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