Ollie Robinson 2.0: 6ft5in of England seamer makes a heartening return

There was a fascinating moment before the start of play on the first day of the second Test as the England pace bowlers marked out their run-ups using an ECB high performance tape measure and Ollie Robinson almost — almost — forgot to take it really seriously.

A carefree first attempt ended in a minor disaster as the end of the tape blew up in the wind. Robinson seemed about to walk off absent mindedly at one point. Did he even know the precise millimetre-grade length of his run-up, a comfortable thing that brings him rolling up to the crease like a cross channel ferry easing its way into dock? Couldn’t he just jog through it a couple of times and drop his cap?

Except, of course, this was something new. This was Robinson 2.0, the reboot: edges filed down, muscles toned, 6ft 5in of pale Sussex seamer pressed through the cookie cutter of central contract professionalism.

Robinson last played a Test eight months, nine matches and three opponents ago. There has been concern in that time, the sense of a puzzle to be solved. What is this thing anyway, with its daddish gait, perfect wrist, world-class nip and also those entropy-spells where the arm comes over slower and slower, where the action becomes a yawn?

Robinson takes his wickets at 22 in Tests. Robinson gets tired after tea. Robinson was “shamed” over his fitness by the bowling coach during an actual live Ashes Test match.

Sport can be cruel, and also pretty dumb about this kind of stuff. Robinson bowled as many overs as any other seamer in Australia, took his wickets at 25, but struggled to sustain the intensity, faded at times when he needed to bark at the sun.

The thing that comes easiest to him is nagging precision. Physical habits, the obsessive self control of the modern athlete: this has perhaps been more difficult. For a team that talks a lot about mental health and accepting imperfections it did seem a little strange to take such a public, punitive view of his difficulty in adapting.

Robinson stopped bowling for a while after that Ashes tour. Factor in the weirdness of the schedule and this was only his second first-class game since the middle of May. It was hard not to see it as a test not just of his own commitment, but also of how England have handled this slightly awkward talent, a 28-year-old who looks at one moment like a ready-made world-class seam bowler; another like a man dragged out of some Medway clubhouse, a scotch egg in one hand, towel around his waist, mumbling about having left his spikes in his mum’s car.

In the event, this was a good day for Robinson and a fine day for England’s bowlers in dismissing South Africa for 151 just after tea. It was also an excellent day for Ben Stokes in the field. He rotated his bowlers well, took some who-writes-your-scripts wickets, and has been true to his own experience in the way he has dealt with Robinson.

Some public encouragement in the build-up was followed by a fond captain’s arm in the field as Robinson bowled beautifully for little reward after taking the new ball. There was some rustiness and some maddening no-balls. But he was up to 86mph right away, bowling crisp, nibble upright wobble seam, and jagging the ball repeatedly past the edge of the two left-handed openers.

He seemed to be running in harder. Eight of his first 24 balls either zipped past or took the outside edge. His first really loose one was driven though mid off by Dean Elgar, who was flinty and gnarled as ever (his name is basically an anagram of “gnarled”) but otherwise looked scratchy.

Robinson did have Elgar caught at short leg, but had chosen that moment to overstep. His opening spell was the quickest he has bowled for England. Perhaps the best part was the effect it had on Broad, whose career is powered by mild annoyance and imagined slights, whose key mood is vindicated.

This was the first time Broad had been first change behind Robinson but he took the day by the throat, bowling full and at the stumps, taking three for 37 from 11 urgent overs and walking off with a prim, vindicated strut. Broad has been a phenomenon on this ground in recent times, the Headband Years, with 25 wickets at eleven. But he needed that spell.

There was some resistance, and a bit too much short stuff at Kagiso Rabada. Robinson picked up his only wicket with the first ball after tea, trapping Anrich Nortje on the crease. Perhaps slower, heavier, Ollie Robinson would have had three or four. Perhaps he was bowling too quickly, getting too much nip. But this was a sound and, indeed, heartening return. Robinson is something of a throwback, late to the Test stage in the late days of the Test stage. But it felt important that England brought him back safely, that this team showed a little grace and a little give; in its own way this was a kind of vindication on both sides.