It’s rare for a Test player’s fitness to be publicly questioned by his own team in such brutally honest fashion and, in light of Ollie Robinson’s recall to the England team for the second Test at Old Trafford, the criticism dished out comes quickly to mind.
Jon Lewis, England’s fast bowling coach, left no one in doubt about the level of management’s dissatisfaction with the seamer during the fifth Ashes Test in Hobart.
Speaking to BT Sport at the close of play on the second day, Lewis was blunt in his assessment of Robinson’s fitness.
“It’s something he’s definitely looking at, and definitely we’re working on with him,” Lewis said. “If he’s going to perform consistently over a long period of time at this level, he will need to be a fitter bowler, 100%.
“We’ve had those conversations, we’ve been pretty frank with him. And now it’s up to him to go and do the work.”
“In international cricket, he’s on the road a lot, he’s going to have to learn to look after himself better than probably does at the moment.”
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Robinson had picked up a hamstring niggle during the third Test in Melbourne, missed the fourth with a shoulder injury, and suffered a back spasm in Hobart that left England a bowler short at times during the final Test.
Post-Ashes, Robinson has played just seven matches; three County Championship fixtures and a List A game for Sussex, and three warm-up matches against West Indies President’s XI, New Zealand and South Africa.
In and around those appearances, there have been further back issues, a dental problem and a bout of COVID-19.
But, after his absence from the first five Tests of the summer, England are now confident Robinson is fit and durable enough to withstand the rigours of Test cricket and have brought him into the side in place of Matthew Potts, hoping he might exploit the expected bounce from the Old Trafford pitch.
There is no doubting Robinson’s skills as a bowler; his nagging consistency, his ability to move the ball just enough to trouble batters and the sometimes awkward bounce aided by his height, the combination of which drew early comparisons to Glenn McGrath.
He also has a knack for taking wickets; in nine Tests he has taken a total of 39 at an impressive average of 21.28.
Ollie Robinson have a bat this morning alongside Jack Leach and Jimmy Anderson. #ENGvSA pic.twitter.com/Md16QoqcbU
— Melinda Farrell (@melindafarrell) August 24, 2022
The question has been whether or not England can trust Robinson’s body over up to five days.
Stokes revealed he had his own frank discussion with the 28-year-old on his fitness.
“I was very honest and truthful with Robbo,” said Stokes. “I feel that’s something people deserve. Rather than just have a conversation to get through it easy, I’d rather let him know exactly where I stand.
“It enables him to go away and work on what has been asked of him. All I can say is he’s done that to the absolute extreme. He’s worked hard behind the scenes which is something that is probably not going to get reported unfortunately.
“When you are in the position we are in as international cricketers and stuff goes wrong, it’s very easy to get put out there. But something I’ve made a very firm point on with the team is just to remember what we say to each other in the dressing room is the most important thing. Let’s not try and let outside noise get in here and influence what we do.
“All the feedback Robbo has got from myself, the coach, the people who have helped him get where he is now has been nothing but positive. That’s what he should be listening to.”
Stokes wasn’t in Canterbury to witness Robinson’s performance for the Lions against South Africa, but he tuned in to the live stream and liked what he saw; Robinson bowled four spells for a total of 19 overs on the opening day and improved with each one.
Welcome back Robbo!
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) August 24, 2022
He certainly appeared fitter to the naked eye and, encouragingly for England, his spells on the fourth day were arguably his best.
He took five wickets in all, dismissing Sarel Erwee and Rassie van der Dussen in both innings and Dean Elgar in the second, greatly impressing Lions captain Sam Billings.
“There’s a couple of guys who Ollie Robinson had on toast this week,” Billings said in Canterbury after the match. “He bowled exceptionally well.
“I’m a big fan of Ollie in terms of his character on the field as well. How he always provides an intensity even if physically, it doesn’t come across that way. The way he approaches the game is infectious.
“And the fact he backed up his performance in the first innings, he actually got better and, from a pace point of view, I was further back than I was first dig. It was proper Test match bowling. I think he’s gone from strength to strength from a physical point of view.
“He got through the workloads that he was asked to do comfortably and then he was out there kind of getting time in the legs. From a performance point of view, the bloke’s class.”
His performance was enough to ensure he was a genuine contender for the series against South Africa, although he sat out the first Test at Lord’s and Stokes was fulsome in his praise of how Robinson has handled the past six months.
“It’s obviously been a very difficult time for Ollie because it wasn’t the fact that his form was letting him down. It was his body,” said Stokes. “That’s obviously a very tough thing to deal with when you want to do something but the thing that needs to work for you to do that doesn’t.
“But I think he can use it as something to look back on and to gain experience from that. Because he’s here in the team and he’s playing this week.
“So everything that’s gone on in the past is something that he’s obviously grown from, and he’s learned a lot from about himself. Not just as a person but as a player.
“I stayed in contact with him quite a lot throughout the period and just told him that any team that he plays for is very lucky to have him because of what he possesses as a bowler.
“I’m very excited. He thoroughly deserves this. And I can’t wait for him to go out there and show what it’s all about.”
Robinson has clearly impressed and earned England’s trust with his response to criticism and his hard work behind the scenes. Now, with England needing a victory to keep the series alive, there could hardly be a better time for Robinson — and his body — to repay that same trust.