If you were asked to close your eyes and picture the fastest-scoring batsman in T20 cricket, you'd probably think of a Jamaican with a mohawk, bulging biceps and shiny gold helmet rather than a slight, 5ft 10in Englishman with a side parting and an economics degree. But incongruous as it might seem, it is Ed Pollock who holds the record for the highest career strike rate in the 20-over game, his 174.93 pipping Andre Russell's 171.29 in a photo finish.
A 24-year-old left-hander hardly known outside of the West Midlands, Pollock has played only 29 games in his T20 career, but his top-order pyrotechnics in a Birmingham Bears shirt have earned him notoriety in the North Group of the Vitality Blast as a star in the making. And yet, despite his eye-catching strike rate, he is yet to earn a franchise gig overseas, or even to pull on an England badge as part of an age-group or Lions team. With his average the wrong side of 25, you could be forgiven for thinking that he is something of a one-hit wonder.
Pollock, you might assume, is the sort of player who has emerged as a natural result of the introduction of the Twenty20 Cup in 2003 - the first professional T20 competition in the world, hailed as an immediate success for attracting fans to county cricket. Tom Banton, the Somerset starlet and former team-mate of Pollock's at Worcestershire club Barnt Green, cites watching Neil Carter as a pinch-hitter for Warwickshire as his earliest cricketing memory. That players of his and Pollock's generation are such clean hitters surely relates to the fact they have grown up with the shortest format?
Not quite. "You see it talked about, how guys my age have grown up playing T20, but I think it was only in my last year at school that I started playing it as I do now - taking advantage of the powerplay, that sort of thing," Pollock says. "Growing up, I was quite small, and I was very much a blocker until the age of 15 or 16. At that stage I realised I could start hitting sixes, and I think I got a bit carried away with it from there."
More than a T20 baby, Pollock is part of the generation of English players raised on the 2005 Ashes. After playing primarily as an offspinner who batted at number seven or eight in Worcestershire's academy, he was released soon after his 18th birthday, at which point he was thought he "nowhere near good enough to be a professional cricketer".
"I wasn't necessarily one of those kids who always dreamed of it because I didn't think it was a particularly realistic place for me to end up," he says. He ended up at Durham - one of the UK's top universities - with the primary aim of "getting a degree to keep my options open", and registered few eye-catching scores in his first two years on the MCCU programme as he struggled to strike a balance between his degree, cricket, and a social life.
But in the summer of 2015, at the end of his first year at university, things suddenly fell into place. In the middle of a purple patch for Barnt Green, he hit an unbeaten 227 for Herefordshire in his first minor counties appearance of the season, and soon had four counties keeping tabs on him. A week after scoring a hundred for Durham's seconds, Warwickshire asked if he would be keen to play for their second team on trial.
Pollock stalled on a decision, though he knew the head coach at the county, Dougie Brown, from Barnt Green. A few days later, he had another call. "It was Dougie, saying, 'We'd like to offer you a contract.'" Despite Warwickshire's faith in him, Pollock failed to make meaningful strides in 2016, and went into his end-of-year appraisal sweating over his contract status - only afterwards did he realise he had signed a multi-year deal at the club.
After graduating in 2017, Pollock's clean hitting for the second team won him a surprise call-up to the Bears in the Blast. He had made a calculated judgement that T20 would be his quickest route into the first team, and studied the world's best short-form batsmen on YouTube to try and work out a common theme in how they swung the bat: "almost like a golf swing - I set myself up on a bowling machine and tried to copy it."
"His challenge is to get his thinking to marry his game. When the calm mind marries the fast hands, then he could achieve anything. There is no ceiling for him" Paul Farbrace on Ed Pollock
He soon found himself opening the batting at Edgbaston against Derbyshire, with free rein to play his shots. "I just got thrown in against Imran Tahir, Matt Henry, Hardus Viljoen - I was a bit naïve at the time and didn't realise it was three international bowlers. I just went out there and all that was said to me was 'Play your game.'" An innings of 66 off 40 balls on debut was the result.
After dropping out of the side so that new signing Adam Hose could fit in, Pollock returned in time for a hot streak in a series of must-win games. He struck 52 off 25 against Durham then 49 off 24 against Lancashire to finish the group stage. The latter was his favourite innings of the season, including a six into the second tier off Ryan McLaren that left him "completely surprised, I had no idea what had just happened". That was followed by 24 off ten against Surrey in the quarters and 50 off 27 in the semi against Glamorgan. He ran himself out for 14 in the Bears' final defeat, but had made enough of a mark to have Michael Vaughan - captain of the 2005 side he had admired - tweeting that he would be a future England player.
"For that period I was very clear on where my game was," he says. "There were no real technical thoughts, but in terms of playing near my best and understanding my game, I was in a really good place at that time. It all clicked for Finals Day." That came as no surprise to him, following four and a half hours in the nets the day before.
One shot was particularly eye-catching: the slog sweep off the seamer, which immediately drew comparisons with Sanath Jayasuriya. "It is something that confuses me daily. I don't know where it comes from," he says. "I've never practised it, and if I actively try to hit it in a match, I will guarantee you I'll miss it. I've tried to hit them against the bowling machine and I miss it, I get hit. The only thing I can ever link it to - and I think it's clutching at straws - is that I've played a lot of golf."
He tracked down Mal Loye, the most high-profile Englishman to have played the shot regularly, during a game against Derbyshire's seconds, but found their approaches were the polar opposite. "He said his was entirely premeditated, and mine is completely the other way - I'm almost looking not to play it and it just kind of happens. I studied economics at uni and was always told to think about stuff, and then all of a sudden I'm doing something that I've got absolutely no control over."
