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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Ollie Pope interview: England youngster on 'surreal' England call up and how he would love to play UAE T20x

Surrey cricketer, 20, tells Paul Radley about his elevation to the Test side and how he hopes to pick the brains of best players at T20 tournament in the Emirates

Ollie Pope, right, could find himself in line for a place in England's starting XI for the first Test against Sri Lanka if teammate Jonny Bairstow, right, is ruled out with an ankle injury. Reuters
Ollie Pope, right, could find himself in line for a place in England's starting XI for the first Test against Sri Lanka if teammate Jonny Bairstow, right, is ruled out with an ankle injury. Reuters

This time last year, Ollie Pope was following a standard rite of passage for talented cricketers in England.

Then 19, he was finding his way and making memories in Australian club cricket as an unknown young professional.

Twelve months on, and, while he might have been playing at a ground called Nondescripts this week, it is a billing that no longer fits him.

Pope has lived his life in fast-forward this year. Now he has two Test caps to his name, both achieved against the world’s No 1 side, is vying for a return to the England XI, and is even hoping to join the global Twenty20 grand tour. Or sample it, at least, having registered his interest to play in the UAE T20x in Dubai and Sharjah in December.

“To get the call was pretty surreal, and then everything that happened in that first Test was a whirlwind, with a lot of pinch-myself moments,” Pope said of his Test call, against India at Lord’s in August.

“I looked around, and had to think if it was real. I loved every minute of it. Hopefully I do get another go fairly soon.”

To say his elevation to England’s Test side against India was out of the blue might be a slight exaggeration.

Yes, he had only played 15 first-class games to that point, and looked even younger than his tender years.

But Pope has long been regarded as a precocious talent in England. So much so, he was integrated in the squad for the first Lord’s Test of the year, against Pakistan, just to get a taste of what it might be like for him in the future, training with the team and spending time with them in the home dressing room.

Ollie Pope during a nets session with the England team at Lord's in August. Reuters
Ollie Pope during a nets session with the England team at Lord's in August. Reuters

“That was mainly for me to get around the environment for when I do get my opportunity, so that I know the guys and I know what it is like on the first morning of a Test,” he said.

“I stayed in the hotel on the night before that Pakistan game and got used to what it was like on the morning of the match.

“It was actually pretty useful. It helped me calm my nerves a bit on the morning of the Test. Then it made me realise I was in the selectors' eyes. It was a good opportunity.”

The fact Pope was the eighth batsman used in England’s opening tour match this week, at Nondescripts in Colombo, ahead of the Test series against Sri Lanka might suggest his place in the pecking order.

He was also the last of three wicketkeepers given a chance on the first day, in the absence of the regular man, Jonny Bairstow, who injured an ankle earlier in the tour playing football.

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There are, though, plenty of questions surrounding the make-up of the England XI for the first Test in Galle next week. A recall for Pope is not beyond the imagination, especially if Bairstow is ruled out of the middle-order because of that injury.

He is eager for another chance to show what he has got. Promoted to the team on the back of a flood of runs in the County Championship at the start of the summer, he mostly looked the part against India, but did not register significant scores.

He says he found the glare of being an international cricketer to be more challenging than the upgrade in opposition.

“Getting back into my room after a day at cricket, you look at your phone and it has a load of messages, some good, some bad,” he said.

“But when I was on the pitch, I didn’t feel a huge difference. I thought I would, but when you are out in the middle, you are still standing there playing the same shots against a red ball.

“I tried to look at it, in terms of the pressure of playing, as there being not much difference, it is just the media hype around it.

“Of course you know you are representing your country, you know there is a massive following and that bit more pressure on you to succeed and perform well for your country.

“While you are on the pitch, it is not really something that goes through your head.”

Beyond the Test series in Sri Lanka, Pope has aspirations to play in the UAE T20x, the new franchise tournament, starting on December 19.

He is one of 113 players from England signed up for it, with over 500 players from around the world aiming for one of the 16 places in each of the five squads.

Kumar Sangakkara, who was a teammate of Pope’s at Surrey and someone he sought advice from before touring Sri Lanka, is one of the new league’s “icon” players. And the youngster is keen to join him.

“White-ball and T20 cricket was what helped me get on the scene at Surrey, and helped me showcase my skills at first,” Pope said.

“I haven’t been part of a T20 franchise, I have only played for Surrey so far, and I have had some success there. I definitely don’t just see myself as a red-ball player.

“If anything, it used to be the opposite. People only saw me as a white-ball cricketer for my first year on the staff [at Surrey].

“It [UAE T20x] is definitely something I’d like to be a part of, to pick the brains of these top cricketers.

“It is definitely something I would love to do. And having the pressure of being one of the overseas players would be good for me, personally, and good for my game.”