Recent Match Report – Leics vs Surrey Group 2 2021
Pope savours home comforts en route to stunning 245 as senior partner to Smith, who impresses with 123
Leicestershire 375 and 21 for 0 trail Surrey 672 for 8 declared (Pope 245, Smith 123, Foakes 87, Clark 61*) by 276 runs
Ollie Pope went to sleep on 91 not out after the first day of England’s third Test against West Indies last summer, and as he drew back the curtains of his hotel room at Old Trafford and looked down at the pitch below, he allowed himself to wonder whether the backdrop of 26,000 empty seats might feel like something of a letdown when he reached his first home hundred. A few minutes after 11am, with his off stump knocked out of the ground by Shannon Gabriel, he realised that it might not be an issue.
In that light, it was not surprising that he seemed anxious as the close approached at the end of the second day of this game. He had turned down a single at the start of the final over of the day in order to keep the strike, but accepted his fate and nudged one off the second ball. When he woke up on Saturday morning to clear blue skies and walked to the ground with 92 to his name, the prospect of a behind-closed-doors hundred loomed large.
But this time, things were different. The pitch was flatter, and the attack weaker. He woke up in his own bed, stopped in for a coffee on the way to the ground, and crucially – as far as his superstitious tendencies were concerned – he remembered to keep his headband on.
“Against West Indies, I was wearing a headband the day before; I didn’t go out to bat with it the next morning and didn’t score another run,” he joked at the close. “I thought if I did the opposite this time it might help. Those bubbles are very intense – we have fun in them but they are tough. To be able to go for a morning coffee before the game and switch off in the evening in your own home is such a nice change.”
Within 20 minutes of the restart, he had creamed Gavin Griffiths through the covers and behind square on the off side in consecutive balls to reach his ton, and by the time the South London sun was setting, he had racked up his highest County Championship score in style. His partnerships with Ben Foakes and Jamie Smith – worth 229 and 234 runs respectively – have defined this game, and while a flat pitch and a fourth-day rearguard may yet deny Surrey victory, he could not have done much more to help their cause.
Jos Buttler says that he knows his game is in good working order when he is hitting on-drives well, and Pope’s innings contained three such shots off Ben Mike that made him look like a schoolboy playing against a team several age-groups below his own. The best shot he played was a hockey-influenced sweep off Callum Parkinson’s left-arm spin, pressing forward as though to work the ball towards midwicket before sending his wrists through the ball at the last moment, nailing it through deep backward square, but he scored freely around the ground: 95 runs came through the covers alone.
The key feature of Pope’s two major partnerships was his ability to manipulate the field. Leicestershire were resigned to a day in the dirt from early on, and posted five boundary-riders for the bulk of it, but their fielders were run ragged. His ability to pick gaps was “a real eye-opener” Tom Smith, Leicestershire’s assistant coach, told Surrey’s livestream, and Foakes and Smith provided fine support.
It is worth reflecting on Pope’s record at this level, which has often been forgotten during his recent lean patch for England. This was his 38th first-class innings for Surrey, his ninth hundred, and his third double. His average is an eye-watering 72.96, and his strike rate of 67.11 describes his dominance. Of course, playing on flat pitches at The Oval has helped him, but those are the numbers of a generational talent. With Ben Stokes due to miss the early-season Tests against New Zealand, Pope’s return to middle-order form will come as a relief to England’s management.
Pope played the senior partner throughout his stand with the impressive Smith, as he had done in the Champion County game in 2019, when they added 266 for the fifth wicket. Smith, a deceptively tall middle-order batsman, had just turned six when Surrey last made a total this big, but he displayed his confidence by lofting over extra cover on 94 to reach a first Championship hundred.
Smith offered one half-chance to deep midwicket, swinging to the leg side, but managed to survive and placed with the confidence you might expect in a 20-year-old backed ahead of Laurie Evans and Will Jacks in this side. His milestone was met with loud cheers for the 20 or so supporters gathered on the balcony of a Vauxhall Street flat – “they should sledge the Leicester boys a little bit more,” was Pope’s analysis.
Foakes’ was the only wicket to fall in the first two sessions, as he lost his off stump to Dieter Klein on 87, but despite further breakthroughs in the evening there was little for Leicestershire to shout about. Jordan Clark’s lusty hitting – which accounted for a broken window in the pavilion – took Surrey towards a lead of 300 before their eventual declaration just short of that figure, and Leicestershire have now taken 13 wickets for 1,284 runs across the first two rounds of games.
They may yet head back up the M1 with a draw, after Sam Evans and Hassan Azad gritted out 17 overs to reach the close undefeated, but Sunday will be a stern test of their resolve.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98