After such a heavy loss it would be customary for the doom and gloom to descend upon the England camp. Yet Joe Root’s post-match interview with Mark Nicholas, full of pragmatic optimism and honest reflection, spoke volumes about a side that have matured greatly in the past year.
England were not tight enough in the field in the second Test, and their spinners remained inconsistent. India reaching 300 inside 90 overs was an indictment of this. It is a loss, however, that should be easy to move on from. India were wonderful, Rohit’s emphatic 161 an education on how to aggress on such a venomous surface. Ashwin’s march into the pantheon of Indian greats is inexorable.
Rather than reservations in the spin department or India’s resurgence, the area of greatest concern for England ought to regard their support of Root. This winter, no England player other than the skipper has made a hundred. Significant, isolated contributions from Sibley, Stokes and Lawrence aside, no one has got close to him.
Indeed, no one could have been expected to match such enormous scores, and no one has needed to up until the second Test in Chennai. This was the first Test in four in which Root has failed, precipitating a bruising loss by 317 runs. His brilliance may have papered over some cracks, and the pressure that is put on him in subsequent games could begin to affect his own form.
Here lies perhaps the determining narrative of the rest of the series and England’s development as a side. After a leaner couple of years for Root, Stokes has shown the ability to step up with fabulous knocks, but it takes two to tango to big totals should the captain come up short. This is where Ollie Pope must become England’s not-so-secret weapon.
After a long lay-off, rustiness was to be expected from Pope. This he showed in the first Test but looked to be finding some form in the second, despite slim additions. At 23 and having played 15 games, Pope is young and inexperienced, and one wouldn’t dare criticise what is already a decent England record.
However, every time he strolls to the crease there is a palpable sense of expectation, from viewers and commentators alike. Typical is praise about his prospects and his future in the side. Inescapable are comparisons to Ian Bell and Pope’s alleged apprenticeship to Root. All such comments are completely applicable and understandable, but Pope is simply too good to be treated as a prospect, or an understudy to anyone – England legend or not.
Averaging the best part of 53 in first-class cricket, every time Pope makes the climb to England duty he shows no signs of altitude sickness. Simultaneously busy and compact, it is no wonder English onlookers are already envisaging the presentation of his 100th cap.
The ability Pope has now is so exciting because acting on it would offer a certain completeness to England’s already promising batting line-up, despite their collapses in somewhat anomalous conditions last week.
Coming in at 6, Pope often finds himself in a key period of the game, with England usually having lost one of Stokes or Root. The opposition has started to creak the door open, Pope the key wicket to access England’s lower order. If he gets in, he can deceptively take games away from sides, as his 135* did in Port Elizabeth last year – a Test match in which Root failed – where Pope stepped up to support Stokes, the two pushing England’s score towards 500.
That Test match is the model for England should Root not match his heady winter heights in the games to come. As the pink ball comes into play and conditions become more familiar to Pope, one would not be surprised if he can build on the couple of pretty contributions he has made so far. Doing so could transform this England batting line-up from an inconsistent one into a formidable force.
India will be looking at Root as England’s sole defence, the wicket that will win them the series. Rather than looking to the future, Pope has the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to act now as the vital cog in England’s engine room.
His favouring of quick, elegant runs could race England towards match-winning totals, taking the pressure off both Root and the spinners, allowing a well-balanced bowling unit to attack. Whether or not Pope can execute now on his obvious talent will be huge in deciding the India series and the defining cricketing year to come.
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