“I’ve become a bit of a gym freak,” Ollie Robinson said with a big smile, half an hour after England’s innings win against South Africa in the second Test at Old Trafford.
Robinson had just picked up three of the last five wickets with the new ball as South Africa’s resistance finally folded on the third afternoon like a hastily put up tent at a festival. Ben Stokes, who had pushed for Robinson’s recall, was like a proud father at a wedding during the post-match press conference, stamping him with the words “new start” and praising his speed and new-found stamina.
“I wake up in the morning and I’m like: ‘I’ve really got to go to the gym,’” Robinson says. “It’s become a bit of a habit, whereas before it was a chore … the running three times a week, the gymming three times a week, it’s just ingrained in me now, which hopefully will help for years to come. It’s just great to be back and that winning feeling – you just can’t beat it.”
Since his England debut last June almost all aspects of Robinson’s personality have been squeezed through the wringer. First, there was the eight-match ban (five of them suspended) and the hefty fine after racist tweets made as a teenager came to light during Robinson’s Test debut against New Zealand at Lord’s.
He was recalled for the four Tests against India, then four Tests on the Ashes horror jamboree – where the England fast-bowling coach, Jon Lewis, told the media during the Hobart Test that Robinson (who had just picked up a back spasm) needed to get fit quick if he wanted to play Test cricket.
“It’s not easy but we’re an honest group,” Robinson said, looking back on the winter. “I took that on the chin and took it as a wake-up call as well. In the last six months and when times have got tough I’ve just used that as a drive to try and keep positive.
“I think people don’t realise that me and Jon go back quite a long way. He was my bowling coach at Sussex for three, four years. So we do have that honest relationship.”
Injury then kept him out of the West Indies tour and appearances in the County Championship for Sussex were limited by a plethora of health problems from trouble with his teeth to food poisoning and then a bout of Covid. But an impressive performance for the England Lions not only got him back in the Test squad for the South Africa series but persuaded Stokes to give him the new ball at Old Trafford and break up the long-standing Broad‑Anderson partnership.
It came as a complete surprise to Robinson. “I got told 10 minutes before we were going out that I was taking the new ball and then got the nod as we walked on to the field. I was buzzing because I feel that’s my strength — making the batsman play as much as possible with the new ball. So it was a nice confidence booster from Stokesy and Baz [Brendon McCullum] as well.
“I think I read it was the first time since 2013 [that Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson had not taken the new ball together when both were playing]. But Stokesy said to me: ‘Don’t worry about that. Do your thing. Don’t strive too much to take wickets, just bowl how you bowl.’ And that confidence from him is something that I haven’t had in the past.”
Robinson finished the Test with five wickets and the captain’s words warming his milky cheeks. And the relationship with Stokes appears to be a really warm one.
“I spoke to Ben quite a lot in depth,” says Robinson. “When he first started international cricket he wasn’t in the shape he is now and I spoke to him about how he got there – mentally, physically, the lot. And he really helped me in that stage of building back to this point today. Along with the England medical team and everyone behind the scenes, they really helped me. I’m not there yet, I’m not the finished article at all but we’re well on the way of getting there hopefully.”
There are two other players in the side who provide instant motivation: the walking wicket machines, Broad and Anderson.
“Watching those two is so inspirational for me. That’s how I want to be, I want the crowd cheering my name and that’s what I’m driving to do. I had a point today when I was fielding at mid‑off and I thought I don’t want to do this for 18 months. I want to do this for five, six years and I feel more driven today than I did at the start of my career and I feel in such a good headspace now, that after this week’s game I can drive on and push on a lot more.”
With 44 wickets at just over 20 after 10 Tests, and with fitness starting to match his skill level, he has made a huge step in the right direction.