England in Pakistan 2022 – Ollie Pope

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Ollie Pope says there is no animosity between him and Ben Foakes after he usurped his Surrey team-mate as England’s Test wicketkeeper in Pakistan.

Foakes came into the tour as the first choice behind the stumps, having played in six of the first seven Tests under captain Ben Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum. Regarded as one of the finest operators with the gloves in world cricket, he affected 34 dismissals this summer alone, while posting an average of exactly 40 with the bat along with a second career century against South Africa at Emirates Old Trafford.

However, on the morning of the first Test in Rawalpindi, Foakes fell victim to the virus that had taken out more than half the squad the day before which led to doubts over whether the match would start on time. England were eventually able to rouse an XI, but Foakes was ruled out and replaced by Will Jacks. It meant Pope, who had previously kept wicket for England against New Zealand in November 2019 and has also deputised as a stand-in on occasion, took the gloves, scoring a century in the first innings and then taking six catches and a stumping in the match.

Even though Foakes was fully fit for the second Test, Pope’s performance meant England felt comfortable picking him as their keeper, meaning they could afford to bring in another bowler – Mark Wood – in Multan. Stokes insisted the decision was “definitely no sign of Ben Foakes’ future going forward” but Pope affected five dismissals, including two decisive catches on the fourth and final day off Wood, as England took the match and the series.

Pope is expected to keep his place behind the stumps for the third and final match in Karachi which begins on Saturday. And though Foakes is likely to be dismayed by his misfortune, Pope insists he has received nothing but encouragement from his good friend. In fact, the pair have been working together between games, something for which the man in possession has been grateful.

“Not at all,” Pope replied, when asked if there was any awkwardness their relationship at present. “You just do what you’re told. I didn’t expect it but I was happy to do the job. He’s a Surrey team-mate and the No. 1 keeper. It was just a way to get an extra bowler in these conditions.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be keeping out here to be honest. It wasn’t on my radar. But with the guys getting ill last week, it gave us another bowling option so I was happy to take it on. I’ve enjoyed the experience. He’s the best in the world and one of my best mates – great to learn from.”

Reflecting on how he has fared, Pope ceded that there is room for improvement in his glove work. There have been a handful of missed opportunities and while nothing has cost England thus far, he enjoyed the rub of the green in Multan when third umpire Joel Wilson gave a marginal decision in his favour when he caught Saud Shakeel down the leg side, tilting the second Test England’s way.

Shakeel, on 94, was given out on the field by umpire Marais Erasmus. Replays gave some indication that Pope might have grounded the ball while taking the catch, but Wilson, ultimately, decided that there was insufficient evidence to overrule the on-field decision.

“I took my chances,” Pope reflected. “I can still do better. I’m not even going to compare myself to Foakesy as a keeper, but I took my chances in this game. Out there there isn’t the wobble you get in England but there is that low, skiddy bounce. You’re dealing with that, and you have to stand nice and close.”

Ultimately, though, Pope’s priority remains his batting. When Stokes took over, Pope called up his new captain and implored him to give him a shot at No. 3 despite no experience at that position for Surrey. Since then, he has averaged 40.18 with two hundreds in 17 innings, compared to 28.66 and one hundred in 40 innings before the start of the 2022 summer.

In Multan, after keeping wicket for 62.5 overs in Pakistan’s first innings, he dropped down to No. 6 with Jacks stepping up to assume the role at first drop. It speaks to the fact batting at the top of the order as a wicketkeeper is not viable.

As far as Pope is concerned, 32 caps into his international career, his batting has never been in better place. Neither has his status in this team, underlined by the fact he was given the opportunity to captain England in a warm-up against the Lions in Abu Dhabi last month. Ensuring he remains on that upward trajectory is paramount for both himself and the rhythm of this team.

“I’d still love to tie down No. 3, make that my own,” he said. “That will be my primary focus. Obviously in different conditions, somewhere like New Zealand, we might go with a more regular team. That’s not for me to decide: my main priority is to keep churning runs at No. 3.

“I feel a new player at the minute, personally, to what I felt in the past playing for England. I feel I’ve been a bit more consistent, I’ve stopped fearing getting out. The two guys at the top have helped me grow – not confidence, but the freedom to express myself and how I want to play. It’s been great for me, hopefully I keep that consistency.”

Quite what this all means for Foakes remains to be seen. But it is hard not to wonder if his days as first-choice keeper are numbered, despite Stokes’ insistence before the Multan Test that he sees him as “the No. 1 gloveman in England” and even “the best keeper in the world”.

The emergence of Harry Brook, the top run-scorer in the series with 357 runs at an average of 89.25, presents a conundrum down the line when Jonny Bairstow returns to fitness. It seems highly unlikely – and counterproductive – that Brook might return to the sidelines; likewise, for Bairstow not to assume the role he filled spectacularly in the English summer.

Perhaps the most tempting option would see Bairstow reassume keeping duties for the first time since September 2021, allowing Pope to focus on his batting at No. 3 and Brook to maintain his spot at No. 5. Not to mention it would take an already aggressive batting line-up to the next level.

As cruel as that would be for Foakes, who has done everything asked of him, such a positive option is entirely in keeping with how Stokes and McCullum have operated so far.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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