Pope’s reverse gear on Indian soil soothes England’s Gatting woes

Pope playing a reverse sweep. 

Reverse sweep on India soil doesn’t evoke pleasant memories for English cricket fans. Mike Gatting had fallen, attempting one in 1987 at Eden Gardens, which even to this day, is seen as the primary reason why Australia clinched their first-ever World Cup.

It’s early to say that Oliver Pope has erased that bitter memory, but he has brought England back from the dead, relying heavily on that shot. The visiting team seemed doomed after conceding a potentially fatal first-innings lead of 190 to India in the ongoing first Test in Hyderabad. Pope single-handedly lifted them from looming despair with an unbeaten 148. A majority of his 17 fours came playing that reverse sweep against some of the world’s best spinners in conditions they master.

This was a sensational display of calculated hitting and teasing Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja for more than two sessions. He came in after the England openers had got the team off to a decent start. Incidentally, Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett also employed the reverse sweep to good effect. Pope wasted no time in getting into the act.

The difference was, Pope knew when not to use it. He played it frequently in partnership with Duckett and reverted to it during a century stand with Ben Foakes in the third session. In the period between lunch and tea, when England lost four wickets, he was largely refrained from playing the shot. That’s why there is a big hundred against his name, when none of his teammates crossed fifty.

It did two things. A flurry of this shot, fraught with danger, didn’t allow Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar Patel to settle into any sort of rhythm. In a rare instance, they looked shell-shocked. Other than blunting two of India’s most potent weapons, its frequent use also forced Rohit Sharma to resort to defensive field settings. This meant there were gaps to work the ball into. Pope and Foakes used these empty pockets to the hilt by milking ones and twos in the final session.

It’s a shot with high risk-and-reward factors. It takes courage to play it because failure may invite rebuke, as Gatting might still be remembering at the age of 66. Pope played a variety of this stroke. He went square, behind square, as well as in front of square. On most occasions, he kept it along the ground. He even played a reverse scoop over first slip. Only once did he miscue it, when Axar floored the chance at point.

Due to this, Pope is now six short of equalling his tally of runs in India made over nine innings. In two Tests apiece in Chennai and Ahmedabad in 2021, and in the first essay in the ongoing one in Hyderabad, he had accrued 154 runs. But that’s a trivial footnote in the current scheme of things. He has brought England back in the Test and put them in a position they can put pressure on India from.

Curiously, despite being a crafty practitioner of acts unconventional, Pope is still a Test specialist. He has never played for England in ODIs or T20Is. This innings may not prompt a rethink, but it has definitely left India with plenty to think about, in a match they thought was there for their taking. Gatting might be having a quiet chuckle sitting somewhere. What was fatal that day is famous now. 

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