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Cricketers of the year

Ollie Robinson

Wisden Cricketers of the Year 2022: Ollie Robinson

Vithushan Ehantharajah
17-May-2022
Ollie Robinson in pensive mood  •  AFP/Getty Images

Ollie Robinson in pensive mood  •  AFP/Getty Images

Ollie Robinson was sitting on the edge of a bath in the Lord's dressing-room at the end of his first day as a Test cricketer. It had begun with the presentation of his cap by England bowling coach Jon Lewis, a guiding influence at Sussex, as his family leaned over the advertising boards to get as close as Covid protocols allowed. Now alone, staring at a wall, he wondered if his international career was already over.
A few hours earlier, while taking the first two of his 37 Test wickets in 2021, a series of offensive tweets he had sent between the ages of 18 and 20 were catching fire. Only at stumps was he informed: head coach Chris Silverwood and media manager Danny Reuben gave him five minutes, then told his team_mates, who that morning had - like Robinson - worn anti-discrimination T-shirts on the outfield.
The Cricket Discipline Committee called the tweets "racist, sexist, disablist, Islamophobic and offensive", and banned him for eight matches (three already served, five suspended). He was fined £3,200, and had to undergo training from the Professional Cricketers' Association.
Robinson returned against India, and took 21 wickets, the most on either side. It was a nod to a future beyond James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Yet the stain of those tweets feels indelible. "I know it is always going to be there," he says.
OLIVER EDWARD ROBINSON was born in Margate, on December 1, 1993. As a two-year-old, he was gifted a bat and ball by his grandfather Rex, who along with his father, Ian, form a generational lineage at the local club. At five, Robinson was representing Thanet District Under-10. "There's a cutting I have, and the ball looks humongous in my hand," he laughs, pretending to hold a beach ball. The reason for the press coverage? He had taken a hat-trick.
A childhood infatuation became an adolescent's dream when, aged 13, he joined the Kent Academy. He started as an off-spinner, and turned to pace only at 16, after a growth spurt (he is now 6ft 5in). Still, a handful of his 320 first-class scalps are from off-breaks, and he even twirled a few overs during the Second Ashes Test at Adelaide in December. But he relished the aggression of speed. "I like to get in the battle. As a spin bowler, I found it quite hard. You can't bowl bouncers, can you?"
Kent decided against a full-time deal, but his stepfather, Paul Farbrace, then a coach at Headingley, engineered a move to Yorkshire. Jason Gillespie, who later oversaw Robinson's progress at Hove too, handed him a one-day debut in 2013, but he was sacked in 2014 for what the club described as "a number of unprofessional actions".
Essex offered a route back, but Sussex head coach Mark Robinson called with a better one. His first-class debut came at Durham in April 2015: he scored 110 from No. 9 and took four for 71. The joy of 46 wickets that summer, however, was tempered by an operation to alleviate compartment syndrome in his shins. He spent two seasons recovering, before taking 74 Championship wickets in 2018, and 63 in 2019.
Robinson's craft relies more on manipulation than miles per hour. "People started calling me 'Glenn' [McGrath]. I was thinking, lads, I don't feel I'm that good. And they were saying: 'Well, you don't miss.'" Gillespie and team-mate Steve Magoffin reinforced an appetite for off stump; Lewis and Sussex bowling coach James Kirtley polished the mechanics.
In early 2021, his reputation grew on the tour of Sri Lanka and India. By the summer, Joe Root knew exactly the qualities Robinson would bring. Underpinning it all was self-sufficiency. He developed a fascination with South Africa's Vernon Philander: "He's not very tall, he doesn't get a lot of bounce - how is he doing it?!" Between the Third and Fourth Ashes Tests - by which time he was England's leading wicket-taker, with nine at 26 - Robinson watched India's Mohammed Shami against South Africa, and tried to mimic aspects of his action in the nets.
But back to that day at Lord's. Robinson collected his thoughts, emerged from the bathroom, and said sorry to team-mates. "That was the hardest thing. I stood up and got that choked feeling straightaway. I said I hoped they'd all forgive me." By then, the ECB had drafted a statement for him to read out. "In hindsight, I probably should have gone off the cuff, and apologised from the heart."
The crowd gave him a generous reception next day. He finished the match with seven wickets, before going dark to avoid the storm. It soon arrived at his door: journalists showed up at his father's house, then at the home of his girlfriend's parents, while he was inside.
Robinson even had to message a family WhatsApp group to plead calm, following arguments on social media. "Two days after the match, I was watching the news, and the first thing was comments about me from Oliver Dowden [the culture secretary]. I realised I can't get away." He was the epicentre of a culture war; some even championed him for the tweets.
"I was living a bit of a drunk life back then," he says. "My parents had divorced, and I was going out three or four times a week with my mates, joy-riding at night, living a different life to that person I feel I am now. I understand why people were shocked.
"When the tweets resurfaced, I felt like I was different already. But I looked at myself and thought: 'Do I still have those views? Am I still that person?' I might have turned a corner four or five years ago, but have I really got better? Are there bits of those tweets that are still in me?" Reassurance came from team-mates and friends, some from backgrounds he had mocked. "It was nice I had their support. They told me that's not who I am. I was having doubts - that I was the worst human ever."
Following a break, he took five for 85 against India at Trent Bridge, then five for 65 at Headingley. The Ashes reinforced his worth, but also highlighted issues. "I know I need to be fitter to maintain spells at my ideal pace of 82, 83mph. I get that little bit more off the wicket. If I can do that consistently for five days, instead of being 80, 81 the first two days, then 78 the last few, it would mean batters don't feel they are getting as much relief."
The introspection and desire for self-improvement are in keeping with the main themes, painfully learned, from Robinson's first year as a Test cricketer.