For England’s Test hopefuls the start of the County Championship season offers a simple, if slightly vague, formula for realising their dream: make runs, take wickets, get noticed by the national selectors.
Ollie Robinson, the Sussex seam bowler, is among a handful of current players to have progressed considerably further along that path. Having spent the best part of five months over the past year in bio-secure international squad bubbles, he has given those in and around the England set-up a clear idea of what he can do. In turn, they have given him clarity on where he should aim next: to make his debut in the two-Test series against New Zealand in June.
And, with the start of the LV= Insurance County Championship just a week away, he feels a maiden Test cap is close.
“They’ve said to me, ‘look towards the New Zealand series’,” Robinson says. “That is my aim at the moment – start the season well with Sussex and hopefully I can get in that squad and in the XI.”
When the ECB named a 55-man return-to-training group last May in the first major step towards staging a full international season in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Robinson was there, a deserving inclusion after a seven-wicket display for England Lions against Australia A and a haul of 137 wickets – the most of any seamer – over the previous two Championship seasons.
Robinson earned his maiden call-up to the senior squad ahead of the second Test against West Indies in July as England sought to manage the workloads of James Anderson and Mark Wood. He was among five players released when the side for the third Test was named and, a week later, took eight wickets, including three in 14 balls during a second-innings five-for, as Sussex won their opening match of the Bob Willis Trophy against Hampshire.
Just over a week after that, Robinson was back in the England squad ahead of the second Test against Pakistan and he subsequently travelled as a reserve on the recent tours of Sri Lanka and India.
“I feel a lot better for the experience,” Robinson says. “India was pretty tough and pretty eye-opening in terms of the conditions out there and what to expect as a Test cricketer so that’s probably going to stand me in better stead moving forward.
“I have learned a lot skill-wise and off the field as well. Jimmy [Anderson] is 39 now and is probably the fittest he has ever been. Seeing him work every day is what has stuck with me – how well he trains and how hard he works. Making that a habit and not just an England thing, England have drilled that into me, that they want me to work just as hard for Sussex as I did with them. If I want to have a long international career that’s what I want to do for the rest of my career.”
A tall bowler, whose disciplined line and length is relentless, Robinson has achieved some outstanding figures, like his career-best 8 for 34 against Middlesex in 2019, part of a 14-wicket return for the match.
“I just need to get that breakthrough in a Test match or series to cement my place for the plane to Australia”
Bowling in tandem with Craig Overton – the pair shared eight second-innings wickets evenly between them – Robinson helped lead England Lions to a nine-wicket victory over Australia A at the MCG in February 2020. Combined with his three wickets from the first innings, Robinson signalled that he was on track to take the next step should an opportunity arise as it did for Dan Lawrence, who scored a century in that same match and played the first five Tests of his career on the recently completed tours of Sri Lanka and India.
While this English summer is hugely important to his ambitions of earning a place in the Ashes squad at the end of the year, Robinson feels somewhat liberated from putting pressure on himself.
“It’s massive,” he says. “Performance-wise maybe not as much as in previous years. I feel England can sort of see and know what I do. They have watched me for a few years in terms of fitness and being around the England group.
“I just need to get that breakthrough in a Test match or series to cement my place for the plane to Australia really. That is the most important thing for me this year.”
If he does secure an Ashes berth, Robinson feels he already has good experience of the conditions, having played two seasons of grade cricket before the Lions tour.
“I feel like my experiences Down Under are good enough to perform if called upon, even if I didn’t make my debut this summer,” he says. “I think that Lions tour was a really strong tour for everyone involved. Dan Lawrence was on it as well. We’ve both spoken and said if we are selected we almost know we can do well already.”
While the Ashes are a big draw, Robinson is prepared to take his chance, wherever it comes. If that means more time sequestered in bio-secure environments, so be it.
“I’m hungry to play any series, any game,” Robinson says. “I feel like if the Ashes is the only thing you’re looking at you’re not in the right mindset. You should want to play for England no matter who you’re playing against or what series it is. Bubble life is tough but there are tougher things – it’s not the hardest thing in the world.”
In the meantime, Robinson will spearhead the attack at Sussex, who open their campaign on April 8 against Lancashire at Old Trafford after the fixture was moved north because a plague of bug larvae damaged the Hove outfield.
LV= Insurance is the new title partner of the County Championship. The season begins on April 8 with champions Essex taking on Worcestershire. For more information visit lv.com/gi/cricket
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo