Positives abound for England in the wake of their series-levelling win against South Africa at Old Trafford: a baby step for the struggling Zak Crawley; a second Test ton for Ben Foakes; and Ben Stokes’ first outstanding all-round performance as captain.
Perhaps most significant of all, though, was the performance of Ollie Robinson, in his first Test since January.
While Jimmy Anderson picked up a match-high six wickets, Robinson was arguably England’s best bowler, taking one for 48 in the first innings, then four for 43 in the second, including the wicket that sealed the win, Lungi Ngidi comprehensively bowled.
This ended seven months of strife for Robinson since the fifth Ashes Test in Hobart in January, when he pulled up injured and was publicly criticised by bowling coach Jon Lewis for a lack of professionalism and poor fitness.
Robinson considers that a “wake-up call” from a coach with whom he had worked for years at Sussex and England that has sparked a total overhaul in his approach to fitness. Still, in the time since, he has spent time out with back issues, Covid-19 and dental problems.
“It’s not easy but we’re an honest group,” Robinson said of Lewis’s comments. “I took that on the chin and took it as a wake-up call as well. So I’ve used that to drive me forward in the last six months and when times have got tough I’ve just used that as a drive to try and keep positive.
“I’ve had a mindset change. My mindset shifted from trying to be fit for fitness testing to trying to be fit for five days of Test cricket at a high level. I lifted more weights, I ran further, everything I was doing before I just took to the extreme like Ben [Stokes] said. I think that’s made me feel a lot stronger in my body and given a lot more confidence I can play international cricket and not just one game in a series but game after game.
“There is enjoyment to it now. I’ve become a bit of a gym freak, which I never thought I’d say. I wake up in the morning and I’m like I’ve really got to go to the gym. Yeah, so it’s become a bit of a habit whereas before it was a chore and I think that’s really helped me as well. The running three times a week, the gymming three times a week, it’s just ingrained in me now which hopefully will help for years to come.”
Stokes had said in the buildup to the Test that he had held “honest” conversations with Robinson in the last few months. Robinson expanded on that point and said he was inspired by Stokes’ own journey in the game.
“So I spoke to Ben quite a lot in depth,” he said. “When he first started international cricket he wasn’t in the shape he is now and I spoke to him about how he got there – mentally, physically, the lot. And he really helped me in that stage of building back to this point today.
“Along with the England medical team and everyone behind the scenes, they really helped me. I’m not there yet, I’m not the finished article at all but we’re well on the way of getting there hopefully.
“I knew myself I could get back to this stage and I worked really hard, probably the hardest I’ve ever worked before, to get back to this point.
“I’ve tried to keep my head up, be quite positive and try to work as hard as I can to just get back into this environment. I was chuffed to be in this squad before we played the first Test and to play this one I was over the moon. It’s just great to be back and that winning feeling – you just can’t beat it.
Robinson was delighted with his performance. Cutting a more svelte figure, he bowled with good pace – with the speed gun recording him at 87mph – and even batting better.
“It’s been a tough six months with injury and a few doubts about myself so it’s really satisfying to get the win here and make a decent contribution at the end,” he said.
The seamer admitted that he was surprised to get the new ball ahead of Stuart Broad. While Stokes told Broad the day before, he only broke the news to Robinson shortly before the game began.
“I wasn’t,” he said, when asked if he was expecting to take the new ball. “So I got told 10 minutes before we were going out I was taking the new ball and then got the nod as we walked onto the field. I was buzzing because I feel that’s my strength – making the batsman play as much as possible with the new ball. So it was a nice confidence booster from Stokesy and Baz [coach Brendon McCullum] as well.
“I think I read it was the first time since 2013 [that Anderson and Broad have not shared the new ball]. But Stokesy said to me, don’t worry about that. Do your thing. Don’t strive too much to take wickets, just bowl how you bowl and that confidence from him is something that I haven’t had in the past. So it’s just a great environment learning to be in and to get that new ball was great.”