England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 2nd day June 21, 2014

Old-school Robson plays it perfectly

As the home side stumbled in the final session the value of Sam Robson's maiden Test hundred, a model in concentration and self-denial, became clear

Whatever the gladiators, smurfs, superheroes and the fellow dressed as a moose expected when they got ready for a day at the cricket, it probably was not this. Certainly, there was something incongruous about the sight of hundreds of people in fancy dress watching Sam Robson leave the ball watchfully for hours on end and occasionally nudging one off his hips. It was like dressing for a party and then spending the night doing your accounts. Sometimes it really did feel like the longest day.

But if Robson's batting is unfashionable, it is also valuable. And if there were times during the stand between Robson and Gary Ballance, in particular, when progress seemed a little sedate, the fact is that England ended the second day in a strong position.

If they go on to win with a day to spare, it would surely be a bit perverse to complain about the pace of their cricket. It might also have become a bit perverse to complain about the standard of county cricket: Robson, Ballance and Chris Jordan seem to have made the step-up rather comfortably.

For all the repetition in recent times that Test cricket has changed and that batsmen have to be positive, there are many times when there is nothing more valuable than a sound defensive technique. After a winter when the pace of scoring became the least of England's worries - the Sydney Test was over in three days - there is plenty of room for a batsman with the patience of Robson and the no-frills effectiveness of Ballance. Ballance may well go on to score 8,000 Test runs without playing a single stroke that elicits the 'cooing' reserved for a cover drove from Ian Bell. But he might also win quite a few games for England.

There was no eureka moment in Robson's decision to pick England over Australia. He simply pursued the path that offered the best chance of playing the most professional cricket and, armed with a UK passport courtesy of a mother born in Nottingham, he concluded reasonably enough that county cricket offered better prospects than State cricket in Australia. At that stage, as a teenager, the prospect of Test cricket seemed impossibly distant.

Besides, he is not the sort of player Australia tend to favour. While he represented their U-19 side, it was not until the last few months that they showed much interest in his development and it remains hard to see how he would fit in with the aggressive approach currently favoured by Darren Lehmann and Robson resisted a late offer to entice him back to Australia last winter as he was, by then, involved with England Lions and on the pathway leading to Test cricket.

There may well, in time, be a reasonable debate to be held on England's reliance upon players who were brought up, in part, abroad, but equally there might be some cause for celebration that this side represents the multi-cultural society that the UK has become.

It is not hard to understand why Robson does not merit selection in Middlesex's limited-overs side. He does not have a wide range of stroke. He is neat off his legs, drives nicely and cuts efficiently. He was slow to relax and declined to put away deliveries that, for Middlesex, he would have attempted to cut or pull. Indeed, he did not play one authentic pull shot in his innings. There were times, when the ball was just back of a length on off stump, when he appeared strokeless.

Yet Test cricket remains as much about discipline and denial as it does about flair and aggression. It remains as much about the strokes a batsman does not play as those that they do. Yes, there may be times when Robson's rate of scoring is a minor frustration. But there should be many more times when his resilience is a reassuring asset and when the foundations he builds for England's promising but somewhat fragile middle-order will prove valuable. In Australia, the middle-order were often exposed to the new ball. Robson, at least, should force seamers into second, third and fourth spells and allow the likes of Joe Root to come in against a softer ball.

There is an irony here, though. Nick Compton was dropped, in part, because he was thought to score too slowly to hurt the opposition. To drop Compton, who has a greater range of stroke, and pick Robson only reinforces the suspicion that the former was omitted more because some in the team management simply did not like him than any flaw in his play.

Robson, too, was judged harshly after his first Test at Lord's. With nerves bothering him in the first innings, he was drawn into pushing at one that, at county level, he would usually have left. Critics who had never seen him bat, jumped to conclusions about his technique and temperament.

Even here, as he reached his century, some of the same pundits were dismissing it as of little worth. The bowling was undemanding, they claimed, and the pitch without menace. But when England lost three wickets for two runs in the evening session, the value of Robson's innings became a little more apparent.

Besides, if the bowling was so modest and the conditions so placid, what does the failure of Alastair Cook say about his future? His dismissal here, poking with minimal foot movement at a regulation delivery angled across him, spoke of a man low on confidence and struggling with his technique. The pitch was flat, the bowling - by the standards of Test cricket - relatively undemanding.

Cook's long-term record demands he is afforded greater patience than might be the case for other players. The England management have also backed him so resolutely that, to drop him now would constitute a major change of direction with their plans. It is not an imminent possibility.

But since the start of the Ashes series in July 2013, Cook has now played 23 innings without registering a century and averages just 25.43. His somewhat testy attitude at the pre-match media conferences suggested a man who was beginning to feel the pressure and to tire of some of the baggage that comes with captaincy. Few people would be surprised if, by this time next year, Bell was England captain. How Cook would have loved his opening partner's runs.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Guy on June 22, 2014, 21:01 GMT

    @Greatest Game, I'm not sure what the point about the nationality is, but for the record, I'm Australian. I would have thought someone with a fine eye for the subtleties of language such as yourself would have been able to discern that from a) I said that @Hatsforbats was a countryman, and b) @Hatsforbats said that he was Australian. As for the point about Ballance, Dobell may have meant what you said, but that's not what he said. If he meant what you'd said, he could have said "Even if Ballance scores as many runs as Bell has, he may never play a shot that elicits the cooing etc". I don't see how the Cook or KP milestones, or 8000 runs, have any relevance unless Dobell is suggesting that there is a good chance of Ballance making that milestone himself.

