In the last few years concern over how athletes use social media has risen across professional sport.
Earlier this year, at a talk at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated he believes a number of players are “genuinely unhappy” with the main source of that unhappiness coming from social media. At the start of November, Granit Xhaka revealed his furious reaction to Arsenal fans when booing him off was sparked by abusive messages received over Instagram which targeted his wife and daughter.
It is a truism that where there is praise, there is also criticism. But on platforms such as Twitter, the latter is always more noticeable, coming as it does in waves and with sharp, often unrepeatable language.
Younger generations, though, will not shy away from it and in sports such as cricket, more is being done to give younger male and female cricketers the tools to deal with whatever they come across, and indeed how they act. The Professional Cricketers Association is also making social media training a key part of its work with players of all ages, especially around topics like behaviour, sex and corruption.
As such, it’s an indication of Ollie Pope’s maturity that he’s pretty well set when it comes to how he approaches social media. It by no means dominates his life, but as someone who grew up with it rather than had it thrust upon him, he seems better attuned to its rhythms than most.
Such conditioning proved useful about a month ago. Pope is regarded as the standard-bearer of his generation, boasting 2,491 runs at an average of 57.93 with eight hundreds and a top score of 251 in a first class career that only began in 2017. On 21 December, the @EnglandCricket Twitter account tweeted “What a talent @OPope32!” with highlights of his century in the tour match against South Africa A. As he was tagged in, he was able to see people’s comments.
“I remember flicking through a few comments like, ‘how can you put him under that pressure?!’” he recalls. “But I don’t think there’s any more pressure than playing Test cricket. I understand what rides on it – I don’t think what people say off the pitch is going to change how I go bat in the middle.”
“It’s nice to read but I definitely don’t see it as a bit, ‘I definitely have to score runs in this game’ because I understand how cricket works. If you just stay pretty level across it all then good will come with the bad.”
It’s a remarkably pragmatic view for a 21-year old who seems to have saved up all his bumps in the road for his first year of Test cricket. He made his debut against India in 2018, batting at No4 when he’d made all his runs at No6. He was then taken to Sri Lanka but sent to the Lions after the first match at Galle. From there, he failed to make the squad to the Caribbean and started his summer with a dislocated shoulder.
Having bobbed along the fringes of the Ashes squad when he returned to full fitness – a 221 not out against Hampshire seeing him walk off the park after the declaration and jump in his car to drive up to Headingley – he was taken to New Zealand where he scored 29, 6 and a maiden Test fifty of 75 and was also thrown behind the stumps after Jos Buttler suffered a back spasm in the lead-up to the second Test. And just as he was booking his place in the XI with that tour century, he was struck down.
“I went down on Christmas day and it was just a ‘don’t get in contact with anyone’. Same on Boxing Day. So when the game started, I was texting Woakesy and we were both just pretty sick of the sight of our own rooms, so me and him just watched a bit of the cricket together in the team room. It was pretty much just sit in your room and watch TV, room service every night. It was pretty annoying, especially on Christmas Day when you’re looking on Insta and seeing the boys playing monopoly and stuff!”
At least, for Pope, he was there – in the squad albeit a removed part of it until day three of Johannesburg when he was fit – and clean enough – to come in and train alongside those playing in the Test which ended in a 107-run defeat. Earlier this summer, between his injury and the score against Hampshire, he began to overthink his position and wonder thoughts professional sports men and women are discouraged from thinking. “I was looking at the county scores while I wasn’t playing and I was thinking about all these players that are probably ahead of me, in line, just purely because I wasn’t really sure even how I’d come back from the injury. You see some people come back from injury and struggle for a bit of form.”
Thankfully, he didn’t, and having also overcome the illness which allowed Jonny Bairstow to return to the XI, a few hits, a strenuous gym session and beginning 2020 in the nets at Cape Town should see him reclaim a spot for the second Test. He says he is pretty much 100% back to normal.
He is undaunted by the challenge of extra pace, not just of Kagiso Rabada but Anrich Nortje, too. He’s faced some fast bowlers in county cricket that gives him a sense of what it’s like when the dial ticks over to 90mph: Fidel Edwards stands out, as does his current England teammate Jofra Archer. But he’s also spent the last two years facing Morne Morkel in the nets, “someone who is tall and gets a lot of bounce like a lot of their [South Africa’s] bowlers do”.
Morkel played 86 Tests for South Africa, taking 309 wickets, before calling it a day to turn out for Surrey on a Kolpak contract. He was a regular teammate of new Proteas coach Mark Boucher and the interim director of cricket, Graeme Smith. Pope has had the odd chat with him but is more sure that “he’s also been on the phone to the South African coaches chatting about myself, Burnsy and Sam!” So, too, he suspects, has fellow county teammate Dean Elgar.
Smith was also at Surrey while Pope was at the academy, and Pope admits to being starstruck by the former captain when he came down to say hello to the younger members of the squad at Western Province when they were on an academy tour of South Africa. “I remember seeing a picture on social media with me sitting down and him talking. I think I posted it on my instagram because I thought it was pretty cool.”
It all seems very familiar to Pope, who can also lean on Rory Burns and Sam Curran as fellow Surrey men, along with Dom Sibley who came through at the club before moving on to Warwickshire.
“It was weird in New Zealand, looking around the pitch and seeing Burnsy at gully, seeing Sam running in and bowling, Sibley there in the slips as well, then myself down at short leg or something. It’s quite strange but it creates quite a nice, calming atmosphere in a way, just knowing these are the guys you’ve done it with for such a long time now.”
However comfortable things may be, Pope will be out of his comfort zone if selected for the Newlands Test: a famous venue, a partisan crowd and a South Africa side looking to profit on their 1-0 lead in this four match series.
The expectation from those involved at the ECB and, heck, those who pass judgement on social media is that Pope is English cricket’s next success story. Reassuringly for both, wherever the pressure comes from, Pope will take it in his stride.