England have recalled Ollie Robinson to the squad for the first two Tests of the forthcoming series against South Africa.
Robinson has not played international cricket since the Ashes ended in January due to fitness issues, mainly linked to his back, but impressed with nine wickets in Sussex's recent County Championship match with Nottinghamshire last week and will finally get the chance to catch the eye of new head coach Brendon McCullum at Lord's in the build-up to the first Test on Aug 17.
He replaces the injured Jamie Overton in the 14-man squad, which is otherwise unchanged from the New Zealand and India Tests with opener Zak Crawley retained despite his run of low scores.
Why England have not given up on Ollie Robinson
After a superb start to his Test career in 2021, this should have been the year that Ollie Robinson established himself as England’s attack leader. Instead, it has been a wasted year: he has bowled only 19 overs in Test cricket so far in 2022.
Yet Robinson’s recall indicates that England, for all their exasperation with his fitness over the winter – culminating in bowling coach Jon Lewis publicly questioning his professionalism in January – retain a firm belief that he has the aptitude to thrive at international level.
Aged 28, Robinson still has the time to enjoy a lengthy Test career – and, perhaps, fill the fold when James Anderson and Stuart Broad finally depart the stage.
There are three main reasons for Robinson’s recall. The first, and most important, is his Test prowess, which he has demonstrated even amid the worries over his fitness, which led to him pulling up as unfit to bowl in Hobart. In nine Tests, Robinson has 39 wickets at just 21.3 apiece, excelling against New Zealand and India last summer and – when he was fit to bowl – taking 11 wickets at 25.5 Down Under.
When he has been able to bowl at full pace, Robinson has shown a wonderful command of line and length. No Test pace bowler since 2006, when ball-tracking began, finds a good line and length more often than Robinson.
He also generates prodigious bounce and appreciable swing and seam: a cocktail of gifts that – if only his body allows – should allow Robinson to succeed in all climes.
As well as being very good, Robinson is also different. While he lacks the extreme pace that England would love – even when fresh, he operates at just a tick above 80mph – he offers another unusual threat: his height, which he maximises by remaining upright when releasing the ball.
Robinson’s average release point, 2.2 metres, is the third highest of any Test pace bowler today, below only Jason Holder and Kyle Jamieson; it is even 15cm more than Stuart Broad. As well as delivering the ball from very high, Robinson’s wide release point also creates an unusual angle; combined with the lateral movement he generates, it makes him very difficult to leave. And so an attack with Robinson in it is not just better; it is also more varied.
The third reason for Robinson’s recall is altogether more prosaic: the paucity of other options, given the array of injuries to affect the rest of England’s attack. Jamie Overton might have retained his place in the squad had he not succumbed to injury too; Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Olly Stone, England’s three quickest bowlers, are all out of the summer too, as is Saqib Mahmood. The upshot is that Robinson’s return to the Test squad has been accelerated: it has come after just one first-class match for Sussex since his latest return from injury.
Very real questions remain. Even while impressing in his Championship return for Sussex – taking nine for 104 in the match against Nottinghamshire – observers still reported that he lost pace as the game went on.
Even at his quickest, Robinson is far from express. Yet England’s concern is not with his top speed; it is whether he can maintain it. At times during the Ashes tour, Robinson’s speed was down to under 75mph.
England have told Robinson that, if he is to enjoy the Test career that his talents deserved, he needs to be able to maintain his spell throughout a day and a Test. There are hopeful signs that his diet and fitness will no longer undermine what he can achieve on the pitch.
Robinson's first chance to show that his body is now better-equipped for the demands of Test cricket will come in next week’s match for England Lions against South Africa, when Brendon McCullum is likely to be in attendance. While Robinson is unlikely to be in England’s XI for the opening Test on Aug 17, he may well get an opportunity in one of the last two Tests of the summer. It would be a chance to show that he has emerged stronger from the toils of 2022.