After a breakthrough summer for up-and-coming Middlesex opener Sam Robson that saw him courted on both sides of the hemisphere, England ended speculation surrounding his international future by naming him in their Performance Squad to tour Australia this winter. He tells Jo Harman his choice was never in doubt.
It was an intriguing sub-plot to the main event of the summer to see an Aussie-born soon-to-be England-qualified batsman tearing it up in county cricket while Australia continued to chop and change their beleaguered batting line-up.
On the same day that the tourists were beginning a Test match at Lord’s that would end in abject humiliation for their batsmen, down on the south coast former Australia under 19 player Sam Robson was marching merrily towards a third County Championship century of the season for Middlesex. The irony of a compact opener with the technique to counter the seaming ball and the application required to play long innings scoring 166 against a strong Sussex attack while his compatriots were being bulldozered 60 miles up the road wasn’t lost on Cricket Australia and when, a month later, they announced a change in regulations that would allow dual passport holders to play domestic matches in more than one country, it was dubbed the ‘Robson Rule’.
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The rule change effectively meant Robson – whose mother is from Nottingham and father, who has run the indoor school at the SCG for the last 10 years, hails from Sydney – was free to represent both Middlesex and New South Wales while England and Australia competed for his services. The tug of war was on.
Only it wasn’t, not really. Robson’s reluctance to nail his colours to the mast had been interpreted as indecision by some, but, as the the 24-year-old tells AOC just hours after he is named in England’s Performance Squad to tour Australia this winter, his mind was already made up. “I’ve been here for six years and this is where things are for me now. England is where it’s at for me and my friends in Australia know that.”
So why not save all the speculation and pledge his allegiance to Queen and country? “He hates talking about himself and this whole summer’s been quite hard work for him because people keep asking ‘England or Australia’,” says Middlesex teammate Tim Murtagh, who spotted Robson while playing grade cricket in Sydney and set the wheels in motion for his move to the UK as an 18-year-old. “He’s embarrassed by all the attention. It wasn’t like he wasn’t stamping his colours to one flag, it was just the thought of playing international cricket was a long way off in his mind. He’s such a grounded bloke that he didn’t want to talk himself up.”
But, having broken straight into the Performance Squad a month after completing the four-year qualification period to represent England, perhaps international cricket isn’t so very far away. With 1,180 runs, he finished as the third highest scorer in Division One of the County Championship and the leading opening batsman. His defence is sound, his shot-making crisp and uncomplicated and, according to Murtagh, he’s completely unflappable at the crease. “Teams try and get under his skin and have a word with him but it’s a complete waste of time with Robbo. He’s in his own little bubble.”
Given the season you’ve had, were you expecting to be named in the England Performance Squad?
Yes and no. I’ve never been involved with these squads before and it’s all happened very quickly this year. I’m still trying to establish myself at Middlesex, that was my aim at the start of the year and I’m happy with how things have gone. But I’m really looking forward to the winter. It should be a good experience and good for my game as well. I’ve been very lucky so far to be around top players at Middlesex like Strauss, Finn, Morgan, Rogers and others. It boosts everyone else’s performance and I’m looking forward to practising around other top Test players this winter.
So Middlesex have Tim Murtagh to thank for bringing you to their attention?
I played grade cricket with Tim in Sydney when I was 17 and I’d always wanted to come to England and play cricket. Tim was my avenue for that and he got me in contact with the coaches at Middlesex. It all went from there really. I played a couple of 2nd XI games and then got signed. I love the system over here; the first year I was over we were playing matches all the time and I thought this is where I want to be. I remember turning up at Lord’s and thinking ‘It doesn’t get any better than this’. I’ve been spoiled really, being a professional cricketer playing at Lord’s, day in day out. I love living in London too. This is my sixth year and time has just flown. Initially I just came over here to improve as a cricketer and now here we are!
You completed the four-year qualification period earlier this summer but until now you’ve stopped short of fully committing to playing for England. Why was that?
I love playing cricket over here and I love the system but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I prefer to quietly go about my business and see where I end up.
Have you kept close ties with Australian cricket while you’ve been over here?
I’ve always gone back to play in Sydney every year so I’ve still sort of been part of the system because of grade cricket. New South Wales were very good to me when I was younger and I still sometimes practise in the nets there and I’ve been around the set-up a little bit. But I love being in London and playing county cricket here.
Have Cricket Australia ever contacted you to ask you to choose Australia over England?
No, definitely not. State sides have been in touch – New South Wales asked me about playing this winter – but no one has been ringing up from Australia saying come play in the fifth Test or whatever!
What does your Aussie dad think about you choosing England over Australia?
He’s always been really good. Mum and Dad have always been really supportive. Dad was over in the summer and he thinks it’s a great set-up, playing at Lord’s.
Are you expecting some stick from your mates back in Sydney?
Yeah, I might do at some point! But all my mates have been supportive so far. I’ve been here for six years and this is where things are for me now. England is where it’s at for me and my friends in Australia know that.
How would you describe yourself as a batsman?
In some ways I guess I’m a little bit old-fashioned as an opener. I try to get stuck in and be determined against the new ball, then get through and set a platform for the team. That’s always been the traditional job of an opener and [Middlesex captain and opening partner] Chris Rogers has really helped me with that. I’m tight and I value my wicket at a high price.
In Rogers and Andrew Strauss you’ve had the chance to open the batting with two of the very best in the business. What nuggets have you picked up from them?
With Strauss it was his diligent preparation before every innings, even when he was playing county games for us last year or the year before. He was first in the nets every morning and he was incredibly focused. You could tell why he had such a good Test career and why he was England captain. It might have been a county game but you got the sense he was preparing for it the same as he would if it were a Test against Australia or South Africa. As a young player it was really impressive to see him preparing like that at county level.
The thing with Buck is he’s always looking to score. He’s got a great game plan, he plays tight and he plays within his limitations, but at the same time he’s always looking to hurt the bowlers and score quickly. If the bowlers are just a little bit off with the new ball he punishes them straight away. It’s ironic because he’s not really known as a dasher, and he’s not a dasher as such, but despite being an opener in England he’s always looking to score and that’s something I’ve picked up from him.
Cook and Root could have England’s opening spots sewn up for several years. Do you think you’ve got the versatility to bat further down the order?
Yes, definitely. The great thing about opening is you’re batting against the new ball and you’re batting when it’s tough, so if you can open you can bat anywhere in the order. It can be useful to have an opener in the middle-order too. Root did outstandingly well in the middle-order before moving up to open and that kick-started his England career. Perhaps the fact he was used to facing a new ball was a factor. It is handy to have batsmen used to facing the new ball, particularly in Test matches against good attacks.
These are still early days for Robson and he’ll need another season like the one just gone if he’s to seriously challenge for an England spot in the near future but he has the hallmarks of a Test opener and where better to prove his credentials than on his old home turf this winter? With the tug-of-war-that-wasn’t now over, Australia are left rueing the one that got away as they continue their search for young batsmen with the technique and the minerals for Test cricket. Their loss could well be England’s gain.