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Ollie Robinson: England’s Secret Weapon?

Ben Jones takes a look at the Sussex seamer’s remarkable county record.

For a lot of people, Ollie Robinson is an idea. It’s ultimately the way with a lot of county cricket; while the rise of high-quality streaming services have opened the game up to a much wider audience, the average England fan will have seen little to none of a Test debutant before they arrive in the international side. Short-hand and statistics fill in the gap.

Haseeb Hameed? Baby-Boycott. Ollie Pope? Absolute spit of Ian Bell. Close parallels in style and appearance are most people’s introduction to a new England player, excited whispers of the production line’s latest offering. Robinson, the 27-year-old Sussex seamer who appears extremely likely to make his international debut this summer, is no different. A tall, 80mph-and-a-dash-of-lime bowler, who moves the Dukes ball at will, is an easy one for fans to picture, but also one that doesn’t stir the soul in the manner of other, more exotic ideals.

No, none of the reasons for England fans to be excited about Robinson are about the introduction of pace, or ripping leg spin, or devastating stroke play; the main reason to be excited, is that he’s probably the best ‘English seamer’ in the country not named James.

And that’s where the statistics step in – Robinson has been exceptional in domestic cricket for the last four seasons. Taking his wickets at just 16.83, the Sussex seamer has been relentlessly effective. Only a handful of bowlers in the country have been able to match him in terms of pure, traditional numbers. While English cricket is, for better or worse, amenable to Robinson-style bowlers – accurate, precise 80mph bowlers who nibble the ball off the seam – there are few better than Robinson himself at what he does. 

That record speaks for itself, Robinson’s consistency is appealing from a selection point of view. This isn’t one golden summer skewing the figures; not once in the last four years has Robinson’s bowling average drifted above 20 across the season. 

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The general trend is a positive one as well, and tallies with his reputation as a player thoroughly engaged with his own self-improvement. In conversation with Tim Wigmore for The Telegraph, Robinson spoke of his new-found versatility. “If it’s not seaming, I can now swing it”, indicating a far more malleable bowler than previously when “I just had seam in my armoury”. In a column for his local paper The Worthing Herald, Robinson wrote that “I learned a lot about reverse swing over the winter with England in the sub-continent. The conditions are made for it – very dry and abrasive. I learned a lot out there – how to get it going, how to keep it reversing. I watched how Jimmy and Broady do it.”

Other underlying numbers confirm that Robinson is operating on an international level, in domestic cricket. ‘Contact Average’ is a measure which looks more closely at the connection bowlers are drawing from the bat, and rewards or penalises them accordingly; for example, runs scored from middled shots are given heavier weighting, while nicks through the slips are given less. Robinson’s Contact Average is slightly higher than his actual average, implying a slim amount of good fortune in his record, but far more importantly that Contact Average is still among the best in the country. Only James Anderson and Ben Sanderson stand ahead of him, while the names just behind Robinson almost all come with Test caps to spare. Morkel, Henry, Abbas, Maharaj – in the Championship, Robinson’s numbers are mixing it with the best in the world.

All this excellence hasn’t gone unnoticed. Robinson has made two appearances for the England Lions team in the last few years, and was the leading wicket-taker during the win against Australia A in Melbourne last year. His former coach at Sussex, Jason Gillespie, remarked that “Ollie is at the peak of his powers right now” when speaking to The Guardian’s Ali Martin. At 27 years old, Robinson has reached a point in his development where international cricket feels like the natural next step. 

Gillespie went on to say that “[Robinson] has a lot of street smarts, too. He operates around 80mph on the speed-gun but when his beans are going, can push this higher. With his height and his discipline, he’s quick enough.” That question of pace is one often raised around Robinson. A reputation as a metronome generally comes with unwelcome concerns over whether a player operating at around 80mph can consistently threaten in Test cricket. Aside from that debate – in short, yes you can bowl at that speed and have success, but you better be good – Robinson’s speed isn’t as pedestrian as some might suggest. Domestic tracking data suggests that he’s marginally slower than Chris Woakes, and marginally quicker than James Anderson, two bowlers who have had tremendous success in English conditions over the last few seasons, albeit with high levels of accuracy and skill. 

Alongside this, Robinson’s record as the ball gets older is encouraging. Not simply a new ball specialist, Robinson is able to continually threaten batsmen right up until the 80th over. While one would hope this doesn’t make him a victim of his own versatility when he does pull on an England shirt (his best position is still unequivocally as an opening bowler), wrestling the new ball away from Anderson and Broad is not an easy task, and more established bowlers than Robinson have had to make do with first-change. It’s an encouraging sign that his record later in the innings stands up to scrutiny.

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In terms of the specific challenges of the New Zealand series, there are other encouraging signs. Robinson is much stronger against right-handers; given that only a handful of India’s likely order will be left-handers, while the quality of the group will demand Robinson’s best, he is at least well-suited in this regard.

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Elsewhere, his batting may prove useful in the short-term. After years of batting depth being a stick perversely used to beat England (their best available bowlers also being able batsmen drew a surprising amount of criticism), the current crop of England bowlers are less handy with the bat. None of Jack Leach, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Mark Wood are players you would want at No.8, and while Dom Bess has filled the spot ably since returning to the XI, balancing that lower order has become a far trickier task since Chris Silverwood replaced Trevor Bayliss. Robinson is by no means an all-rounder, he falls into the gap between Woakes and Leach; at No.8 you’d be concerned, but at No.9 he’s a solid operator. For the particular challenge of constructing an XI for the New Zealand Tests, Silverwood may find Robinson’s presence helps matters a great deal.

The situation in India regarding Covid-19 is changing daily, and in an ever more frightening manner for all involved. The cricketing impact of the horrors Indians are facing is the potential postponement or cancellation of the IPL, alongside the possibility that if the tournament does continue that returning back to the UK may be a more drawn out process, if it’s possible at all. England’s availability for the NZ series has been cloudy for several weeks now, and the possibility – however slim – that those at the IPL may not be available for the series changes the conversation yet again. Squad depth is likely to be called upon, and Robinson is likely to be a beneficiary, alongside bowlers like Olly Stone and Craig Overton. 

As well as reflecting the difficult circumstances that have shaped England’s move towards a rotation policy in Test cricket, the arrival of Stone and soon Robinson into the Test set-up could reflect a new era in England’s bowling selection. After the removal of Ed Smith as Head Selector, Silverwood is now the main man in terms of picking the squads and the XI. The last few years has been a period of reticence for England in terms of picking new bowlers; Smith’s tenure in its entirety saw just two specialist bowlers (Stone and Archer) given debuts, with one of those a rather conspicuous outlier. Perhaps Silverwood will go against expectations – the absence of players promoted from his Championship-winning Essex side has certainly surprised some – but the change in structure offers the chance for a new dynamic in terms of selection, one that perhaps allows for a greater flow of bowling talent into the national side. Managing Anderson and Broad’s retirement is likely to fall on the shoulders of the current administration, emphasising that yet more.

In essence, Robinson deserves huge respect for his achievements as a county bowler in recent seasons, and is more than simply an archetype. In the coming months, and seasons, English cricket would be well served to place its trust in both the idea of Ollie Robinson, and in the man himself.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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