There are several thousand England supporters in Port Elizabeth and all of them will one day boast they were there when Ollie Pope arrived in Test cricket.
A maiden Test hundred is a breakthrough moment for every batsman but it has extra resonance in the case of such talented young player as Pope.
Generally one top class batsman emerges per decade for England. In the 2010s they welcomed Joe Root, who made his maiden Test hundred at Headingley in May 2013 aged 22.
In the 2000s along came Alastair Cook with a century on debut as a 21 year-old in Nagpur. The less said about the 1990s the better, apart from now we can celebrate the fact Pope was born towards the end of the decade.
As he punched the air in celebration in Port Elizabeth, he became the eighth youngest England Test centurion at 22 years and 15 days and is a batsman for whom ‘the sky’s the absolute limit’ according to Kevin Pietersen. He said that at the end of day one.
On day two Pope continued to reach for the stars as he scored an unbeaten 135 in an innings full of sumptuous orthodox strokes as well as a ramp, scoop and reverse scoop for boundaries off South Africa’s two quickest bowlers: Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada. Those daring shots showed off the sleight of hand skills he credits to his school days playing hockey. With such shots in his armoury, IPL dollars also await this young man as well as a glittering Test career.
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Pope brings up his hundred, off 190 balls, with 4 through midwicket.
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Pope fed off batting with Ben Stokes (who wouldn’t at the moment) and he had him to thank for the fact he made it to three figures.
We know Stokes can bat, bowl and field brilliantly. Now we know he can umpire too for he persuaded Pope to review an LBW dismissal on 84. Pope seemed certain he was out and there were only four seconds left on the countdown clock when he signalled for the review after being given out leg before to Keshav Maharaj.
It looked an optimistic call and Pope admitted he thought he was out. Ball tracking showed the delivery missing leg stump almost as much to the surprise of Pope as to the South African team.
It was the luck he deserved after calmly counter punching with Stokes on the first evening at a point when England innings in the past have fallen apart.
He brought up his hundred with a flick through wide mid on but it was his next stroke that took the breath away: a ramped bouncer from Nortje that he whipped off middle stump and steered over fine leg. It was later followed by reverse scooping a length ball for Rabada for four before copying the shot to the next delivery, a slower ball, this time over the slips to the boundary.
“I was lucky enough to see Dom Sibley get his first hundred last week, Ben Foakes get his first hundred in Galle and I have always sat there watching and thought it must be an amazing feeling so actually to go and do it today was an awesome feeling,” said Pope.
He has a simple technique with little that can go wrong. He has tightened up since his first two Tests for England when he batted too high up the order and was dropped after some impetuous shots outside off stump brought about his downfall. While injured last season he reviewed his game with Surrey’s coaches and Andy Flower and it was decided he should move across in his crease, which has allowed him to leave the ball better and defend closer to his front pad.
“It is so great to be out there to see young talent come through right in front of you,” said Stokes afterwards. “The knock he played today really showed, not just English cricket, but cricket around the world just how exciting the talent is within this group.”
Pope scored strongly on both sides of the wicket and it is his off side game that sets him apart from the other young batsmen trying to make their way in this team. He has a sound temperament and a love of batting, just like Root. He also shares Root’s confidence in his ability without coming across as cocky.
There will be greater examinations than facing a dejected South African side on a slow pitch and Australians who love to hunt down young highly rated young Poms lie in wait in a two winters’ time.
But for now it is time to celebrate his first milestone: a Test hundred. “It is a good bench mark to build from,” he said. And a moment to savour for those who witnessed it.