Half an hour before lunch on the second day Joe Root took a strategic time out. That is not what it is officially called in Test matches, of course – there was no official signal from the umpire, no countdown clock appearing on the big screen. Still, the England captain took a moment to draw aside his two chief gunners, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, for a council of war. Chins were pulled, brows furrowed, plans relaid. England’s bowling team had pursued a perfect length for the conditions, but the two batsmen were just not getting themselves out. What do we do now, chaps?
It had been a frustrating morning for everyone except India’s openers, who were displaying the kind of patience and presence of mind that their opponents had lacked the day before. Anderson had failed to find his rhythm, and there was no lucky streak from the homeboy, Broad.
The captain had burned through the second of his three referrals within the first 19 overs, tempted by the siren-sound of a sexy little snick as the ball kissed the top of Rohit Sharma’s pad. There had been plenty of despairing shouts, and ooh-didn’t-that-look-close expressions, and a huge appeal from Anderson, jazz hands at full stretch, eyes widening in disbelief. But there had been no wicket.
On the stroke of lunch, as the catering staff prepared to lift the covers from their steaming dishes, Ollie Robinson banged in a bouncer. It was the shortest ball of the day by at least a yard. Rohit’s limbic system lit up and his arms swung into their favourite shot; the ball swung dutifully towards the leg-side boundary and landed with a plop in Sam Curran’s hands. Robinson released a primal yell. It was his eighth Test wicket and undoubtedly his most important.
Robinson has played only two T20 games for Sussex since his suspension from international cricket at the start of June. The mortification, both public and private, caused by his 18-year-old self’s crass tweets will not have been easy to overcome, not least when his case was taken up as a touchstone in the relentlessly circular and self-defeating culture wars.
Still, the empathy and forgiveness of his teammates, an appropriate punishment from the authorities and a show of genuine contrition could together set an excellent example for the rest of us. All it needed was a good comeback here, and he got one.
In fact, Robinson’s was easily the most consistent bowling performance of the day, and the best thing about England’s attack right up to the moment that Anderson changed to the Radcliffe Road end and stole the show. If a marketing consultant had advised Robinson that his new brand messaging was maturity and dedication, he could not have worked better to the brief.
His testing lengths and off-stump line were unrelenting throughout both sessions. That metronomic ability is what he aims for and what England have always fancied in him. His speed – usually a shade above 80mph – is less important than his consistency, and his determination to make the batters play. He was the main reason that India never pushed home their first-day advantage, keeping the opposition batsmen in their crease, forcing them into a watching role.
His first delivery aimed to punch a hole through Cheteshwar Pujara’s ribs and, when a few balls later Pujara made a last desperate poke of his pads to fend off an inswinger, Robinson thought he had him. The elated bowler pointed to the umpire in appeal and Robinson’s finger may just have strayed towards Pujara as he celebrated the lbw and gave the batsman a dirty look.
Unfortunately a review showed that Robinson’s 6ft 5in height had worked against him, and the ball was passing over the stumps. On the England balcony Chris Silverwood hid his face in Paul Collingwood’s shoulder. But Robinson gave only a microshake of the head and got back to work.
His duel with KL Rahul was particularly intriguing. Before he made his troubled debut against New Zealand Robinson had said he liked to bring an edge to the field, to be “up and about”, as he put it. He was up and about Rahul, all right. One short ball slid past Rahul’s chin and another would have slammed his shoulder if the batter had not pulled off a move like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix. Robinson looked as if he was really enjoying himself after that one.
There were verbals too, although in light of all that has gone before it should be noted that the exchanges were smiling ones. The whole thing had a perfectly PG air, but it brought a bristle of energy to an atmosphere that could – at least until Anderson’s intervention – have sagged dangerously.
It was a long journey for Robinson, now 27, to reach the England Test team – he spent two years hanging around the fringes, the A-team and even England’s Covid bubble before he got his chance. The past month has doubtless seemed a long journey, too. Hopefully today was the start of a new one, and one that opportunistic politicians will not feel the need to hijack.