The continued fallout from the Ollie Robinson scandal leaves England the most distracted entering a test match since the Strauss/Pietersen 'textgate'
Credit: Adam Davy /PA
As England netted on the colts training ground behind the Hollies Stand at Edgbaston you could be forgiven for thinking it was just another Test week.
Instead the England team are under scrutiny like never before. The Ollie Robinson fallout has infected every aspect of this match. James Anderson should be revelling in playing his 162nd Test, the most by any England player. Instead he is embarrassed by a tweet sent a decade ago.
Replacing Robinson should be a straight cricketing choice between Jack Leach and Craig Overton.
But selecting Overton comes with baggage. He is the most like-for-like replacement but just how like-for-like is the problem for England given he was found guilty of telling a Pakistan-born batsman to “go back to your own f—— country” not that long ago.
Losing Robinson weakens the side, given his performance with the ball, but he could not have played this week for two reasons. Firstly, what has been lost in the debate is the mental pressure and exhaustion of Test cricket. He somehow kept his focus at Lord’s but it is easier to do so once already involved in the match. Since then a storm has whipped up around him and he has seen the effect it has had on his team-mates and family, who have been numbed by what has happened.
A week ago Robinson was a little known county cricketer, since then has been used as a vehicle to bash the ECB by the prime minister and culture secretary. Even great players would struggle to handle that pressure. Ben Stokes tried and failed when he went straight from Bristol Crown Court to a Test match against India at Trent Bridge. He was too pumped to prove a point. He needed breathing space, time to reflect away from the glare of Test cricket, and Robinson is the same. He just would not be in the right frame of mind to face a strong New Zealand side, albeit one weakened significantly by the loss of Kane Williamson with injury. The plan before the series was Robinson to play at Lord’s and Overton at Edgbaston. Both need matches before the Ashes tour later this year. It is why Olly Stone will replace Mark Wood on Thursday.
Tom Latham to replace injured Kane Williamson as captain for second test
Also the step up from domestic to international level is not just about the difference in standard. More players struggle to cope with the media glare than the step up in cricketing terms.
Secondly, Robinson’s tweets were offensive on many levels from referencing Gary Speed’s suicide, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann as well as using the n-word and being derogatory about Muslims, people with disabilities and women. They were not one-offs. They were written over more than a 12-month period. There were holes in his explanation and it has to be ascertained whether he has changed or there are more skeletons lurking. If he is in the clear then there is no need for further punishment, the public shaming has been enough. Bring him back against India.
The other tweets, involving Eoin Morgan, Anderson and Jos Buttler, were bad taste in-jokes. They will be embarrassed by them, and are likely to be sent on anti-discrimination training courses, which is where this should end. At least they were grown men responsible for their actions. The investigation of tweets by an unnamed England player when he was a child of 15 is a step too far.
Root admitted Robinson will be missed after an impressive England debut. “I think he offered a great amount of control and he managed to keep the ball moving laterally throughout both innings which is a fine skill to exploit over an 80-over period, especially at the back end with an older ball.”
This week has felt like Lord’s 2012 when the lead up to Andrew Strauss’s 100th Test was dominated by the Kevin Pietersen textgate scandal. Strauss, who never played Test cricket again, later admitted it destabilised the team. England were beaten by 51 runs, a result that flattered them.
Somehow Root has to keep his players focused. Edgbaston is their favourite ground for the vociferous support they receive and with 18,000 allowed to watch this Test as part of a government pilot they will feel more at home.
It has not always worked. England were hammered by 251 runs in their last Test here against Australia, a game dominated by Nathan Lyon. England look set to leave out Jack Leach again and have asked for another batting pitch with good carry for their young batsmen to build confidence.
New Zealand are likely to pick two left-arm seamers – Neil Wagner and the returning Trent Boult – creating rough for off spinner Root to exploit, which is why they were heading towards picking Overton over Leach last night.
Williamson’s injury is a massive blow for New Zealand. He will be replaced by Will Young, who has played just two Tests but played county cricket this summer for Durham scoring two hundreds. Mitchell Santner is also out with a finger injury. Williamson’s leadership will be missed as much as his batting. He cannily delayed shaking hands on the draw on Sunday night because he could sense England had misread the mood by blocking and not having a dart at their target. New Zealand would have had a go but England lacked the confidence to depart from their pre-plan of building innings and batting patiently.
Root bought into aggressive Test cricket not that long ago and tried to turn one-day hitters into Test cricketers. Now he has gone full circle and could not recalibrate on Sunday. He needs to be more nimble but it is hard to be light on your feet when your shoulders are weighed down by so much else.
England to stand in ‘moment of unity’ after week of ‘ugly truths’
Joe Root admitted it has been a week of “ugly truths” for England after investigations into historic tweets by a series of players were launched ahead of Thursday’s second Test against New Zealand.
England will again stand for a “moment of unity” on Thursday morning when the two teams will stand on the boundary edge for a minute wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with messages of anti-discrimination, repeating the gesture they made at Lord’s last week just hours before racists and sexist tweets by Ollie Robinson came to light.
“We’ve had to face up to some ugly truths this past week or so and there will be challenges moving forward, but the group of players we have now is very much committed to moving the game forward, to making it a better place, making it more inclusive and educating ourselves further,” said Root, the England captain.
“We’re going to have to front up to what has happened, accept it, but ultimately we want to move forward in a really positive way, to keep going on this journey we’ve started of trying to better our sport. We accept that we are not perfect and we have made mistakes, as a lot of young people have. We have to own that and be strong with that.”
The ‘moment of unity’ gesture and the t-shirts have been driven by the players in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
England (likely): Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Root, Pope, Lawrence, Bracey, Overton, Stone, Broad, Anderson.
New Zealand (likely): Conway, Latham, Young, Taylor, Nicholls, Watling, De Grandhomme, Ravindra, Southee, Wagner.
Umpires: Richard Illingworth, Richard Kettleborough.