Ollie Robinson’s off-broadway return shows his readiness for the bigger stage

South Africans 282 for 6 (Zondo 86*, van der Dussen 75, Overton 4-48, Robinson 2-56) vs England Lions

You have to go back to March 3 this year for Ollie Robinson‘s last wicket in an England shirt.

While “only” a warm-up match as part of an England XI, it had a multiplier effect on the noises around him. Talk of needing to improve his fitness morphed from concern to annoyance after back spasms restricted him to just 9.3 overs in the first innings and nothing in the second. Some unflattering photos of his physique sharpened criticism of his professionalism.

Five months on, back in an England shirt, albeit as an England Lion in a match South Africa insisted against giving first-class status, he finished day one at Canterbury with 2 for 56, with 19 overs in an off-broadway return that spoke of readiness for the bigger stage. As one of the 14-man squad picked for the first two Tests against the Proteas, this run-out against a strong set of tourists – certainly their full complement of batters on this opening day – was one of reassertion rather than reassurance.

Off the back of a Championship outing for Sussex against Nottinghamshire a fortnight ago – 36.1 overs bowled in the match, 9 for 110 taken – this was more a continuation of his recovery from a frustrating start to the summer. He is unlikely to play the first Test at Lord’s (starting next Wednesday) but will surely be in the reckoning for the second at Emirates Old Trafford which follows three days after. The travails of more back issues, dental ailments and a bout of Covid-19 looked behind him as he maintained pace and threat throughout a day that saw a South Africa XI-and-then-some finish on 282 for 6 after Dean Elgar won the toss and opted for time in the middle.

As it happens, the biggest threat to Robinson adding to the nine Tests he has played already was Craig Overton. The Somerset quick – built similarly but wired differently as a bowler – was outstanding throughout, taking 4 for 48 from 21 overs so far. All were taken by the time South Africa were reeling on 129 for 5 when Ryan Rickelton was caught one-handed by Will Jacks at third slip. A partnership of 129 between Rassie van der Dussen (75) and Khaya Zondo, who remains unbeaten on 86, clawed things back.

It was apt the reassumption of Robinson’s international career would begin in earnest at Canterbury, where his career began. Margate-born, educated just a 22-minute walk from the Spitfire Ground at King’s School, he joined Kent at the age of 13 as an off-spinner before embracing a growth spurt at 16 and moving to seam-up. This was the first time he has played in the “home team” at this ground since a second XI match back in May 2013. The opponents were Yorkshire, for whom he would make his first professional appearance later that summer. The journey back to this point, one of great success, has featured some notable lows. This is undoubtedly the rise from the latest one.

Robinson opened the bowling from the Nackington Road End before being replaced by Overton – two of three players (Harry Brook is the other) in this XI who will meet up with the Test squad next week. He did as he always has in a Test career that, for all the revisionism, can’t do down 39 wickets at 21.28 in matches against New Zealand, India, and away to Australia.

He used his height to good effect, either to send deliveries through to wicketkeeper (and captain) Sam Billings at chest height, or hit the splice – all off more or less the same patch of green-tinged pitch. His work with the first new ball on Thursday – of five, six and three-over spells – brought him the wicket of opener Sarel Erwee (42) with a delivery that nipped away and bounced a little more, finding an edge off the settled left-hander for a smart low catch by Ben Duckett at second slip.

Most instructive was the fourth and final spell as he had first dibs with second new ball. Rassie van der Dussen’s middle stump was taken out – perhaps via an inside edge – and, on another day, could have had Zondo lbw for 84 when the right-hander was squared up and struck on the back pad. To have troubled two set batters in such fashion at the end of full-on day in the sun, spoke of a persistence some grew to doubt across Robinson’s nine Tests so far.

That ninth at Hobart, punctuated by Robinson having to leave the field with back spasms, led bowling coach Jon Lewis going public with the need for the seamer to improve his fitness. Though jarring to some, it was not to Robinson, who appreciated his spells in the latter half of Tests were not of the same intensity as those at the start.

Lewis was present to cast an eye over Robinson, along with Test head coach Brendon McCullum who arrived in the UK over the weekend. Overton, in the cordon when Robinson was bowling, was impressed by the way his team-mate “trucked in” given his recent return to red ball cricket.

“That spell at the end was almost his best spell of the day,” confirmed Overton. “Which was pretty good to see, and means he is backing it up which is what you need going into a Test match week. I think he’ll be pretty pleased – he might be a bit stiff in the morning but I think we’ll all be a bit stiff.”

No doubt Overton’s work helped push Robinson along. Though this match will not move the dial when it comes to the statistics that matter, it was never more intense than when Overton had the Dukes in his hand. Essex’s Sam Cook was desperately unlucky to have nothing to show for his 21 overs, which conceded 51, and Derbyshire’s Sam Connors (0 for 57 from 13), while impressively sharp, is still rough around the edges. But the intensity in the field was evident throughout, and Overton was very much the driver.

Having missed out on selection at Headingley against New Zealand to twin brother, Jamie, the motivation to put himself forward as the best bowling alternate – a case helped by his batting – was abundantly clear. As for how he stacks up next to Robinson, there is as much mutual respect as healthy rivalry between the pair. Overton, for one, would like to see them operate in tandem at the highest level as they did here and on previous occasions for the Lions.

“We’re probably similar bowlers really,” said Overton. “He gets a bit tighter and hits the stumps probably a bit more than what I do. But realistically, we’re both six-foot-five bowlers that like to hit the surface a little bit more than the other bowlers. So we’re always competing but I think that’s natural in sport: you need those battles sometimes to get you going.

“We seem to get the best out of each other. We’ve bowled quite a bit together, and one time in Australia we both got six and seven in a game and bowled pretty well for the Lions at times when we have done it. I think we enjoy doing it. Hopefully we get the chance to do it for England.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo

(With Inputs from ESPN)

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