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County Championship 2021

Sam Robson isn’t yet a Test bolter, but there’s no reason he couldn’t be

sam robson
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

Sam Robson stole the show at Lord’s on the first day of the County Championship, with a superb 165 against Somerset. Yas Rana reports from the Home of Cricket on Robson’s timely reminder of the levels he’s capable of reaching.

There’s an added layer of intrigue to the County Championship after a trying winter for the England Test side. With spots in the England XI less secure than they were a few months ago, there are, in theory, avenues for players totally out of the reckoning to bolt into contention that wouldn’t have been there had all the top seven batting spots been sewn up.

Relative unknowns, players in the England pathway system and those who’ve had chances in the senior set-up before, can all begin the new season with a new sense of hopeful optimism for the months ahead.

The bitterly cold first day of the 2021 County Championship was a very good day for those who fall into the last of those three categories. At Chelmsford, Essex skipper Tom Westley ended the day on 84 not out against Worcestershire while the headline performance of the day came from James Vince, who strummed a 167-ball 168 not out, albeit against a relatively inexperienced Leicestershire attack.

Such is Vince’s seductive lure, his innings – which could yet be far from over – will hog most of the online chatter, but the most impressive knock of the day came from Middlesex’s Sam Robson.

Robson, now 31, couldn’t have dreamed for a better start to the season. Against a usually dominant Somerset attack he was imperious. Anything that veered towards his legs was punished and bar a couple of chances he offered before reaching 50, runs flowed off his bat at decent pace throughout the day.

Robson’s 165 made up 56 per cent of Middlesex’s runs; the next best score was 22. Somerset conceded more batting bonus points on the first day of the season than they did during the entirety of 2020, thanks largely to Robson’s effort.

It would be premature to suggest that Robson – who last played for England seven years ago – is now back in England contention off the back of one knock. But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that if one performance can get you back in the reckoning, this would be it. He was that good. From the moment he drove Craig Overton’s first ball of the day towards the Media Centre for four, he looked like a man in control of his game.

With the benefit of hindsight, you could argue that Robson was unlucky that his first and so far only stint in the England side was as short as it was. After seven Tests, he averages 30.54. For reference, Rory Burns – who is only a year younger than Robson – currently averages 30.73 and Dom Sibley, 30.41. Expectations for new opening batsmen were unrealistically high in the early days of the post-Strauss era. It’s hard to imagine a top-order batsman getting the axe with a record like that after seven Tests in 2021.

His departure from the side was odd, too, in that he was more replaced, rather than dropped. England didn’t play a Test for eight months after his last England appearance due to the 2015 World Cup and England’s lengthy preparations in the build-up to the tournament. By modern English standards, that’s a monster gap between Tests – far longer than the gap between Tests during the pandemic.

Prior to the 2015 tour of the Caribbean, an England Lions tour to South Africa essentially acted as a shootout between Robson and the other three top-order batsmen on the trip – Adam Lyth and Alex Lees, both off the back of outstanding seasons with Yorkshire, and the returning Jonathan Trott – to partner Alastair Cook. In two games against a South Africa A side featuring a young Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris, Rory Kleinveldt and Beuran Hendricks, Robson registered scores of 41, 5 and 0. Trott hit an unbeaten double hundred in his first first-class knock of the tour and was picked for the subsequent away West Indies series.

Robson’s short spell in the side also saw an oversimplified analysis of his game. Robson was caught by the wicketkeeper or in the cordon five times in 11 innings, and the repetitive nature of his dismissals was used as ammunition to talk down his judgement around his off stump. While he obviously struggled at times that summer, you don’t have as good a record as Robson – particularly in the early months of the season – without reasonable judgement around your off stump.

Unfortunate for his spell in the side to be so short or not, Robson has not since built up a compelling body of work to suggest that his dropping was an egregious error in judgement. But today served a timely reminder that this is a cricketer capable of hitting the heights often reached by international batsmen. Against one of the best attacks in the country, he looked like a player used to competing at a higher level.

For the likes of Robson, Vince and Westley, serious talk of England recalls is still some way off. The challenge for them will be to ensure that these weren’t one-offs, and that in their early 30s they can consistently reel off match-defining performances. And while today was a reminder of their talent, it was also, on the first day of County Championship action in 19 months, a reminder of the enviable depth of quality that exists in the county game.

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