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Australia v England

Ollie Robinson’s start to his Test career has been phenomenal, but how soon can he be England’s attack leader?

Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

Ollie Robinson has enjoyed a superb start to his Test career, thriving against some of the best batsmen in the planet in a struggling side missing some of its biggest names but, asks Yas Rana, how soon will he be ready to lead the attack?

If you’re a fan of high quality seam bowling, the 2021 English summer was a real treat. The two visitors were the number one and two ranked sides in the world, both teams whose success, at this point in time, is based more on the collective strength of their bowling attacks than anything else. With the odd exception – like Ishant Sharma at Leeds – both attacks are relentless; the drop off between the opening bowlers and their replacements is negligible.

The hosts, even without several high profile names and a largely misfiring top seven, kept themselves in various contests this summer largely down to the efforts of skipper Joe Root with the bat and his battery of seamers, led by two men at contrasting stages of their Test careers – James Anderson and Ollie Robinson.

It’s hard to overstate just how impressive Robinson was in his first summer as a Test cricketer, one where he looked like he instantly belonged in the group of world class seamers on show. Of the 16 quicks to appear in multiple Tests this summer, only the Blackcaps trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson finished with lower averages. His final analysis of 28 wickets at 19.60 ‘beat’ the likes Anderson, Wagner and Bumrah – that is some achievement.

One of the stranger strands of the Ollie Robinson story is that this instant success isn’t much of a surprise, either. Robinson has hoovered up wickets for Sussex in recent English domestic seasons. From the start of the 2017 summer to his Test debut in June this year, Robinson had taken more than 200 first-class wickets at an average less than 18. Robinson had been a part of England squads for the best part of a year prior to his Test bow, coming close to a debut against West Indies last summer. The only surprise is that he had to wait so long for his opportunity.

He’s a bowler who makes the game look deceptively simple. While Robinson boasts of his gameplans for different batters – he publicly outlined how he hoped to dismiss the then number one ranked batsman in the world Kane Williamson prior to his own Test debut – his method is straightforward. He hammers a good length with extraordinary consistency from a height few bowlers are capable of reaching and is able to extract movement both off the pitch and through the air at a pace that’s just quick enough to cause unease for the very best batsmen in the world.

His metronomic accuracy saw him concede his runs at slightly more than two and a half runs per over. In the India series – where he and Anderson both played all four Tests – he was entrusted with marginally more overs than Anderson (166.2 to 163.3). Root is often a captain who is hesitant to fully back newcomers (see his use of Craig Overton at The Oval) so for Robinson to win Root’s confidence so quickly is no mean feat.

His start couldn’t really have gone much better; no English bowler has taken more Test wickets in their first home summer since the great Fred Trueman in 1952. But what can we expect going forward? The absence of Broad has seen him share new ball duties with Anderson and during the innings victory at Leeds, he was the side’s second most senior frontline seamer (depending on how you categorise Sam Curran), so England will be confident that he will relish the additional responsibility that will no doubt come his way, especially considering where Anderson and Broad are in their careers.

Robinson looks to possess the character for the big occasion – he clearly enjoys the heat of battle and backs his ability to deliver when called upon. The big test will be how he handles overseas conditions, particularly somewhere like Australia this winter. English pitches generally have something in them to assist seamers and the Dukes Ball, which generally swings throughout an innings, is only used in England and West Indies. The second innings at The Oval – where India enjoyed the most ‘un-English’ conditions of the summer – was where Robinson found wickets hardest to come by all season.

There have been plenty of English bowlers who have dominated in home conditions and struggled Down Under. Anderson and Broad – despite enjoying the odd tour with individual success – both average over 35 in Australia, Hoggard and Harmison both over 45. There is a lazy English notion that only express quicks can thrive in Australia, a mode of thought that ignores a guy called Glenn McGrath. That idea has gained more traction in the last four years after England’s army of right-arm medium-fast bowlers looked painfully unpenetrative in 2017/18, when the simplest explanation for their shortcomings was actually that they just weren’t that good. England have also fast-tracked quicks onto tours of Australia with indifferent results – see Sajid Mahmood in 2006/07, for example. It’s hard to predict how an English seamer will go in Australia, but you’d think that Robinson will travel with as good a chance as any in recent years.

This summer, with the injury to Broad and the relative struggles of Anderson – 2021 was the first home summer since 2015 that he’s averaged over 30 with the ball – provided a glimpse of a Broaderson-less future, and Robinson stepped up to play a lead role. It may well be that after years of speculation over the identity of their eventual long-term replacements, a ready-made replacement was lying in waiting after all.

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