Appearing leaner and fitter than when he was last glimpsed on England duty, Ollie Robinson made an encouraging return in national colours – albeit for the Lions – against South Africa at Canterbury.
For England, altogether more important than the raw facts of Robinson bowling 19 overs and taking two for 56 were the manner in which he did so.
Robinson last took the field for England in a Test match at Hobart. He bowled incisively with the new ball, yet was soon operating at a markedly reduced pace and mustered only eight overs on the opening day. It was a performance that first encapsulated why England are so excited by Robinson’s possibilities, and then why they have been so infuriated by him.
At Canterbury, Robinson suggested he had emerged better for all the frustrations of the past seven months. The five overs in his new-ball spell were probing, even without being quite at his best. But in a sense what really mattered was Robinson’s performances after tea. He continued to threaten, bowling Rassie van der Dussen with the second new ball – after his earlier wicket of Sarel Erwee, caught at gully.
Robinson’s pace, according to speed guns, was only a couple of miles per hour down on his new-ball spell: England’s concern has never been his highest pace, but whether he can maintain it.
And so this was a highly encouraging day for Robinson’s prospects of winning his 10th Test cap during the series against South Africa, although he is likely to have to wait until the second Test to do so.
This is only Robinson’s second red-ball game since returning from injury – and it is not first class – and James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Matty Potts are the seamers in possession.
While Robinson was granted the new ball, Craig Overton – who is also in the Test squad, but was used as first change – outbowled him. Generating dangerous bounce from a relentless line, Overton snared four wickets, including South Africa captain Dean Elgar to an outstanding diving catch from Sam Billings, as the tourists closed on 282 for six; Khaya Zondo’s undefeated 86 pressed his own claims to win a spot in South Africa’s team for Lord’s next week.
In a huddle before the day’s play Brendon McCullum addressed all the Lions squad, telling them the importance of the match and the opportunity that it presented. Players were told to embrace their strengths - playing positively, yes, but also absorbing pressure in a shrewd way. And it was stressed that these instructions mean different things for different people: this does not mean that, say, Dominic Sibley should now start playing like Jonny Bairstow - even if Sibley has been reported to be playing more expansively in the nets.
“The main message for the boys was try and replicate what the England team are doing at the minute,” Overton said. “It’s making sure that the other boys know what it’s like, try and get out there, express ourselves - do what we want with the bat, do what we want with the ball and make sure we throw ourselves around in the field.”
This was McCullum’s first taste of England’s bench strength, and an important illustration of the prudence of split coaching: the schedule would not have made it practical for Chris Silverwood to spend four days with the Lions when he was the coach for all formats. All Lions players were told that they could seek out McCullum at any point over these four days to discuss the best way to approach their roles and how to develop their games. The ideal, perhaps, will be that - like some leading football clubs - England’s Test team attain a clear identity that is detectable not merely in their first eleven but at the levels beneath.