Ben Stokes has implored Ollie Pope to take his new role as England’s official vice-captain “as seriously as I did” as concerns around Stokes’ fitness linger ahead of the first Ashes Test on June 16.Stokes reiterated before England’s 10-wicket win over Ireland at Lord’s that he intends to play a full part in all five Tests – “unless I can’t walk, I’ll be on the field” – but he did not bowl a ball in the match and was in clear discomfort on the final day, appearing to jar his troublesome left knee when taking a catch.Stokes has only bowled once since returning from the IPL, a 20-minute spell in the warm-ups ahead of the third and final day of the Test on Saturday, and it appears increasingly possible that Pope will deputise for him at some stage this summer, even if only for a brief period of time.Pope has only captained one first-class match – an end-of-season County Championship fixture for Surrey – but has been groomed as future leader for more than six months. In Stokes’ absence, he captained England in both of their warm-up games over the winter: against the Lions in Abu Dhabi, and a New Zealand XI in Hamilton.
When Rob Key became England’s managing director last year, he said that he was “not concerned with having to appoint a vice-captain” and that it was “low down on my priorities” but has gradually become convinced of the importance of the role – not least when observing Moeen Ali’s influence within England’s white-ball set-up.
Stokes and McCullum told him last month that they wanted Pope to be made vice-captain in a formal capacity after deputising in the winter, and his appointment was ratified before the Ireland Test. “It really shows where Ollie Pope is – how far he’s come in a year,” Key said.
On Pope’s promotion, Stokes said after the Ireland Test: “[We had] given him more responsibility over the winter, using him more out on the field, running things by him about what I think. Then we just naturally came to a decision together. And he’s excelled as a player and taken responsibility at No. 3.
“I just thought it was the right time to finally, officially, name a vice-captain and Popey was the man for it. I think it will do him the world of good, getting a double-hundred on his vice-captaincy debut.”
Stokes’ own reinstatement as vice-captain four years ago “meant the world” to him•Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Pope said that he saw the role as “a big honour” but that it would not represent a major change from the winter. “From what I was doing before, it doesn’t make a big difference,” he said. “I’m going to give my opinion and challenge Stokesy when he needs challenging. We’re going to be tested in the Ashes along the way, so it’s not always about going on and agreeing with him.
“It’s about providing a different opinion to let ponder in his mind as well. Nothing’s really changed. He’s got a pretty clear vision, and he’s got 15 guys in that changing room who know our roles now, so that’s helpful for everybody.”
Before his own appointment as captain last year, Stokes had served as Joe Root’s deputy in two separate spells. He cared deeply about the position, which he lost in the aftermath of the street fight outside a Bristol nightclub in 2017 that briefly threatened his career.
He was reinstated in the weeks leading up to the 2019 Ashes after texting Tom Harrison, the then-chief executive of the ECB, to ask if he was eligible for the job. “Forty-eight hours later, I had Ashley Giles, the England managing director, in contact to offer me the position once more… it meant the world to me,” he wrote in his book, On Fire.
“It’s a role that I took very seriously,” Stokes added on Saturday evening, “and I told him, I want him to take it as seriously as I did. That’s why me and Joe worked so well together: I didn’t take it just as a badge, almost, and we rubbed off [on] each other really well so I’m encouraging Popey to do the same role that I did.”
Pope won the match award against Ireland at Lord’s•Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Pope believes that Stokes will do everything in his power to be on the field at all times this summer, but said that he feels “confident” he would be able to “implement the same ideas” as his captain if the situation arises.
“Fingers crossed Stokesy’s body’s all good,” Pope said. “It’s going to take a hell of a lot for him not to be on the pitch even for a day’s play, knowing what he’s like.
“But if it did happen, I feel confident. We’ve played a lot together as a team over the last year and a bit, and he knows a lot how he wants the bowlers to operate, the kind of fields he sets, and tries to get players to hit balls in areas that they don’t normally want to hit [them] in.
“So I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how he runs things now and, if needs be, can implement the same ideas.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98