The partnership between Joe Root and Ollie Pope on Monday, in the second Test between England and New Zealand, was the perfect blend of old and new, writes Taha Hashim.
When Joe Root is at his best, the signs are there. The bat looks more wand than blade, and the grin is cheeky too. The scoreboard ticks along and, without you noticing, he’s raising his bat for fifty.
On day three, things felt different. Root battled with himself early on, the balance not quite there to begin with. Even as he grew into his knock, it wasn’t till his 259th ball that he could kiss the badge on his helmet and celebrate a timely hundred.
Day four saw a return to a more natural state of affairs. Even if the odd low ball threatened to cause trouble, he was serene in his surroundings. His first boundary was the trademark placement to third man off Tim Southee, and the same bowler was picked through midwicket with a pull shot that methodically took into account the lack of bounce on offer. It felt like watching the Root of old, the one whose place in the ‘big four’ was not under question. He went from 100 to 200 in 153 balls, the flow of his batting a whole lot more recognisable in the second half of his innings.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) December 2, 2019
But there was something new on display: a substantial partnership with Ollie Pope. Usually the babyface at the crease, on the day Root was the battle-hardened veteran showing the new kid on the block the ropes.
Pope began rather skittishly, itching to get bat on ball, the strokemaker within him desperate to break free. The gaps proved difficult to find. But he grew calmer and, most importantly, stayed in.
As Pope told Wisden prior to the start of the tour, he’s learned from his first stint in the Test side. “I used to hate being on 5 or 10 because I wanted to be on 20 or 30,” Pope said. “I wanted to be in and to be able to bat freely … That’s probably the main change in my game since. I’m more patient and happy to lower the risk, probably because I’m more comfortable in my defence and I back my ability to bat for long periods of time even more now.” And bat for a long period he did, his finest work coming with the dashing cuts behind point. The half-century – the first of his international career – arrived from his 165th ball.
A maiden Test half-century for Ollie Pope!
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) December 2, 2019
From his breakout start to the 2018 season, Pope has emerged as the budding batting star of English cricket, but the obstacles have kept coming. He was shown the door after two Tests against India and dislocated his shoulder in April this year. In this Test he has been handed the wicketkeeping gloves for just the sixth time in his first-class career when England should be letting him bed his way into the side as a specialist batsman. While Pope is a man for the future, Monday felt somewhat like the end of an event-filled opening chapter.
Perhaps England could have done with a quicker tempo from the 21-year-old, as they hunted for a declaration total. But that would be ignorant of the situation England faced at the start of the day. They still trailed by 106 and had Pope given it away early on, their already marginal chances of victory would have reduced further.
By picking up his own strike rate from the day before, Root allowed for Pope to take his time and together it seemed an iconic passing of the baton, the one-time golden boy with the new one. They only appeared out of sync with one another with the quick single to give Root his double century; Pope would have been a goner had Henry Nicholls hit the stumps.
The dance down the track and walloping six off Matt Henry from England’s captain was the marker for acceleration. Pope, who had unleashed a spanking cut the over earlier, later cross-batted Neil Wagner down the ground for four with the most authoritative stroke of his innings.
Pope eventually perished to Wagner for 75, bringing an end to a partnership of 193 from 375. Just four balls later Root fell for 226. England were sent packing for 476, with a lead of 101.
New Zealand finished the day on 96-2, and with rain forecast on Tuesday, anything but a draw seems out of the picture. But for the second day in a row, England have shown their desire for the long game. Root will be pleased, not only with his triumphant return to form, but with Pope’s first big statement on the international scene, too.