Ollie Robinson: ‘I felt I was never going to play cricket again’

England quick is contrite about his racist tweets and with Ashes about to start he has already bowled Labuschagne and Smith

“‘I was at a point where I thought: ‘This is make or break’,” Ollie Robinson says as he describes the first of two different debuts that helped shape his transition from confusion and loss. The 29-year-old fast bowler will be one of England’s key players when they face Australia in the opening Ashes Test next Friday – but a shocking early death and a public shaming shroud those contrasting games from his past.

“I didn’t have much to lose,” Robinson says as he continues the story of his Sussex debut in April 2015. “I might have got out for nought but I had to try and put on a show and get my name back out there.”

Robinson was 21 then and, in a curious way, his youthful bravado echoes the way England currently play Test cricket. The previous summer he had been sacked by Yorkshire for his lack of professionalism and also turned down by two other counties. His cricketing future was at risk and when Sussex finally gave him a chance he came out as a No 9 batsman with his team floundering at 145 for seven.

“We were struggling on a green wicket at Durham and I’d only been at Sussex a week,” he says. “I got a few away early, built my confidence and Matt Hobden came in [at No 11]. We soon were having a laugh and, before I knew it, I was on 60 and Matt on 30.”

They set a record 10th-wicket stand of 164 for Sussex. Robinson’s 110 in 112 balls, followed by four wickets in Durham’s first innings, secured him a Sussex contract. Yet he was devastated when, less than nine months later, Hobden died suddenly in January 2016. He was 21.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Robinson says. “That night I dreamed about Matt and woke up crying. It was really tough and I spoke a lot to Matt’s mum, Emma, as we leant on each other. Matt and I had got really close. I called him Goose and he called me The Rig. We spent every day training and going for breakfast, lunch, coffee together.”

He believes Hobden would have played for England. “He was probably the best raw bowler I’d seen. He bowled 90 miles an hour, swung it both ways, had a body like a Greek god, with long hair like Zeus. Whenever I played the next few years I’d walk out thinking about Matt, which took my nerves away.”

Robinson’s next landmark debut came two years ago this week. After he had been England’s best bowler on the opening day of his first Test against New Zealand, he left the field and walked into a storm of his own making. England’s head of communications led Robinson into the shower block at Lord’s and explained that, three hours earlier, a story had broken on Twitter. A few racist and sexist tweets, by Robinson when he was 18 in 2012 and 2013, had been re-posted.

“I said, ‘are you sure?’” Robinson recalls, “because I didn’t remember the tweets at all. [He] showed them to me and I welled up and went completely silent. I was shell-shocked.”

Australia's Marnus Labuschagne drives a delivery past England's Ollie Robinson during day one of the second Ashes test at the Adelaide Oval in December 2021.
Ollie Robinson against Marnus Labuschagne, here in action during the 2021/22 series, will be a key battle in the Ashes. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/PA

Is he shocked now that he could have written such stupid tweets in a pitiful attempt to be funny? “Shocked is the right word. I was such a different person when I wrote them, driving round egging cars, being a stupid teenager. It’s no excuse but I’ve grown up a lot.” Robinson and I talk about his regret for 15 of the 90 minutes we are together and his contrition is obvious and heartfelt.

Before he faced the media he spoke to his teammates. “I apologised to the players first. I got emotional because I’d let them down so that was the hardest 10 minutes.”

The players were “very supportive” but what did Moeen Ali say when he heard that one of Robinson’s tweets had been Islamophobic?

“Mo was great and said: ‘Mate, I know that’s not the person you are. I’ll support you in whatever way you want.’ Jofra [Archer] and Chris Jordan texted me. Those guys made me feel better because they knew I wasn’t that person who wrote those tweets at 18.”

Ben Stokes did not play in that Test. “He rang me two hours after play and he said: ‘If you need anything at all, whatever time, I’m here.’ That shows what sort of person Ben is.”

Robinson bowled and batted well the next four days, showing deep resilience, but at the end of the Test he was suspended from international cricket while the ECB carried out an investigation. He found it excruciating when Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, and Boris Johnson, as the prime minister, defended him.

“That made everything a lot worse and the press turned up at my fiancee’s door. I remember having four weeks off where they were deciding what was going to happen. I felt I was never going to play cricket again. I was looking at other options, other careers. I was quite down one day and just lay in the garden, didn’t speak to anyone all day.

“But those times made me the cricketer I am now and a better person. I’ve got a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and want the world to be a great place for her. I don’t want people like me at 18 sending out tweets making it worse. I just have to try and be as good a person, and sportsman, as I can be.”

Robinson’s talent and aptitude for Test cricket has not followed a smooth trajectory. He has taken 66 wickets in 16 Tests and in the Ashes he could be even more important to England than Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. But Robinson was undermined in late 2021 by back problems in Australia when his Ashes debut saw him play in all four of England’s heavy Test defeats. Jon Lewis, England’s bowling coach then, questioned his dedication and fitness.

He and Lewis remain friends but, for Robinson, “it was tough. The back injury had reached the point where I thought: ‘I don’t know if I can keep trying to play.’ But Stokesy gave me a call and said: ‘If you can bowl long spells, you’re in my team.’

