Ollie Pope shows the more things change, the more they stay the same

Surrey 312 for 3 (Pope 113*, Amla 73, Patel 58) vs Hampshire

Quite a bit has changed for Ollie Pope over the last couple of years. Since seemingly confirming himself as England’s next Test match batting blueblood with a maiden century in Port Elizabeth, he has struggled to achieve similar heights. In and out of the side, his technique picked apart by pundits and analysts, Pope’s princely returns had become ever more impoverished by the end of a torrid Ashes. Even the location of that first hundred has undergone a transformation: Port Elizabeth now going by the name of Gqeberha.

But if there’s an opposition and a venue designed to help Pope feel comfortable at the crease, it is undoubtedly Hampshire at the Kia Oval. His status as the best young batter of his generation is unimpeachable on Surrey’s home ground, where he began the season with a first-class average of 99.94. And visualising the Hampshire team bus trundling up the M3 induces a state of tranquility in Pope that even Bradman would have envied.

His record coming into this match was three hundreds from as many outings, and he duly made it four – only once in five innings has he ­not managed to reach three figures against Hampshire at The Oval, his average in such encounters now in excess of 200. Throw in the maiden first-class hundred he made at Southampton in 2017, and you might have a new way of defining a dead cert. Never mind, “Is the Pope a Catholic?” Is he going to score a ton against Hampshire elicits the same response.

Pope’s winter ended in ignominious fashion, bowled behind his legs by Pat Cummins as part of England’s final, grisly collapse of 10 for 56 in Hobart; he was included for the tour of the Caribbean, carrying the drinks but not the can for another failure. But having warmed up with a half-century in last week’s high-scoring draw at Edgbaston, he duly peeled off his 13th first-class ton with the sort of crisp, busy strokeplay that marked him out from the start of his county career five years ago.

Another change: Pope has apparently shifted to a middle-stump guard. While discussions of how a batter chooses to line himself up remain among the more arcane in cricket, many a sage observer had suggested last year that batting on off stump would only bring Pope trouble. Here he looked in almost complete control, his positioning and balance entirely at ease, and scoring at an even tempo throughout (his fifty came off 73 balls, his hundred 151).

Noticeably, his runs came via soft hands either side of the wicket, repeatedly dabbed to third or whipped off the pads – the stroke that raised his century, met with rousing applause from a well-attended first day of the season at Surrey. Throughout the day, Pope only played five scoring shots in front of square on the off side, two of them in the penultimate over – indicative, perhaps, of his resolve in the channel. He top-edged a pull off James Fuller that flew somewhat fortuitously for six, while a delivery with the second new ball from Mohammad Abbas that jumped to take the glove before landing well short of slip was one of the rare instances of his equilibrium being disturbed.

Pope’s innings was put into context by Hashim Amla, who made an uncharacteristically scratchy 73 and said afterwards that the scoreline didn’t fully reflect the efforts of Hampshire’s bowlers. “There was a lot in the wicket,” he said. “On another day we could have been six or seven down.”

Hampshire came into this match as the early Division One pace-setters, off the back of a crushing win over Somerset in the opening round, but well aware of what happened on their previous trip to Kennington (Pope hundred included). James Vince’s team only lost three Championship fixtures last season, but one of those was a thumping every bit as brutal as that which they handed out last week, Surrey winning by an innings following a double-century stand between Amla and Pope and 10 wickets in the match to Kemar Roach.

Having been inserted on that occasion, and promptly rolled for 92, Vince opted for reconnaissance on a warm April morning that, coupled with a greenish surface might, have promised some assistance for the seamers. But while Keith Barker began the day bowling to Rory Burns with four slips watching on hungrily – and Surrey’s captain was dismissed to a catch in the cordon – Hampshire were to enjoy little success. When Amla did flash at a delivery from Abbas, on 20, it burst through the hands of Liam Dawson at second.

For Hampshire, it wasn’t quite déjà vu all over again (as Yogi Berra once had it). Surrey’s third-wicket stand between Amla and Pope was only worth 114 on this occasion – though Hampshire thought they might have had Amla much earlier, with confident lbw appeals on 0 and 8 turned down off Ian Holland. The first was perhaps a touch high, with Amla ostentatiously rubbing his right thigh to convey such an impression, while the latter could have sneaked down leg.

It was Holland’s medium pace that did for Burns, another batter looking to change some perceptions after being discarded by England – but after a composed start, a full-blooded drive resulted only in an edge to second slip. Ryan Patel made a punchy half-century, his second in as many matches, only to pull Fuller’s second ball, a leg-side long hop, straight to Abbas on the rope; Amla, too, fell to a delivery he could easily have ignored, giving Holland a second. But the sledge that rang out from the crowd in the penultimate over – “300 for 3, James” – made plain Hampshire’s position at the close.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick

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