If ever a cricketer could have done with a good start to a Test match, it was Ollie Robinson. This had nothing to do with his record: 71 wickets at 21 before this game is a decent line on any CV. And he bowled quite well in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston after a slow start.
But the newly crowned Most Reviled Man in Australia needed something – anything – to get a nation off his back.
Robinson’s crime, for those who missed it, was to swear at Australian opener Usman Khawaja after dismissing him in the first innings of the first Test – a crass gesture, to be sure, but not the hanging offence some pretended.
The match referee Andy Pycroft settled for a warning, while the Australian team themselves were unconcerned, having no doubt heard far worse playing grade cricket during their formative years back home.
But when Robinson had the temerity to suggest that Australians had sledged Englishmen in the past, and singled out Ricky Ponting – mainly because his mind went blank during the press conference – he triggered the small army of ex-Aussie pros who have never quite cut the umbilical cord with the Baggy Green.
Ollie Robinson has been crowned the Most Reviled Man in Australia in the wake of the first Test
The bowler attracted scrutiny for his sledging of Usman Khawaja which turned the air blue
Ricky Ponting was one of a number of former Australian cricketers clutching their pearls
First prize went to the former opener Matthew Hayden, who described Robinson as a ‘forgettable cricketer’, before warming to his theme: ‘The fast bowler that is bowling 124kph [77mph] nude nuts, and he’s got a mouth from the south.’
Michael Clarke, who once told Jimmy Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken f****** arm’ during a Test in Brisbane, ignored Robinson’s Edgbaston match figures of 40.4-12-98-5, and warned: ‘He needs to shush. If England were fully fit you wouldn’t even get a game, Ollie. If Jofra Archer was fit or if Mark Wood was fully fit, Robinson would be back playing clubbies.’
Ponting, more understandably, chipped in too. ‘No wonder he bowled the way he did in that game if he’s worried about what I did 15 years ago,’ he said. ‘He’ll learn pretty quickly that if you’re going to talk to Australian cricketers in an Ashes series, then you want to be able to back it up with your skills.’
Frankly, if you weren’t an ex-Australian cricketer with something angry to say about Ollie Robinson, you were no sort of ex-Australian cricketer at all.
Entertainingly, it took Merv Hughes, the godfather of sledging, to leap to Robinson’s defence. ‘Is it really coming to the point where a bowler can’t celebrate a wicket?’ he wailed. ‘Must be a slow news day if you’re trying to make something out of that.’
Even so, Ponting’s parting shot loomed large when Ben Stokes won an apparently priceless toss under slate-grey skies in north London. Only twice since 1956 – the two miracle series of 1981 and 2005 – have England come from behind to win the Ashes. And they have never won from 2-0 down.
It went without saying that this was their chance, these were their conditions. Underpinning the onslaught from the ex-Aussies was an unspoken, faintly contemptuous, implication: is there a more English seamer than Robinson?
But from the start he lacked the zip and nip that can make him so dangerous. Ideally, Robinson stays on the right side of 80mph: his average wicket-taking speed in Test cricket before this series was 80.48. Here, he was dropping into ‘nude nuts’ territory, presumably to the Hayden’s delight.
At tea, Robinson had figures of 10-2-31-0, which felt suitably nondescript. And when he bowled the first over after the break, his first ball – a half-tracker – was swatted for four by Steve Smith. It was not the tone-setter England were after.
Robinson, though, has built a first-class record of nearly 400 wickets at 20 on an ability to break through even when he’s not at his best. A beauty kissed Marnus Labuschagne’s outside edge, and Robinson wisely resisted the temptation to open his ‘mouth from the south’ as he celebrated.
The 29-year-old was not the tone-setter that England required on the first day of second Test
But Robinson did manage to claim the wicket of top-order batsman Marnus Labuschagne
But, mainly, his rhythm was lacking. No sooner had he renewed English hopes than he was dropping short and wide outside off, and being pummelled through the covers by Travis Head.
He responded with one that almost bowled Head, though it turned out to be a no-ball. Moments later, Head hammered him through the off side again, before taking two more boundaries in Robinson’s next over.
Robinson entered this game fifth in the Test rankings, higher than any Australian bar Pat Cummins. But he also entered it – in the estimation of former Aussie wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist – as the ‘new public enemy No 1’, a title grabbed from Stuart Broad. Both accolades bring pressure of their own.
Robinson will come again, because he’s far from the clubbie Clarke imagines. But on the first day of a Test that could dictate the course of this series, his struggles were all too emblematic.