Ollie Pope’s exceptional century led Surrey to victory in an otherwise close encounter against Hampshire at The Oval.
Hampshire had every reason coming into day four of their contest against Surrey to believe they could set an early benchmark in the Division One title race.
Instead, they will most likely spend most of their journey back to the south coast questioning just what happened, and who can blame them.
There is a very simple answer to that question: Ollie Pope.
Pope was simply on a different plain to his 21 counterparts when it came to batting on The Oval pitch that created an extremely close contest between two teams gunning for the title. For all but the final session, that is.
The England international entered the fray with the score at 54 for 1, with Rory Burns prioritising safety over splendour at the start of the fourth innings chase.
Pope looked proactive straight from the off, playing a wonderful on-drive off the dangerous-looking Kyle Abbott for his first boundaries off the innings, moving onto five.
He took a much more positive approach to his innings than Burns, who seemed to play with a lack of urgency. The same could be said of Dom Sibley, who was sat on 16 from 61 balls when the Surrey captain forced James Vince into a smart catch off the bowling of Abbott.
This innings had a different feel to the watchful performance he put in throughout his first innings. Released from the shackles put on him by the high-quality bowling of Mohammad Abbas, Keith Barker, and Abbot, he looked determined to cash in.
Abbas looked a shadow of the player who had run riot through Surrey’s batting line-up on his way to a first innings six-fer, with Pope progressing to 30s and beyond, a cut that raced to the boundary a highlight.
A ball later, Pope stole a quick single into the off side, seeing him move onto 39 from just 44 deliveries. This provided a stark comparison to the innings of his partner, Dom Sibley, as he moved level on runs, taking 55 balls less.
The closer Surrey got to their target, the more audacious the shots became. Sibley showed a side to his game rarely seen with a powerful reverse sweep on his way to reaching his half-century first.
However, the crowd’s bewilderment was tested even more just six overs later.
A short delivery from Fuller saw Pope reverse his batting position to use the bounce of the ball to hit it behind him, over the Pavilion End boundary rope for six. His confidence was evident.
He brought up his well-deserved century from 93 balls, and did not stop there. Obviously in a rush to catch the end of Man United’s trip to Forest like his England teammate Stuart Broad, he hit two successive Felix Organ back over his head for six to earn Surrey a nine-wicket victory.
Despite this, there was certainly no clear indication from the first three days of play that such a dominant victory would go the way of the defending champions.
However, hope of a statement victory had all but dissipated by lunch as a result of a lower order collapse.
Nick Gubbins, who played with fluidity and determination for his overnight 79 not out, seemed a different player on the morning of day four.
His first runs of the day came through an unconvincing thick edge, causing Surrey’s cordon to put their hands on their heads as it raced wide of their position. Soon enough, the batter was walking back to the pavilion. Dom Sibley had little to do at first slip as Gubbins pressed forward to a Tom Lawes delivery, ending a promising innings.
James Fuller did show some resistance alongside Ian Holland, with a swing at his first delivery taking it over the slip cordon and to the boundary rope. Such is the quality and depth of Surrey’s bowling attack that, after taking the new ball, they had the option of throwing it to none other than Kemar Roach.
This not-so unheard of trick worked wonders, with Fuller spooning a delivery in the fresh cherry’s first over straight into the grateful hands of Ryan Patel. Kyle Abbott was also picked up by Roach, with the South African’s defences breached, sending his off stump flying.
Dan Worrall then joined in with the action, reaping the rewards for his dominance over Keith Barker. The allrounder attempted to take on the short ball, only to send the ball high into the air, allowing Jamie Smith to take an easy catch.
Surrey’s top wicket-taker last season then picked up his first five-wicket haul of 2023 to put Mohammad Abbas out of his misery. His lbw will most certainly be a contender for the most plumb dismissal of the season in September, despite it only being mid-April.
Out to the middle strode Rory Burns and Dom Sibley, with Surrey requiring 243 from the final two sessions.
The former England opening partnership were watchful, maybe evoking memories of the first Test against New Zealand in 2021. The tourists set England 270 to win, with Burns and Sibley opening, but defence was the order of the day as the match ended in a draw.
Any chance of a draw was shut down when Burns was dismissed for 35, with Pope and Sibley’s 193 partnership giving Surrey a first win in 2023 as they look to retain the Division One title.