But for all the success of 2017, the following two years proved more difficult. He was thrown into the 50-over team both years, making flashy starts but averaging in the low 20s, and despite maintaining an impressively high strike rate in the Blast, his returns have dipped.
In particular, he found himself targeted by teams who had previously been caught unaware. Word went round that Pollock was susceptible against offspin. "Some people came back with a plan, and then all of a sudden, you're trying to counteract stuff," he says. "You tend to see people go through cycles, don't you. The ability to hit a clean ball was still there. But it was a mixture of guys having a plan and me searching for what I had to do. I think I slightly went away from thinking 'This is my method.'
"I definitely wouldn't change the way it went in 2018, because if it had all gone great, I don't think I'd have learned half the stuff I have now about my game and what I need to do to put myself in the right place to perform. There's an appreciation that while it's my role to get quick runs, and a quick 30 can be really helpful, you want performances to win games really."
Paul Farbrace has worked closely with Pollock since joining Warwickshire as director of sport last year. "He could be sensational," Farbrace says. "The next step for him is about playing more thinking cricket, smarter cricket, and not just having the big shots - does he have the cricketing intelligence and the game plan to go with his striking ability?
"We spoke about the fact people have bowled a lot of offspin at him. My thought was that he had to learn to slog-sweep the offspinner: the chances are that teams will start with a long-on and a deep square leg against him, so could he slog-sweep into that gap at deep midwicket? Can he reverse-sweep, so they have to bring a man up from the leg side to plug that gap? It's not just about hitting boundaries, it's whether he can get a single and get down the other end."
Last summer proved particularly frustrating. Despite leading the run charts in the 2nd XI T20 competition, Pollock was left out of the first team after scores of 27, 0, 0 and 3 in the Blast. He returned to the side once the Bears were effectively out for the last two games, making his highest professional score of 77 in the penultimate fixture at Durham.
"When you come from outside the first team environment, you put a lot more pressure on yourself to perform," Pollock says. "So it wasn't necessarily that teams had sorted me out or that I didn't know what was going on, it was just that I really wanted to do well and felt myself getting a bit tense, trying to force everything a bit too much.
"I got dropped, told to go and play in the second team, and I thought I'll see what I can fix here. I went to the indoor centre, one of the self-feeding bowling machines, and had a net for four and a half hours by myself, just hitting balls."
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Farbrace suggests that it was "a mistake" to have left Pollock out. "There would be people around the team who would say it was the right call because he was frazzled at that point, and he probably was. It's really easy as a coaching group to say: 'Play with freedom, there will be no recriminations.' But as soon as you leave someone out who plays in that way, I think you put doubt in everyone else's mind.
"Jason Roy is the best example of that. Against New Zealand in 2015, he didn't score a run in the ODI series at home, but because he kept attacking, kept playing in the right way for his role in the team, he was kept in, started to get his runs later that summer, and has never really looked back. His mentality was about the team and playing with purpose, instead of playing for himself if he had a couple of low scores."
Pollock is one of the game's fastest starters - his strike rate barely changes throughout his innings. He says that he is "just as likely to middle my first ball as my 100th ball - I'll look to net a lot around games, and just play as many games as I can so I get lots of time in the middle. So it means I can drop in and bat straight away how I want to."
That said, being one of the few batsmen capable of fulfilling the cliché of going hard from ball one does lend itself to volatility - not easy to take with the territory as a young pro trying to hold down a first-team place. "Brendon McCullum was at the Bears the year before I arrived and the guys said he told them, 'If I come off one time in seven then I'm happy,'" Pollock says. "I think I've only very occasionally not gone out full of intent, and they're the games that I'll get really pissed off with myself - the ones where I don't go out and play my game. If I've played the way I want to play and I get out, I can deal with that."
The challenge for Pollock is working out how much to think about his game and when. He plays his best innings with a clear mind, and recalls a net with batting coach Tony Frost when he struggled to hit the ball because his focus was on technical thoughts; and yet he talks at length about his willingness to learn. He has read "baseball books, and a few neuroscience-type things" and is two months into a mindfulness course to help understand himself better, and what puts him in a good headspace.
"At school, it was always like you do one school year, you learn something, and then you turn up the next school year and it's, 'Right, you've done this, this is the next thing, and then this is the next thing.' And I had that kind of attitude in life. But in cricket, it's almost going down the opposite way. You almost get simpler and simpler. You get down to: what's your method? What's your approach?"
The pandemic has come at a frustrating time for Pollock. He was looking forward to the Hundred, and the opportunity to pick the brains of his Manchester Originals team-mate Jos Buttler. He had planned how his season might look, beginning with a run of red-ball second-team games to stake his case for inclusion in the Championship side, and then hoped to turn "flashes in the pan" in the Blast into the sort of performances "that make someone go: 'We want him.'"
While there are no suggestions that he has any desire to leave Warwickshire, he is one of the 134 pros whose contracts are up at the end of the season, adding to a sense of uncertainty. But if Pollock is concerned by what Farbrace might say in his appraisal, he can rest assured that the verdict is likely to be positive. "He's absolutely got the game to become an international cricketer," Farbrace says. "His challenge is to get his thinking to marry his game. When the calm mind marries the fast hands, then he could achieve anything. There is no ceiling for him. I think he could then travel the world and be sensational."