January 31, 2014

The Aussie who headed to HQ

Thousands of youngsters pitch up in London to find a groove but not many are like Sam Robson, who aims to play Test cricket for England

It is a cold, gunmetal grey day in Loughborough, a market town that trades in future England cricketers among its substantial student stock. Flooded fields in the surrounding countryside are an indicator of how much rain has fallen recently and paths of wet tarmac crisscross the university campus on the way to the ECB's National Performance Centre. The warmth inside is welcome, the heating turned up as far as it will go, in an attempt to replicate conditions for playing and training in Sri Lanka, where the Lions have now arrived on tour.

"It's certainly a world away," says Sam Robson, considering the change from where he was previously billeted, in Australia with the England Performance Programme and then for Christmas with his family - though he could just as well be referring to the forthcoming challenge in the subcontinent, where a crop of greenhorns more used to green pitches will attempt to puff their England credentials in sapping heat and humidity. The cooling breeze of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, where Robson grew up, will seem a distant memory.

The thought does not seem to perturb him, however. It is the job of the modern professional cricketer to travel the world from assignment to assignment and there is no job in the world that Robson ever wanted more. It explains the easy shrug of the shoulders at having again left behind family and friends, not to mention the southern sun; as well as his apparent enthusiasm for resuming indoor net sessions in England in January. And it explains why another of his talents may yet go unfulfilled.

In one of the other trouser legs of time, instead of practising his cover drive, Robson would perhaps be working on some different strokes. Keen on pencil sketching, he was accepted to study arts at Sydney University - "but cricket panned out the way it did and I deferred, then deferred the next year and by the time you keep deferring, your spot's gone, so here I am, sitting here now, without a degree."

Now those fine motor skills are more often employed in nudging a cricket ball into gaps in the field, although they are still useful for entertaining team-mates when the opposition have found a way to exile him to the dressing room. "I should do more than I do," he says, "my mother keeps on to me telling me I should keep doing it." Fortunately the sporting ability he simultaneously nurtured has thus far served him well.

"I think I would have enjoyed university, from what I hear from my mates who tell me about their adventures, I think I would have had a fair bit of fun. [Now] they're in the real world, they've got proper jobs and everything is mapped out for them. It's a bit different as a professional cricketer but I wouldn't change it for the world. I'm aware of how lucky I am."

A cricketer who bats for love not money (he has only played four T20s), for whom Tests are "the pinnacle", Robson is also a young man who would rather be outdoors, throwing or hitting a ball, than staring at a screen

As much as it is possible to make your own luck, Robson has. At the age of 18, fresh out of Marcellin College, a Catholic high school in Randwick, he came to London, essentially in search of a hit. From a legspinner who batted down the order when playing for Australia Under-19s, Robson converted himself into a gutsy, acquisitive opener for Middlesex. Last season, during which he qualified to play for England, Robson finished as the third-highest run-scorer in Division One of the County Championship.

Martin McCague, the Australian-raised seamer, was called "the rat who joined a sinking ship" when capped by England in 1993. After their Ashes horribilis, you might say the current England team have already been sunk, and it is not a stretch to imagine Robson opening the batting alongside Alastair Cook in the first Test of the summer at his home ground, Lord's.

Robson has a studied forward defence when it comes to such possibilities, just as he flicks away persistent questions about nationality. "If I ever become good enough, I want to play for England," he says, one subject eliding into the other. What he doesn't suppress is the sense of cricket - and the desire to play good cricket - as an obsession, something that should be worked at assiduously. In the steady accretion of experience and aptitude, the Lions tour is just another incremental step.

"Since I started to take the game really seriously, when I was 15, 16, 17 - my whole thing has just been to try and improve and get better and see where that takes me," he says. "I don't know where I'm going to end up. I'll keep working hard. I'd love to play Test cricket, there's no doubt about it, but what's worked for me the last few years, and helped me slowly develop and improve is just the fact that I've tried to keep getting better each day."

As England have previously discovered to their advantage, there is no zealot like a convert. Robson says he enjoys working with Mark Ramprakash, Middlesex's batting coach and a man for whom practice and perfect never quite married up at international level, but he seems able to modulate his own intensity. In some respects, Robson is like thousands of other young Australians who pitch up in London and find a comfortable groove. His passion for his vocation is matched by his "love" for the city he now calls home, and having a life outside of cricket is, he says, "good for your game, good for you as a person".

Such a balanced outlook is indicative of Robson's priorities. A cricketer who bats for love not money (he has only played four T20s), for whom Tests are "the pinnacle", he is also a young man who would rather be outdoors, throwing or hitting a ball, than staring at a screen - unusually, for his generation, Robson is not on Twitter, seeing it as just "another thing to check". In a digital world, he seems charmingly analogue.

With English cricket in a rare state of flux, Robson's qualities may become increasingly attractive but his focus remains on the next assignment: Sri Lanka and then the County Championship with Middlesex, continuing this pilgrim's progress. "Whether anything comes from it or not, that's life. I've just got to do as well as I can."

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here