When Ollie Pope started the season with a first-class career-best 251 against the MCC, the young Surrey batsman had every reason to believe that 2019 could be a defining year in his fledgling career.
Having earned his first Test cap against India last year and helped his side win the County Championship in 2018 by amassing 986 runs at an average of 70.43, there seemed a genuine chance he would earn his first taste of Ashes cricket.
Those hopes appeared dashed in April when the 21-year-old dislocated his shoulder while fielding in the One-Day Cup against Essex.
Forced to watch from the sidelines as England won the the Cricket World Cup for the first time in dramatic fashion, Pope returned for Surrey in August, playing in their T20 campaign.
Despite not having played any red ball cricket, he was immediately called up as cover for Jason Roy by the England management team when the former took a blow to the head in the nets.
All of a sudden there as a slim chance his Ashes dream had could become a reality. However, Roy was declared fit and Pope was forced to watch from the sidelines as Australia retained the Ashes.
But there was no time to be wistful and the precocious talent hit an unbeaten 221 against Hampshire at The Oval before ending the season with a century against Nottinghamshire. Earning a season average of 80.14 from his five matches.
“I was really happy with how I came back from the injury, as it was a pretty average way to start the season,” said Pope. “I was really happy with the way I came straight back into form and hit the ground running as you tend to see players struggle for some time after an injury.
“I managed to keep my brain busy when I couldn’t train and I met up with the Surrey psychologist which really helped. But it was a bit surreal when I got told I was the concussion replacement for the Ashes without having played a red ball game.
“That definitely made me get back into the nets a bit sooner than I expected and it was nice that the selectors put that confidence in me.
“Of course it was tough to watch, especially knowing how close I was. But I was watching as an England fan and hoping the team did well. It was the same with the World Cup final, I didn’t think I could ever be that nervous just watching a game of cricket. There was so much pressure on them and the way they went about it was unbelievable.”
Pope is now hoping that he will play a far bigger role for England after being selected for the Test tour of New Zealand later this year. And the hugely talented young batsman is confident he can perform on the biggest stage after a difficult start to his Test career against a fierce Indian attack.
“The main thing I took away from those games was that once you are on the pitch, it is exactly the same as playing for your county,” explains Pope. “I was feeling the pressure the night before, but as soon as I stepped over the line it felt like any other game.
“It was a massive confidence boost and although things didn’t exactly go my way, I used that experience and went away and adapted my batting slightly. Hopefully that will allow me to succeed when I next get my go.”
This willingness to adapt should stand Pope in good stead as he looks to carve out a long and successful career with his county and England. Surrey chief Alec Stewart was quick to praise his work ethic and determination when he returned from injury and the young batsman has no qualms about picking the brain of his more established colleagues.
“We are very lucky at Surrey that we have so many international players as it is the perfect environment to learn,” Pope said. “It’s great to speak to them especially when things do go badly as they have all had tough times and gotten through it.”
Surrey teammates Rory Burns and Roy both endured testing times during the summer with England, with the latter excelling in the one-day side before struggling against Australia’s fast and accurate attack.
And while Pope may be gaining attention for his ability in the four-day game, he hopes to also excel in white ball cricket. He currently averages 37.33 in 50-over cricket and 28.30 in T20, with an exceptional strike rate of 134.06.
But his ability to keep wicket and play an array of innovative shots could yet see him enjoy a fruitful future in all formats of the game, including the new English 100-ball tournament, The Hundred.
“You’ve got to change your game as you only have to look at the best players in the world like Root, Kohli, Smith and Williamson,” he says. “They all slightly adapt, but they nail the basics and that’s what I am trying to do. Once you are confident with the basics the big shots and scoops will follow.
“To be honest, I do practice the unconventional shots in the nets but my success rate in the game is actually a lot better. I don’t know why. In the game I have a rough idea of what the bowler will bowl and when, so the scoop I play over third man, I back myself every time to hit that in a game. In the nets, my success rate is a lot less.”
It is this natural instinct at the crease that has caught the attention of all those within the county game. Pope has drawn comparisons to England Test captain Joe Root and his overall first-class average of 58.79 after 31 games makes for staggering reading.
However, Pope is refusing to look too far into the future and admits that he was perhaps guilty of doing just this when first being selected for England.
“It’s easy to look ahead and I was a bit guilty of that when I got my first call up. I couldn’t help thinking that a good series may have led to another big series. So now I try not to set targets and just take it game by game.
“I prepare as well as I can and go into each game looking to get to 30 or 40. I am pretty good at making those average scores into big ones so I try not to put myself under too much pressure.
“At the same time I realise how big of an opportunity this is. You see Rory Burns has just got his central contract so I completely appreciate the opportunity that is there for me if I get my go in New Zealand.”
Follow Ollie Pope during England's upcoming tour of New Zealand: @opope32 on Instagram and Twitter.
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