  • David on June 22, 2014, 14:31 GMT

    @ Moppa wrote "As an aside... "Gary Ballance may well score 8000 Test runs..." getting ahead of ourselves a bit, aren't we?"

    Come on - give George his due & quote the phrase in context. "Ballance may well go on to score 8,000 Test runs without playing a single stroke that elicits the 'cooing' reserved for a cover drove from Ian Bell. But he might also win quite a few games for England."

    The point is EVEN IF HE DID score "xxxxx" runs for Eng, he'll not be lauded for his stroke play, but for playing cricket that wins matches. The sub text is therefore: Bell LOOKS great, but is not winning anything: Balance may not be pretty, but is more effective. And the number 8000? KP & Cook just passed that landmark. 8900 by Gooch is the most scored by any of the 6 Eng players who reached 8000, so it has particular significance in this context.

    Even a Saffa is able to recognise subtle nuance in George's writing. Now, I can't remember, but did you say where you are from, @ Moppa?

  • Michael on June 22, 2014, 9:32 GMT

    I congratulate Robson on following his dreams and scoring his ton of course. His decision to represent England was a wise one as it wasn't his talent that hindered his chances of playing for Australia, it is the politics that runs rife within Australian Cricket, and especially Cricket NSW……..Robsons' home state. Good on ya Robbo !

  • kieran on June 22, 2014, 9:32 GMT

    @dunger.bob, apologies I didn't phrase that the way I should have. I too think there are many improvements that could be made to our first class system, including the extra team option you mentioned. What I meant was that even if there was an extra team available (just one, maybe two, we don't want to dilute the comp too much), Robson was still so far down the pecking order that his best career option was to head to the UK. He could have stayed and forced his way into a team through weight of runs, but he was not putting up those performances and he chose to swap his allegiance. If he did stay, There would probably be as many as 10-15 other batsmen in the same or better position. I don't see that as a failure of our system. He's been there for a few years now and it's only the last couple of seasons that he's stood up, and who knows, maybe Robson actually considers himself more English these days.

  • Cam on June 22, 2014, 9:32 GMT

    Good for him. He made a choice to play for England, good for him. Is it even thinkable that Cook could be dropped? Australia showed in the winter the importance of picking players in form and judging by the new England players that are doing well it seems a pretty obvious way to select a side (with the exception of Root and Prior who will never be in form). @FFL suggested Cook would have a field day in Australia and in fact he had many, many days in the field but couldn't make a run. It does seem the pressure is mounting.

  • rob on June 22, 2014, 8:01 GMT

    @ HatsforBats : This isn't the article for this, so I'll be brief. I think there is something wrong with our system. We need at least one more team. How many players have had to leave NSW in search of opportunity? Hundreds. Adam Gilchrist couldn't get a game for Gods sake and had to move to WA. Too many good players fall through the cracks of NSW/Vic and we need another team to catch them.

  • Rue on June 22, 2014, 7:25 GMT

    Nzcricket, really can you make that comment regarding "England" when your rugby team has a fine history of picking south sea islanders to play. All teams do it. my son has a Chinese mother and was born in China and is currently being raised in Brunei. He holds a British passport as I am British.. Because he does not live in the Uk, does that mean he can't have the chance to represent his fathers country if he chooses to? The world has become smaller and smaller and everyone should respect individuals choices of who they play for if they are eligible.

  • Android on June 22, 2014, 7:23 GMT

    I thought ballance is much better player than root.root, may score on batting wickets, he should not be in England team if I'm selector.Moen ali needs to be given more chance to prove himself

  • Rue on June 22, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    Well done to Robson and to Ballance. I really believe though that England's line up is wrong. Bell must bat three as he has a more positive style and put Ballance lower in the order. Watching yesterday, I can't imagine a more stodgy top three ever for England. We did pretty well yesterday but I wonder if they are put in the position to bat more aggressively then could that top three go up the gears. Ballance I know can hit a long ball but Cook and. Robson I'm not sure. The new era seems to be going back to an era long forgotten. I would like to see a really attacking player in the top three, Vince would be my pick but then I would like to see Cook gone and KP in!

  • Rizwan on June 22, 2014, 7:04 GMT

    ''To drop Compton, who has a greater range of stroke, and pick Robson only reinforces the suspicion that the former was omitted more because some in the team management simply did not like him than any flaw in his play''

    Players should be picked on ability not their popularity - No wonder KEVIN Peterson was dropped . In the great Australian team , WARNE did not get along with the Coach and Steve Waugh - Yet , the authorities persisted with Warne despite his on and off field antics because he was a CHAMPION bowler and the irrespective of whether the spectators loved him or not , they came to watch him.

    KP is box office and should be playing in a team that lacks flair - As Pat Buchanan said of himself ' you may not like me , but you gotta admire me ''