26% of England’s runs had come off the previous 10 balls.
As on the first day Thakur had inspired a sudden rush of runs that shifted the momentum of the game, only this time it was with the ball in his hand rather than a bat. It started with Pope and three excellent shots in four deliveries, all of which sped to the rope. As for that matter did the one delivery of that run that he missed, which deflected instead off his pads. Bairstow hit three successive boundaries in the next over, bowled by Mohammed Siraj, and England’s outlook had suddenly changed.
India stemmed the flood after that, but not the direction of flow. Pope hit one more boundary before lunch – a fabulous cover drive off Jasprit Bumrah – and just one after it, when Moeen Ali came in and started taking more than enough risks for two. That shot, off Siraj, completed his first half-century in 16 Test innings going back more than a year. But still his total kept rising; those bat-waving muscles started to twitch.
There is little muscle in Pope’s menace. In an era of meaty bats and beefy biffs he can sometimes seem a little pescatarian; even with his most powerful shots he doesn’t so much cleave the field as fillet it. He will be frustrated by its conclusion, and by the number of times he flirted with playing into his stumps before eventually achieving it, but England will be grateful for his contribution, and to the effect of this particular patch of south London where he seems in every sense at home.