Even in hot conditions and on flat pitches, Ollie Robinson has an eye on playing all three Tests on England’s tour of Pakistan.
At the end of a year in which his fitness troubles sent him to such a “dark place” that looking at a picture of himself shook him, and he wondered if he would ever play the game again, that represents quite a turnaround. It is an important one, too: Robinson turns 29 on the first day of the series and so should be in his prime. With James Anderson, 40, Ben Stokes and Mark Wood vulnerable to injury, and Jamie Overton raw, he needs to be the bedrock of the seam attack.
For Robinson, the first six months of this year brought blow after blow. The final Test of an Ashes series in which he admits he did not “leave it all out there” ended with his meek surrender with the bat, and public censure – that followed private rebukes – from bowling coach and confidant Jon Lewis over his professionalism.
A transformational tour of the Caribbean followed, although not in the manner he hoped for. He suffered back spasms that meant he cut a doleful figure doing laps of the boundary and when he came home, things hardly improved. Halfway through the summer, he had barely played for Sussex.
“I felt really good arriving in the Caribbean,” he told Telegraph Sport in Abu Dhabi last week. “I was bowling my 10th over in the warm-up game, and had a back spasm. My back foot landed, and my back just crippled. It was a very strange feeling. I hobbled off, sat down, and was sat there for 10 minutes, I couldn’t move. That started the decline really. I couldn’t get my body right for months.
“On that tour, I saw a picture of myself, and thought ‘it’s no wonder you didn’t feel good. You didn’t even look great’.
“That [picture] was a real eye-opener, and led to honest reflection, because when it’s you in the mirror day after day you don’t see the change. I might have felt in good shape, but it hit me hard.
“By the time I left the tour I saw another picture and had already lost a few kilograms. That was the start of getting back into shape.”
A better mindset, perhaps, but his body would not allow him to put his words into action for months yet.
“I remember when I got my second back spasm [in early summer], I thought there must be something wrong,” he says. “The scans were coming back clear which was weird. We kept getting different types of scans. There was nothing more than a bit of wear and tear.
“I had injections to numb the pain and get back to properly training back to full fitness. There were times in the summer where I thought I couldn’t play again. I was talking to my old man about what I could do if I didn’t play cricket. It was getting to that stage. I think England always knew it wasn’t going to get there. But when you are in a dark place you can’t see that shining light. It was tough in the middle of summer.”
His fortunes would not improve until late July, when a strong Championship performance for Sussex led to an England Lions call, then two excellent Tests against South Africa to end the summer. He took 12 wickets and arrives in Pakistan with 51 at under 20 in 11 Tests.
“2021, and making my debut was pretty special,” he says. “The comeback felt even more special. The fact I had to work so hard to get back to even playing cricket, let alone doing well on the Test scene, was really rewarding.”
So it appears a rather different Robinson has arrived in Pakistan than went to Australia a year ago. Robinson took 11 wickets at 25.5, respectable figures, in the Ashes but flagged because his fitness was not up to it, as Lewis pointed out.
“I look back on Australia, and I feel I didn’t leave it all out there,” he says. “I thought I was ready for it, but looking back I wasn't. I had only experienced Australia with the Lions, but you don’t have 90,000 people, all the pressure. I think that’s what I wasn’t ready for. I know if I went back I’d be 10 times better than I was.”
At the heart of Robinson’s turnaround has been his approach to fitness. He says “people laughed” when he described himself as a “gym freak” in August, but he is serious. By every measure – skinfold testing, time trials and so on – Robinson is in better shape, but he looks it, too.
“When I think about what I used to be like compared to now, I go to the gym almost every day,” he says. “It’s not like I’m going three times a day, but I have enjoyed it and it’s become more of a hobby than a chore. I used to see it as a chore. I would do my cricket, then I’d have to go to the gym. Now I am keen to do both. Coming out here, it’s been the intensity of the training. You know you are going to get hot conditions, and lose more fluids than you do back home. It’s stepping up that intensity, running a bit longer, longer gym sessions.
“I am [ready to be the workhorse]. If you are not in that mindset it will be a tough tour. I have been preparing for that, bowling longer spells, two spells every training session. Today I bowled nine overs in 45 minutes. I am prepared for it, mentally and physically. I am in a better place. I am ready to play all three.”
Having spent two weeks preparing in the UAE with the Lions, what will the approach of this classically English seamer be to pitches that are likely to be unresponsive?
“I go back to Glenn McGrath,” he says. “It’s being pinpoint with everything you do. In training, if I’ve hit middle and off I’ve been annoyed, because I know in Pakistan that can be four, because the ball doesn’t do much laterally. I have been extra precise on fourth to off stump every ball I bowl. It’s all about accuracy, and then any little movement out of the Kookaburra.”
This time, at least, Robinson is giving himself a chance.