Where Should Ollie Pope Bat in Test Cricket for England?

21st August, 2019.

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Several years ago, I had talks with an English county about working with them on a full-time basis in a role which would have covered statistical analysis on their current squad, potential recruitment targets and opposition analysis.  For whatever reason - probably financial - this didn't quite work out, although I have done a fair bit of freelance analysis for them, and they have subsequently signed players based on my recommendations.  Hindsight suggests that my approach towards this particular meeting was rather naive, but given that I had little reputation, had never played the game and because I was naturally keen to create a positive impression of my services, it seemed a good idea at the time to put together a rather large dossier of data with which to discuss with them, and to leave with them for future reference.  

Included in this dossier was potential recruitment targets for players who were not getting much opportunity at their current county, for various reasons.  Perhaps they had an overseas player or Kolpak player in a similar role blocking their pathway to the first team, or perhaps their current coach wasn't keen as to promote young players as other coaches.  Perhaps even, their coach didn't rate that particular player as highly as my algorithm-driven expected data did.  

This was, and remains, an area where I feel that many counties are lacking - with regard to most counties recruitment and selection, not a lot has changed since that day.  I continue to passionately believe that there are a considerable number of younger players able to play first team cricket for English counties, and who get little opportunity.  It isn't unheard of for some counties (particularly Division Two teams at non Test-match grounds) to complain that they don't have a level playing field with regard to finances, but it is difficult to give that viewpoint a great deal of sympathy due to the sheer volume of talented young players only on summer contracts, or one-year deals (which counties can then exploit via a 28-day notice) - these players would be cheap, and hungry to do well.  In my opinion, there seems a rather different landscape in cricket, where young players at counties trying to break through seem expendable, as opposed to in football, where players at a similar age, and with similar squad roles, are often treated as an asset - perhaps that's the impact of transfer fees.  I continue to have a full database of players that I rate as being easily good enough for a Division Two county at least, and any interested coaches or teams can feel free to get in touch with me using the contact details above.  

At this stage, you're probably wondering - and with good reason - what this has to do with Ollie Pope.  Well, Pope was top of the list of potential batsmen who weren't getting much first team opportunity at that stage - his expected numbers were almost solely driven by Second XI appearances (adjusted for opposition quality).  Out of interest, other players in that list included Ian Holland - now opening and doing well for Hampshire, Harvey Hosein (now regular wicket-keeper for Derbyshire), James Bracey (doing superbly for Gloucestershire in red ball cricket), Ryan Patel (now featuring much more regularly for Surrey), Tom Alsop - a regular for Hampshire, as well as Neil Brand (at Glamorgan at the time), who averaged almost 60 in this year's CSA Provincial tournament having gone back to South Africa.  Bowlers in the list I provided for them who weren't getting much first-team exposure at the time included Matt Fisher, who remains a decent prospect for Yorkshire despite injuries, Sam Cook at Essex, Saqib Mahmood at Lancashire, Amar Virdi at Surrey, Matt Milnes at Notts (now doing great things for Kent), Matt Parkinson and Conor McKerr.

So - in 2017,  at the age of 19, my algorithm made Pope the best non first-team regular batsman in the country.  Fast forward around a year, to August 2018, and this piece I wrote graded Pope as the fourth best English batsman full-stop behind Joe Root, Alastair Cook and Jonny Bairstow, and marginally ahead of his (at that stage uncapped) Surrey team mate, Rory Burns - I even referenced the presentation that I mentioned above in that particular piece.  By that time, Pope had already made his debut for England, but batting at number four in what looked like a case of putting a square peg into a round hole.

At that stage, Pope had never batted higher than six in a County Championship match for Surrey.  Yet, on his international debut, he came in after 8.2 overs at number four.  In his second match (he only batted once in the first Test match) he came in after 12.1 overs, and 11.6 overs - despite that fact that he had never come in during the first 20 overs for Surrey in a County Championship match in his entire career to that point.  Following scores of 10 and 16 in his second international appearance, Pope was dropped and has never played Test cricket since.  At the time, I thought that decision was both harsh, and unfair, given that he was asked to perform an unfamiliar role (perhaps akin to a Premier League striker being asked to make his international debut on the wing?), plus his obvious potential.  

At the time of writing, across 22 completed Division One innings in his career, Pope is averaging a stunning 68.45, but this is rather polarised between the stages of his innings where he comes into bat.  If he comes in to bat during the first 40 overs, he averages 50.63, while if he comes in after the first 40 overs, he averages a stratospheric 78.64.  Granted, it's not the biggest sample size, but it's all we have to go on - he does look better suited a role a little lower down the order.  His strike rate across both those phases is virtually identical, but interestingly, when he comes in during the first 40 overs he has a higher boundary percentage but a lower non-boundary strike rate, suggesting that when he comes in earlier he tries to be a little more aggressive from a boundary-hitting perspective, but is a slightly worse rotator than when he comes in during a later stage of an innings.

Almost a year to the day following his second Test appearance, Pope could be in line for a dramatic recall, after an incredible 221 not out against Hampshire, and has been called up as standby for county team-mate Jason Roy after Roy was hit in the nets.  The problem is, with Roy's place being the one he'd be likely to take, it would seem likely that Pope would again bat four for England, with Joe Denly reverting to opening the batting.

The difficulty here - and an illustration of England's batting issues - is that in just 13.9% of Test innings from the start of 2018 onwards has England's number four - whoever it may be - come in after the 40th over.  In fact, in only 22.2% of their innings have they come in after the 30th over.  Almost 50% of the time have England's number four made his way to the crease prior to the 15th over being completed.  Essentially, if Pope does bat four for England, there's a pretty decent chance that he's still going to be coming in during a phase that is still pretty unfamiliar to him.

A look at a list of England's batsmen and batting all-rounders used since 2017 makes for interesting reading, particularly as the table below shows, in conjunction with each player's Division One batting average upto and including the season they turned 21 years of age - the same age as Pope is now.   It is worth noting that Alastair Cook (five completed innings) and Gary Ballance (three) had small sample sizes of data here - every other batsman with numbers provided had at least 17 completed innings by this stage of their careers:-


Division One Batting Average

Ollie Pope


Alastair Cook


Jonny Bairstow


Joe Denly


Ben Stokes


Joe Root


Jos Buttler


James Vince


Keaton Jennings


Tom Westley


Mark Stoneman


Gary Ballance


Dawid Malan


Rory Burns


Jason Roy


Pope's current career Division One average is streets ahead of the numbers that every other England batsman could boast at a similar stage of their career.  In short, it seems clear that Pope - at this stage of his career - looks to be an incredibly special red-ball talent.  Such a talent, in fact, that there can be a decent case made for him to be a player that England should build their team around, and certainly not one who should be shoehorned into whatever role is deemed necessary.  

When Jofra Archer made his England Test debut last week, there was talk of him being a 'once in a generation talent'.  Perhaps this should have extended to him being a 'once in a generation bowling talent', because Pope's numbers at his current stage suggest he could be the batting version of that in red-ball cricket.  While he could be a success at number four - his numbers for Surrey coming in during the first 40 overs are still obviously very good - it would make logical sense to bat him in a role in which he is accustomed.  Certainly, it should be hoped that such an obviously talented red-ball batsman isn't dropped again after several matches in an unfamiliar role, as he was last time around - Pope could be a ten-year plus batsman for England, and a settled run in the side batting five or six would appear the route towards the highest positive expectation, both in the short-term as well as long-term.

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