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No place like home for Pope to seal his spot at No3 for England

O

llie Pope and the Kia Oval has, in recent years, been one of English cricket’s great love affairs.

This Thursday, Surrey star Pope returns home for a Test that will decide England’s series against South Africa, but also whether their new No3’s first summer in the job was merely promising or genuinely prosperous.

Pope’s first-class record at The Oval — he averages 88.5 there from 30 innings, including nine hundreds — has been both a blessing and a curse.

It has underpinned his excellent first-class record, both overall (average 49.6), and for Surrey (71.3), but it has also been a stick to beat him with at the lower moments of his Test career, because The Oval has been among the best batting tracks in the country in recent years.

Until his century at Trent Bridge in June, none of his 13 tons in first-class cricket had come north of the Thames.

Pope’s detractors would say that when the going has been tough, he has struggled. So far, an excellent first-class record and an Oval education have only translated into a Test average of exactly 30.

That ignores, though, the fact that his average for Surrey in first-class cricket away from ground remains above 50, and compares favourably with his rivals for an England spot.

Even with Ben Duckett added to the squad, he has fewer of those right now because, so far, this has been a better summer for Pope than his overall numbers (an average of 34.4) suggest.

In six matches since requesting a move up to the alien position of No3, Pope has played three glittering innings: 145 at Trent Bridge, his second Test century; 82 at Headingley, an outstanding contribution to a big chase; and 73 in the first innings of this series at Lord’s, when no other Englishman passed 20. That was the smallest, but most pleasing of the three for England’s management because of the conditions and the rhythm with which he played.

Beyond those three innings, he has yet to make 25, but has not been helped by an opening pair, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley, who have struggled. Having never batted No3, he has regularly been in early; of his 11 innings, nine have seen him in after eight overs or fewer.

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First drop, just like the opening pair, has been a problem for England for approaching a decade, and Pope’s returns in the position have been encouraging. Whatever happens this week, he is locked in for the tour of Pakistan in December.

At The Oval, Pope will play his 30th Test. Just one of the previous 29 came on his home ground, when England collapsed in a heap against India a year ago. But, in the first innings, he made an excellent 81.

Of specialist batters to debut since Joe Root almost a decade ago, only Pope’s Surrey skipper Rory Burns (32) has made it to 30 caps.

Hitting 30 is a symbol of a seniority in this batting order for Pope; with that opening pair, and the injured Jonny Bairstow replaced by debutant Harry Brook at No5, only the captain Ben Stokes and ex-skipper Root are more experienced. Indeed, in the whole side, only Root, Stokes and the old stagers Jimmy Anderson, who plays his 175th Test, and Stuart Broad have more caps.

Bairstow’s brilliant summer, in which he has had some Houdini moments when the top order have failed, means Brook is merely warming his seat at No5 for the next few Tests. But if Yorkshireman Brook does well, and by every measure (statistical or otherwise) England expect him to, then they will be looking to relocate him in the order.

Pope will be looking to ensure it is not to No3, but this is the sort of pressure from within England’s management team are looking to foster.

Nothing would show off Pope’s development across what has been an encouraging summer like making his mark on a decisive Test. And there is no place like home to do just that.

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