Ind vs Eng – Ollie Robinson in spotlight again after Brendon McCullum reveals Ranchi fitness issue

As England nursed the collective disappointment of their series defeat, head coach Brendon McCullum defended Ollie Robinson after a tough first outing in India. But Robinson finds himself at another juncture in a Test career only in its third year, with questions remaining about his robustness.

Robinson had been primed for a pivotal role during the backend of this five-match series, and England pulled the cord for the fourth Test in Ranchi after impressive showings in the nets. The selection did not pay off.

Despite starting the match with a maiden Test fifty, which helped propel England to a first innings of 353, Robinson disappointed with the ball. His average speed was in the late 70s mph – at one point, he dipped into the 60s – and there was nowhere near the level of incisiveness that 76 Test wickets at 22.92 show he can provide. He also bowled six no-balls, continuing a difficult relationship with that front line.

Robinson sent down just 13 overs in the match, all of them in the first innings, before dropping Dhruv Jurel on 59, which allowed India an extra 41 runs in their reply. He was subsequently hidden in the field, and went unused in the second innings as England tried in vain to defend a target of 192. It was a chastening return to action after almost eight months.

Speaking after the match, Ben Stokes said Robinson was fit to bowl and that a spinning track was the reason he was not utilised. But considering he has previously shown excellence on a variety of surfaces, along with his self-stated desire for the heat of the battle, it felt like a loss of faith from the England captain towards a player he had seemingly coaxed out of a funk in his first summer as Test captain.

McCullum, however, revealed Robinson was carrying an injury he picked up while batting, which explains his listless spell with the ball: “He actually twinged his back while batting in the first innings, which is why in those initial couple of spells, he was down on pace. We saw the following day when his back improved a little bit his pace got up to where it normally is.”

The head coach went on to vouch for Robinson, whose last competitive match was the summer’s third Ashes Test at Headingley – where his involvement was curtailed by a back spasm – but seemed at a loss to explain how such a well-planned selection had backfired.

“I don’t think it was too soon, it was seven months since his last Test so if anything, it’s probably too long between,” McCullum said. “Everything he did leading into the Test match suggested we’d see not just the Ollie Robinson we’d seen previously but a better version of it.

“For one reason or another it didn’t quite work out for him and obviously he’s not just as disappointed as everyone else, he’s the most disappointed out of everyone. Our job is to make sure we get around him and make sure we give him as much support and confidence to be able to go again when the next time arises. It’s just sport right? You have great expectations and sometimes you’re not quite able to deliver.”

The player himself seemed primed for a big impact in India, arriving fitter and raring to make amends for a disappointing three Tests against Australia last summer. He has trained well throughout but there remains a sense he could give more.

Amid a sea of multi-year central contracts, Robinson’s 12-month deal was aimed at motivating him to show he was worthy of a longer-term investment in the next cycle. Now a player who was supposed to replace Stuart Broad – even usurping Broad at points during his first 18 months as a Test cricketer – may find himself further down the pecking order, though McCullum suggested he retains his faith.

“It’s a tough game for him no doubt and he’s hurting a lot. We’ve all seen Robbo bowl better than what he did and he’ll be the first to admit that. We’ve just got to get around him and make sure he chisels out a few of those things that didn’t work well this week. We know he’s a very good bowler. His record suggests he’s got talent and it’s just making sure that we can release the talent so he can get to the levels he wants to get to.

“We know how skilled he is and we know his high release point and ability to move the ball off the seam and the skills he possesses are good enough for this level. We’ve just got to make sure we find a way to get the best out of him.”

England are not blameless. They know he is a bowler who needs overs to be fighting fit, especially considering the lengthy gap between appearances.

The tourists opted against warm-ups and engaged in what was a hugely positive pre-season camp in Abu Dhabi. But in hindsight, it would have been beneficial to get Robinson time in the middle, which could have come with England Lions. Their third match against India A in Ahmedabad started the day before the second Test in which James Anderson played as the lone quick in a spin-heavy attack.

The management were also blindsided ahead of the tour when Robinson announced a new podcast with his partner, Mia Baker, a golf influencer. The pair have recorded episodes throughout the tour and, while largely innocuous, England, who exercise a degree of creative control over the extra-curricular activities of their contracted players, have been irked by some of the content, particularly when Robinson mentioned the ECB had initially made an error with his visa application. The revelation came at a time when the governing body was scrabbling around to sort Shoaib Bashir’s visa issue, which resulted in the Somerset offspinner arriving a week late, missing the first Test.

The sixth episode, released this week, in which Robinson discussed the team’s mid-series break in Abu Dhabi, has subsequently been removed.

Whether Robinson plays the fifth Test in Dharamsala remains to be seen. Conditions more amenable to seam suggest he could get a shot at redemption, though it seems likely England will stick with Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley along with Anderson, who is two away from 700 career wickets.

One guarantee McCullum did offer was Jonny Bairstow will earn his 100th Test cap. It has been a challenging series for the 34-year-old, but scores of 38 and 30 on a tough pitch in the last Test has McCullum believing Bairstow will mark the occasion in style.

“Yes he’ll be playing his hundredth Test. We expect a good Jonny. Jonny loves a milestone too. He won’t shy away from that. He’ll play. It’ll be really emotional for him.

“Everyone knows Jonny’s story and as you guys will know he is quite an emotional character at times and big milestones like that do mean a lot to him. It’ll be a really emotional time for him and we look forward to sharing it with him.”

The majority of the squad headed to Bangalore on Tuesday morning to get their golf fix. A smaller group – including Stokes – will make their way to a resort in Chandigarh on Wednesday, with the only concrete plan a trip to the cinema to watch Dune 2. They will meet back up together in the foothills of the Himalayas next Monday, ahead of the start of the concluding Test on March 7.

While England will look to take a creditable 3-2 scoreline home, McCullum hopes it will be the start of a new, more ruthless chapter for his charges. Having spurned opportunities in the Ashes and now again here, the time has come to learn from those mistakes.

“We weren’t quite good enough when it mattered – or they were better, to be honest, than us being not quite good enough. Against Australia, we had our chances and weren’t quite able to get across the line. This team is still developing as a team. We’re a good cricket team. I think we’ve got the opportunity to be a really good cricket team.

“There’s times in games where we haven’t quite screwed down on our method just yet. I still think sometimes we get outside the element of what needs to be done in the moment… or we have too much noise in our mind, so we need to find a way to be really totally present when those times arrive, identify that this is a crucial moment in the game, and try and strip away all the external stuff and just make a decision, and make it work.

“If we do that, I think we’ll see this team go to the next level. We’re going good. We’ve lost this series and we didn’t win the Ashes – but we’re a better cricket team than we were 18 months ago. And we’ve got the opportunity in the next 18 months to do some pretty special shit.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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