“I had that purpose and drive back and I got some injections in my back and two weeks later [the pain] had gone. I spent five weeks training hard and played [an England Lions] game at Canterbury. I bowled really well and ran in all day. Rob Key [the managing director of England’s Test team] said: ‘You look great, like a different guy.’”

Robinson’s next comeback followed in the second Test against South Africa last summer. England were 1-0 down but he helped secure a crushing win even though, as he says: “I was the most nervous I’ve been because I hadn’t played a lot of cricket, and didn’t have much confidence in my body. But I bowled nicely, we got the win and I’ve gone on without any problems.”

His quality shone in Pakistan last winter. He displayed the determination and skill of a great pace bowler who had applied lessons from his troubled past. “It was great to go to Pakistan and prove I could do it on flat pitches in hot, hostile conditions. And, winning the series 3-0, we made history as well. Everything goes back to the enjoyable environment Baz [Brendon McCullum] and Ben create.”

Australia's Scott Boland (centre) celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of India's Shubman Gill clean bowled on the second day of the World Test Championship final at The Oval.
Australia's Scott Boland (centre) is congratulated by his team-mates after taking a wicket in the World Test Championship against India. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The significance of Stokes is illustrated by his clear but compassionate treatment of Robinson. “Ben’s had his own personal problems so he’s very understanding and empathetic. When I was struggling he gave me some hard, honest words but also care and attention that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. He gave me confidence when he said: ‘Robbo, go out there and do your thing like we know you can.’”

Robinson began this season with belief and clarity surging through him. He also said on local radio that he was looking forward to giving Australia “a good hiding”. Stokes and McCullum smiled in response. “I remember Stokesy saying: ‘That’s Robbo down to a tee.’ I still want to give them a good hiding. I enjoy that pressure because Baz once said to me: ‘When a game’s going flat, can you be that guy that changes it?’ That’s what I think about now when I’m bowling. Can I do a Broady and get eight for 15? Can I be a Jimmy and get two in two balls? I’m trying to be the game changer so I’ll target their best players.”

When Marnus Labuschagne walked to the crease for Glamorgan in a county match last month, Robinson was on a roll for Sussex. “I was in a nice rhythm after a six-over spell and [his captain, Cheteshwar] Pujara said: ‘Do you want another one?’ I thought: ‘Yeah, Marnus has just come in.’”

Robinson grins at the memory of dismissing Labuschagne, ranked the world’s best Test batsman, with his first ball to him. “I had a GPS on and it told me I ran down the hill at 25.5 km/h when I’m normally at 23, 24. I charged in and it was a Test-match ball.”

Steve Smith, Australia’s talisman, played three matches for Sussex last month and Robinson says: “I didn’t know what to expect when he arrived. But the next morning I bowled him [in the nets]. He left a straight one, second ball, and we both went silent. He chucked the ball back, I caught it and walked back.”

Did it feel like a small psychological blow? “Well, I was also thinking: ‘He’s done it on purpose, trying to make me feel better than I am.’ But he was great. We shared a few Guinnesses together and he’s a really nice guy. When he left, we had a hug and he said: ‘See you in two weeks.’ All the other lads were like: ‘Ooooh, Ashes friends!’”

Robinson has another bond with Josh Hazlewood, the outstanding Australian bowler who hopes to be fit for the first Test. In 2017 they opened the bowling in a game for St George, the Sydney club. “I thought: ‘This bloke’s so down to earth,’” Robinson says. “He gave me my [club] cap and I sat next to him all day just like a little kid with his hero. I remember thinking: ‘I want to be like that – as good as he is and as nice a person.”

But, in the same way that Australia play cricket, Robinson stresses that “it’s in my personality to take on those battles against them. I want to get Labuschagne and Smith out early and give my team so much confidence.”

England’s task has been complicated by the loss of Jack Leach to injury. “He’s a fundamental part of our group, the comedian, the guy you can lean on,” he says of Leach. “Everyone loves him. I was playing golf with Jimmy when the text came from Baz and I said: ‘Oh no, Leachy’s out of the Ashes.’ We sat there, deflated for five minutes.”

But as word spread that Stokes would use his persuasive powers to convince Moeen to return to Test cricket, Robinson “messaged Mo and said: ‘See you at Edgbaston.’ He sent lots of laughing emojis.”

Two years ago Moeen showed him empathy while Robinson resolved to change and improve as a person – just as Stokes had done in his own life. “We’ve won 11 out of 13 Test matches playing our way under Stokesy,” Robinson says. “Why would we change for Australia? When that message is so clear it allows us to be free. I saw David Warner say: ‘If they’re 2-0 down let’s see if they change how they play.’ We definitely won’t. We’ll still believe we’ll win the series 3-2 because of the way we play and the confidence we have in each other.”

Robinson also knows that, after the death of Hobden and his own past shame, losing a cricket match matters little in real life. “Exactly. There’re bigger things than cricket so we’re not focused on the result. We’re focused on the process, trying to entertain, get Test cricket booming and become better people. That all matters even more than the Ashes.”


Donald McRae

The GuardianTramp

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