“Two!” shouted Ollie Pope. Joe Root wavered at the striker’s end, his bat in his ground, his weight on his front foot. “Two!” shouted his teammates on the balcony. Root had one eye on the ball racing away over the square and the other on the fielder haring in towards it from the deep. “TWO!” shouted the crowd. Pope was coming anyway, dead-set on finishing the last run he needed for his hundred. He, and everyone else in English cricket, had been waiting a long time for this, and he wasn’t going to waste even one more ball wondering whether it was ever going to come.
Pope didn’t even seem to see Root, certainly didn’t clock that he had stopped. He came back for the second run like the sky was falling in behind him and didn’t finish his sprint until he was halfway to the boundary. Root, who had finally set off on the second run when he realised his partner was hellbent on it anyway, turned again and came chasing after him in leaps and bounds across the outfield so he could wrap him up in a hug.
It had been two years and nearly five months since Pope had made his first and only previous Test century, 135 against South Africa at Port Elizabeth. He had played 18 games since, and made just 686 runs in them, with four fifties, a top score of 91, and an average of 22.87. England have cut loose a few batsmen in that time, some of them, such as Dawid Malan, with better records too. But successive captains and coaches and selectors have stuck with Pope, who has been dropped and recalled and dropped and recalled again, because they were convinced that he was just too good to carry on failing the way he had been.
Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum doubled down on that bet by pushing him up the order again, a show of faith in a player who has never lacked for that sort of support. Pope is so richly gifted that he had a frictionless passage up the pathways of English cricket, through the Surrey age groups and into their second XI when he was 17, their first white-ball side a year afterwards and into their championship team when he was 19, one game for the England Lions when he was 20 and he was straight into the Test team just a month later, batting at No 4 against India. It felt as if the game came so easily to him, until all of a sudden it didn’t.
Pope’s problem in these past two years hasn’t been figuring out what has gone wrong so much as trying to find a way to put it right again. He didn’t know enough about his own game to fix it himself and was too young to know who among all the many people giving him advice he ought to listen to.
He has said that he felt confused by the conflicting guidance he was getting from the different coaches he was working with. He toyed with his guard, his stance, and his trigger movement, ended up tinkering so much that he compromised a lot of what made him so good to begin with and exposed some new weaknesses too.
You could still see him working through all this on Saturday evening. He had batted skittishly, was dropped on 37, and had flapped at a couple of short balls which screwballed off his top-edge for six. But he was steadier on Sunday morning, as if the runs he had made the previous evening had settled him.
He needed to be. These were bound to be the trickiest conditions of the day, and it appeared the match could turn on his nascent partnership with Alex Lees. If they fell now, chances were that the rest of England’s batting would come tumbling after them and the team would end up in a heap around Joe Root’s feet.
Tim Southee was on at one end, Trent Boult the other. By the look on the latter’s face, he fancied his chances of getting Pope any moment. After his opening couple of deliveries he pulled a man out of the covers and put in an extra slip, thinking he could sucker Pope into being caught behind the wicket.
And he was right, Pope did edge the ball behind, a couple of times, but they both fell short of the slips. At the other end, Southee tried hanging the ball out wide of his off stump, then trying to surprise him with the odd one that jagged back in. More than once, it felt as if Pope dropped his bat on it in the nick of time.
And then, just like that, the moment passed. The choppy spell was over. The sun was out and there was a lick of breeze in the air. As the morning wore on the pitch started to flatten out, the ball started to soften up, and Test cricket finally became that little bit easier for him.
It was, astonishingly, the first century he has ever scored north of the River Thames. I suppose the next question is whether he can do it again north of the Trent.