February 13, 2016

Gidron Pope's fire burns bright

Mohammad Isam and Vishal Dikshit
A combative, expressive offspinner and flamboyant batsman from West Indies has caught the public eye in this Under-19 World Cup

Gidron Pope's big hitting at the top of the order has been a revelation © International Cricket Council

West Indies Under-19 captain Shimron Hetmyer says he sledged Gidron Pope the first time the two met, in a regional age-group match a few years ago.

"He took out some of our bowlers," Hetmyer remembers. "We were trying to break his focus so that he does something out of the ordinary. We were trying to get him to play even more rash shots to get out. I think it actually worked."

Among all the talented young cricketers on show in Bangladesh in the last two weeks, Pope has left a mark on the Under-19 World Cup with his bludgeoning approach to batting. He made a run-a-ball 60 against England, and was nearly as quick in his 76 against Fiji, but it was his cameos against Zimbabwe and Pakistan, 30 and 25, that helped West Indies swing those crunch games. In the semi-final, Pope put a dent in Bangladesh's confidence with his five fours and two sixes.

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Pope was born in Mount Greenan in St Vincent, the youngest of five siblings. A batsman foremost, he used to keep wicket and also bowl medium-pace when younger, but a shoulder injury prompted him to take up offspin.

"He is very funny. He makes a comment when you least expect; it comes as a shock to us"
Shimron Hetmyer

"I started playing cricket back in my village, in the street," Pope tells ESPNcricinfo. "When I started playing cricket I always wanted to bat first. I always opened for my school teams. I always wanted to become a cricketer. I watched a lot of cricket, so I decided I wanted to play cricket. I used to watch West Indies playing a lot."

Pope started playing kids' cricket when in grade three. "I played under-15 also," he says.

When his parents saw him play, they were convinced about his desire to take up the game, but his older sister needed some convincing.

"My sister didn't want me to take up cricket. She wanted me to study at school. But I insisted that I wanted to play cricket. I have two brothers and two sisters. I'm the youngest.

"All other siblings wanted me to play cricket but most of the time I was living with my sister. When I started playing cricket and my parents saw me, they supported me to play," he says.

Pope is a Manchester United supporter who also enjoys watching Roger Federer when he gets the time away from cricket practice ("three times a week") and college (he studies engineering and science). His favourite batsmen are Rohit Sharma and Brian Lara.

He has been helped along the way by former West Indies fast bowler Nixon McLean, who Pope met through his father during his U-15 days. "My father and him are pretty close friends. Most of the time he [McLean] encourages me to bat as long as possible, so that the bowlers have to work for my wicket," he says.

He is also close to Darren Sammy, whom he met a few years ago. Sammy took Pope under his wing when Pope was part of the CPL franchise St Lucia Zouks.

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Pope is a bit of a livewire on the field, heavily involved when it comes to bowling his offspin. In the semi-final, he wasn't happy with a few field placings, and let his captain know what he wanted.

He's in the thick of it in the rooms as well. "He is very funny," Hetmyer says. "He makes a comment when you least expect; it comes as a shock to us. He makes everyone laugh.

"He is a different person in the dressing room. He brings out a different energy for us. He is a jovial person, keeps everyone on their toes. In the field too, he is the kind of person who we look for a bit of support," he said.

Reserved off the field, expressive on it: Pope (left) celebrates after the semi-final © Getty Images

That side of his personality is not on show to all, though. It would seem Pope is himself only among his peers. West Indies manager Dwain Gill finds him to be a quiet person who comes alive only in the field.

"Off the field, he's very reserved. He doesn't say much. He likes to be on the field. He likes to help the captain set the field. He likes to be in the game all the time. He's a very aggressive player," Gill says.

Is it a challenge managing the likes of Pope? "It is not really hard," Hetmyer says. "I just have to calm him down and get him to do what he wants to do. In this case it was what field he wants and once you know what they are trying to do, it is not hard."

Tevin Imlach, the wicketkeeper who opens the batting with Pope, met him in a hotel during a regional Under-19 tournament. He thought Pope a bit detached when they first met, across a pool table, but they got friendly soon, and now that they open together for West Indies U-19s, understand each other well.

"We communicate a lot now because we are in the West Indies U-19 team," Imlach says. "It is good to bat with him because he takes the pressure off you. He is aggressive. We just try to encourage each other and say keep going and play the ball to merit. He is generally supportive."

He says Pope is the type of batsman whose natural instincts you don't want to curb. "You just try to urge him on and support him as much as possible. He has the belief that it will work out for him."

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"Apart from [Alzarri] Joseph, they also have a big-hitting opener," Bangladesh U-19 coach Mizanur Rahman Babul said to the media on the eve of his team's semi-final against West Indies. He looked at captain Mehedi Hasan, who mouthed "Pope".

"Yes, his name is Pope. He has done well at this tournament and we hope that he doesn't do well against us," Babul said, laughed and slapped the table in front of him.

"My sister didn't want me to take up cricket. She wanted me to study at school. But I insisted that I wanted to play cricket"
Gidron Pope

At the end of that game, Miraz said that it was Pope's 25-ball 38 that jolted Bangladesh and handed West Indies a key advantage in the 227-run chase.

Pope said that the only adjustment he has had to make to play in Bangladesh was against the spinners. "Opening the batting in Bangladesh is not really tough," he says. "The ball is not swinging as much. Most of the adjustments were about spin. I want to just keep things as simple as possible."

He caused a flutter when bowling as well. In the 42nd over of the Bangladesh innings, Pope stopped in his run-up and warned the non-striker, Mohammad Saifuddin, who had veered out of the crease. Pope pointed towards Saifuddin's bat, said something, and walked back to his bowling mark. The crowd noticed but because he bowled the next ball quickly, the roar didn't last long.

Gill later said that it was Pope's own decision to warn Saifuddin, as they hadn't spoken about mankading after Keemo Paul did so controversially against Zimbabwe in Chittagong. "We never spoke about it. In fact, after that game [against Zimbabwe] we didn't speak about it at all.

"You [media] guys wanted to speak about it, we didn't. So I think what he did there was the right thing - he gave the warning. You've got to give credit to the young man," he says.

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If the next few years go well for Pope, West Indies can expect a player who can hit the ball cleanly, bowl tight offbreaks, is keen on fairness and modesty, and knows how to support his team-mates.

The simplicity of Pope's see-ball-hit-ball approach has been noticed in this tournament. Over the next few years, he will possibly have to deal with comparisons with Chris Gayle, T20 contracts, and playing for West Indies.

It may be hard to pull off, but in his short life Pope has already had to balance cricket and education, and had to convince his family about his desire to pursue the game. He knows something of what it takes to be a grounded individual.

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