Eng vs SA, 2nd Test – New bowler, new ball


On Wednesday, on the eve of the second Test against South Africa, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad were driving back to the team hotel after a round of golf at The Mere Golf Resort & Spa. It was here that Broad first heard he would not be taking the new ball at Emirates Old Trafford.

He wasn’t told, expressly. Instead, his captain floated the idea to the 36-year-old, whose last appearance as the third seamer in a home first innings was 100 Tests ago, at Trent Bridge in the 2013 Ashes Test. Broad had a think and quickly agreed the logic was sound.

The response from Broad was to be expected. His 3 for 37 in the first innings after being introduced first-change included Proteas skipper Dean Elgar. He ended up being the fifth option in the second innings, following an early foray for the spinners, but accounted for Aiden Markram, whom he’d earlier missed out on after overstepping.

He now has 559 Test dismissals, four short of his hero Glenn McGrath who sits fifth on the all-time list. It’s not always the case that someone so decorated is so accommodating – indeed there have been times in the past when Broad might have contested the notion. But he took the demotion with grace, and Stokes lauded his senior man: “For Broady to understand the bigger picture about why I wanted that to be the option was an absolute credit to him.”

What helped Broad see the bigger picture was that Stokes wanted to give the new ball to Ollie Robinson. Of all the quicks he has seen come through the changing-room door, Broad regards Robinson as one of the most skilful, which makes sense given that James Anderson was already inside when Broad himself walked in back in 2007. Despite Robinson being recalled for just his 10th Test, and his first since Hobart in January, Broad knew his team-mate was the better option.

The prospect of this switch emerged after the England Lions match against South Africa at Canterbury, where the feedback to the main group was of Robinson’s joy against Sarel Erwee. After missing the series opener at Lord’s, and getting match-ready in the shadow of England’s innings defeat, the cord was pulled in Manchester to great effect.

Robinson was unlucky to just take just the one wicket for 48 on day one – “he was on the best none-for that I’ve ever seen,” Stokes said at the post-match presentations – but bagged England’s best figures of the match on day three, with 4 for 43 as South Africa folded for 179 to confirm defeat and make it 1-1 going into the final match at The Oval.

As it happens, despite the seed of an idea being planted at the start of August, and revealed to Broad on Wednesday, Robinson was only informed he was opening from the Brian Statham End after Elgar had won the toss on Thursday morning and opted to bat first.

“I got told 10 minutes before we were going out I was taking the new ball,” Robinson said on Saturday night, “and then got the nod as we walked onto the field.

“I was buzzing because I feel that’s my strength – making the batsman play as much as possible with the new ball. So it was a nice confidence booster from Stokesy and Baz as well.”

For the 28-year-old, who now boasts 44 dismissals at 20.93 at Test level, this felt like the turning of a page in a 14-month international career that has already been punctuated with controversy and misfortune. Of the 10 matches he has missed since making his debut at Lord’s against New Zealand at the start of the 2021 home season, one was due to a suspension after the emergence of historic offensive tweets, three were because he was not fit enough to cope with the rigours of a Test winter, and the four at the start of this summer were due to a combination of Covid-19, back troubles and a dental issue.

“It’s been a tough six months with injury and a few doubts about myself,” Robinson said. “So it’s really satisfying to get the win here and make a decent contribution at the end.

“I’ve tried to keep my head up, be quite positive and try to work as hard as I can to just get back into this environment. I was chuffed to be in this squad before we played the first Test, and to play this one I was over the moon. It’s just great to be back and that winning feeling – you just can’t beat it.”

The overriding narrative around Robinson has been about fitness, something made public during the Ashes. Bowling coach Jon Lewis said Robinson needed to be fitter after struggling in the fifth Test of the 4-0 defeat, stating: “He’s got to get used to understanding what it takes to be a full-time year-round international cricketer.”

It was a statement that resonated beyond the dressing-room because of the implication that Robinson was not as professional as he should be. But there were also some who felt the public chastising was not the best approach. Robinson, however, accepts nothing said was incorrect, and that Lewis, who remains part of the backroom staff but will be moved back to the ECB pathways at the end of the summer, was not saying anything he hadn’t told Robinson in private. Since working together at Sussex, the pair have a strong relationship.

“It’s not easy but we’re an honest group,” Robinson said. “I took that on the chin and took it as a wake-up call as well. So I’ve used that to drive me forward in the last six months and, when times have got tough, I’ve just used that as a drive to try and keep positive.

“I’ve always had that positive mindset that I would get back,” he added. “I think people don’t realise that me and Jon go back quite a long way. He was my bowling coach at Sussex for three, four years. So we do have that honest relationship. It’s just hasn’t obviously come out in the press before, but we do have that honest relationship where we can say what we feel and how we felt and we just moved on after that. We spoke about it, moved on, and like I said it drove me for the last six months to get to this place today.”

It is a place where, now, training no longer feels like a chore. “I’ve become a bit of a gym freak,” he added with a smile, “which I never thought I’d say.

“I wake up in the morning and I’m like, I’ve really got to go to the gym. Yeah, so it’s become a bit of a habit, whereas before it was a chore and I think that’s really helped me as well. The running three times a week, the gymming three times a week, it’s just ingrained in me now, which hopefully will help for years to come.”

The real change has been one of mindset rather than diet and behaviour, something triggered by chats with Stokes during the period in which Robinson was sidelined. Much of that was of the standards expected, but there was empathy, too. Stokes used himself as an example of someone who did not fully appreciate the importance of fine-tuning your body until later in his career.

“When he first started international cricket he wasn’t in the shape he is now, and I spoke to him about how he got there – mentally, physically, the lot. And he really helped me in that stage of building back to this point today. Along with the England medical team and everyone behind the scenes, they really helped me. I’m not there yet, I’m not the finished article at all, but we’re well on the way of getting there hopefully.”

Robinson regards the last six months as something of a blessing in disguise. An intense first half of his career has given way to a much quieter one in which he has been able to improve his numbers without a ball in his hand.

“We’ve got obviously the last Test and then we’ve probably got six, seven weeks again before Pakistan,” he said. “So I have the opportunity again to go to the next level again. So that’s what I’m thinking at the moment, just using that time as wisely as I can to improve myself as best I can.”

This realisation, authentic if overdue and all the more welcome for it, comes at a crucial juncture for the life cycle of this England side. As much as there has been a reinvigoration of Anderson and Broad, quite how long both have left is a constant fear, even if the pair state they are as happy and as willing as ever.

Beyond their world-class ability is longevity, which has offered England an earthing, even in troubled times. And while they are still around, Robinson says he will absorb as much of their knowledge as possible while also working out how he might replicate their endurance, popularity and, ultimately, legacy.

“Watching them two is so inspirational for me.” he said. “That’s how I want to be: I want the crowd cheering my name and that’s what I’m driving to do.

“I had a point today when I was fielding at mid-off and I thought ‘I don’t want to do this for 18 months. I want to do this for five, six years’ and I feel more driven today than I did at the start of my career. I feel in such a good headspace now, after this week’s game, I can drive on and push on a lot more.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo



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