Ollie Pope reverse sweeps critics and India spinners, wows England fans | Cricket - Hindustan Times
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Ollie Pope reverse sweeps critics and India spinners to give England hope of miracle in Hyderabad

Jan 27, 2024 06:48 PM IST

Few have played reverse sweep as often, and with as much authority, as Ollie Pope did in front of 30,000 mesmerised fans in Hyderabad.

Some three-and-a-half years back, Ollie Pope had just finished making a stylish 91 – then his second-highest Test score – when he received a massive compliment from an unexpected source. Having watched the knock on telly, Sachin Tendulkar tweeted that Pope seemed to have ‘modeled his batting on Ian Bell’. “His stance and footwork looks exactly the same to me,” the Indian maestro had added.

England's Ollie Pope celebrates his century during Day 3 of 1st Test match against India, at Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad
England's Ollie Pope celebrates his century during Day 3 of 1st Test match against India, at Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad

Bell, a celebrated England right-hander, signed off with more than 7,000 runs from 118 Tests at 42.69, a highest of 235 and 22 centuries, so for someone then playing only his tenth Test to be compared by a legend to an accomplished batter must have thrilled the young man no end.

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Tendulkar was exposed to another side of Pope on Saturday, the middle day of England’s first Test against India in Hyderabad. The 26-year-old is acknowledged as a fidgety starter and has had his problems against R Ashwin in the past, but there were no signs of uncertainty or indecisiveness as he produced an absolute masterclass at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium.

India vs England 1st Test Day 3 Highlights

This isn’t the sort of masterclass that can be easily emulated. It wasn’t built around the conventional, not around dazzling cover-drives and crunchy back-cuts and wristy whips and meaty pulls. It wasn’t constructed on the back of timing and placement. Instead, it used the reverse sweep as its bedrock, a weapon that drove India’s accomplished three-pronged spin attack to distraction.

The reverse sweep is no longer a novelty in Test cricket, not since the summer of 2022 when England redefined their approach. But few have played it as often, and with as much authority, as Pope did in front of 30,000 mesmerised fans; even the majority supporting the home team couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship.

Answering the critics and turning the tables

Pope doesn’t have a great record against India. Before this magnificent unbeaten 148, he had topped 50 only once in 16 innings – his next highest was 34 – and in the first innings, he was gobbled up at first slip off Ravindra Jadeja. Ashwin has tied him up in knots in the past, feeding off his uncertain footwork marked by multiple movements that haven’t left him in the best positions. If the experts in the commentary box and beyond were skeptical about what lay ahead, they had every reason to be so.

But the Pope of today bore no resemblance to the jittery, nervy presence of earlier. Seven months back, he had torn Ireland to shreds at Lord’s while breezing to 205 off just 208 deliveries, but this was India, in India, with England 190 in the red and a gun spin trio licking its lips in anticipation. Pope, many assumed, was a walking wicket. How wrong that assumption turned out to be.

It didn’t take him long to get going, with the peachiest of cover-drives off Axar Patel. Then came an off-drive against Ashwin, followed immediately by a glance. Pope was moving with surety, his footwork optimal and decisive.

Not until he had gotten into the mid-30s did he attempt his first reverse sweep. It was an absolute stunner, Jadeja looking on in disbelief as the ball sped away to the fine third-man fence. Having shown his hand, Pope kept at it, the reverse surfacing with regularity and impunity. It wasn’t his only productive stroke; he also used his feet beautifully to often take the ball on the full and whip it through mid-wicket, but the reverse brought him seven of his 17 fours, each one different. There were flat clubs through point, delicate paddles to fine third-man and one extraordinary no-look reverse ramp over wicketkeeper KS Bharat that even bowler Axar might have admired.

England needed someone to put their hand up with their backs to the wall. Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett did it for a while, but cameos weren’t going to be enough. Enter Pope, stage left, with his dazzling and versatile array of strokes; for more than four and a half hours, he held centrestage, finding an able ally in Ben Foakes during the first century stand of the match. Foakes walked in with England on 163 for five, still needing 27 to make India bat again. Drawing inspiration from his partner’s magic, Foakes held his end up for more than 100 minutes to haul England into the blue.

The only time Pope put a foot wrong was when he reversed Jadeja aerially to Axar at short third-man on 110. Axar couldn’t cling on to the catch high to his right. That, one suspects, won’t deter Pope from employing the same stroke for the rest of the series. Time and again.

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