Ollie Pope says the withdrawal of Ben Stokes for the Test series against India is a reminder of how mentally tough the demands of playing international sport are during a pandemic.
Stokes, England’s Test vice-captain and heartbeat of the team, has taken an indefinite break from cricket to protect his mental wellbeing and rest the left-index finger he fractured playing in the Indian Premier League in April. The all-rounder’s absence is a blow to England’s chances in the five-Test series against India that starts at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
Yet after England players have spent months in numerous biosecure bubbles since the start of the pandemic, the decision by Stokes has been widely applauded as a positive step forward in acknowledging an athlete’s mental health must come before everything else.
“It’s obviously sad but I think it’s a reminder to everyone,” Pope said. “We as a nation and the world look at Stokesy as a real macho fighter character – and he is. But this shows how mentally straining cricket and sport at the highest level can be and the situation of being in a bubble away from the family does make that tougher. We all support him 100% and would love to get him back as soon as we can but I think mental health is much more important than a game.
“Of course, we’re well behind him with that decision and I wish him to be the best he can be as soon as he can. Of course, it’s a blow. No matter who you’re playing, Stokesy is one of the best, if not the best, all-rounder in the world so you’re always going to miss him. But we’ve got guys who can come in and I’m sure they’ll step up.”
England’s managed team environment – the word “bubble” has now been outlawed by management – is now less restrictive than it was last summer and during the winter in Sri Lanka and India, where the players were largely confined to their hotels.
Yet it is still tough, mainly because of the Covid outbreak in the camp last month that forced England to name an entirely new squad – led by Stokes – for the one-day series against Pakistan.
For the first Test in Nottingham this week, players are allowed to leave the team hotel during their spare time only to exercise, play golf or pick up takeaway food and drink from a designated coffee shop in the city. Anything else, including going out for meals, is not allowed.
“It’s tough,” Pope said. “I think we’re finding ways of dealing with it better. I think in India and back at home last summer it was incredibly strict and I spent too much time in my bedroom just watching Netflix and playing Xbox. We’re finding ways of trying to make the whole experience a little bit more enjoyable and that will hopefully help us on the pitch as well.”
The prospect of even tougher restrictions in Australia this winter, including the possibility that players’ families will not be allowed to travel because of the country’s strict entry requirements and Covid regulations, has raised the fear that some leading players may opt-out of the Ashes, especially as England have the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and white-ball tours of Bangladesh and Pakistan immediately beforehand.
“Cricket Australia and the ECB are still trying to come to an agreement,” Pope said. “The guys with families and kids, you break it down and look at it, and if that did happen no families allowed in Australia then they wouldn’t probably see them for half a year just like that. And that’s putting aside all the other series as well. Everyone has got their own decision to make but no specific agreement has been made between the two boards yet so we’re still waiting to hear on that.”
As for Pope’s own prospects of playing this week after working his way back from a grade-three tear in his thigh, the 23-year-old said: “I’m hopeful but it’s up to physios and management. I’m feeling it a little bit but nothing major. It’s just trying to make sure if I did play this one there’s not going to be issued for the next four Tests if selected.”