The rise of Kent's Ollie Robinson: Growing up, keeping wicket, England Lions tours and namesakes
NICK FRIEND: Robinson is relaxed and terrific company, still buzzing on a mix of adrenalin and jetlag as he looks back on a rewarding winter. He is a cricketer moving up in the world, less than two years on from his first-class debut
The question comes with an apology and is greeted with a knowing chuckle. Ollie Robinson is well aware that this quirk of humanity will follow him around.
There are two of him: one at Kent, another at Sussex. Both were christened as Oliver Robinson, both were born on December 1 – albeit in different years, both came through Kent’s academy and, over the winter, both were on an England Lions tour. In the single game they played together – a rain-affected draw with a New South Wales XI, it happened: Ryan Hackney: ct OG Robinson, b OE Robinson.
For now, the Kent version is sat in Boisdale, a Scottish-themed bar in Belgravia, where the pleasant hum of jazz music offers just the right kind of backdrop to this meeting.
“It’s a bit weird,” laughs the 21-year-old wicketkeeper of his namesake. “I didn’t really know him, but you’re playing against each other and you know you’re both thinking the same thing.
“He’s a legend, a really good lad; I spent a lot of time with him in Australia. It’s funny – the amount of times I get tagged in his stuff; I think even now my PCA picture on the app is him.
“I was playing a club game once for Sidcup and another team called up and had a go at us because they were saying I’d played for someone else. I was like: ‘What? What do you mean?’ He’d played for someone against another team and they thought it was me. Obviously, it wasn’t. I’d played that day for Sidcup. And then we looked at it and it was like – same name, same birthday. That’s a bit weird.”
Unusual? Certainly. The reason for sitting down for a chat? Less so. We are talking in simpler times – not even a fortnight ago, but before any of what has happened since had been properly contextualised. Robinson is only just back from Australia and preparing to fly out with his Kent teammates to Potchefstroom for a pre-season tour that, a week later, will be cut short; this conversation interrupts a rare date afternoon in a busy winter.
The jazz feels suitable. Robinson is relaxed, jovial and terrific company, still buzzing on a mixture of adrenalin and jetlag as he looks back on a landmark period of personal success. He is a cricketer moving up in the world, less than two years on from his first-class debut.
“It was like the third day of the tour and I stepped onto the coach,” he recalls. “It was a long drive to the ground and I remember just thinking: ‘There’s a lot of good players on this trip.’ There were a lot of Test cricketers, which is great to be around in that environment – learning off them, speaking to Dom Sibley about batting, Keaton Jennings as well. They’ve all been there now – they’re all Test cricketers.”
Robinson only played a single game, with Gloucestershire’s James Bracey keeping through the remainder of the series. Tom Moores had initially been part of the squad as well, but injury saw him head home to be replaced by Worcestershire’s Ben Cox.
Barring a trip to Antigua with Kent, this was his first experience of proper touring: city to city, airport to airport.
Robinson made his England Lions debut in Australia during a milestone tour
And in the annals of England Lions excursions, it will rank among the most successful; they went through unbeaten, a young group finding red-ball success on an old-school premise. Against a Cricket Australia XI, they made 613 for 8 batting first, adding 428 against Australia A. Lions tours can be complex – the ultimate aim not always clear in the past.
“We had a meeting at Loughborough before we went and the whole idea of it was basically about how we were going to win,” Robinson says. “How do you win in Australia? We went through the stats from the past – I think we’ve won four Tests there in the last however many years. There’s a blueprint – you bat for long periods of time, you bat first, you bat big, you get 600 and you bowl them out twice. It’s hard work but that’s how you’ve got to do it.
“It’s all about occupying the crease; as a bowler, it’s about bowling 25 overs per day. I think the main aim of the trip is to win, but it’s about development as well. I believe you develop more through winning. If you play to win, you’re there as a team.”
That Robinson was involved at all – in a group featuring seven capped internationals – says much for his own progress in his first full year on the circuit. He played three times in the County Championship as a specialist batsman in 2018, before taking advantage of a shoulder injury to Sam Billings in 2019 and impressing with the gloves in his absence.
On last season, he speaks superbly – perhaps with greater poise than many might display at his age. It was two years ago that Robinson was left out of England’s Under-19 World Cup squad – a group including Tom Banton, Will Jacks, Harry Brook, Ethan Bamber and Liam Banks, all of whom have gone on to play for their counties. You get the sense that the blow has hardened him.
Did it hurt? He doesn’t hide the pain in his expression. “It’s the be all and end all at the time,” he says. “It was tough, but I think it spurred me on. It was like: ‘Right, I’m going to show you that you made a mistake in not picking me.’ That type of thing. Some people can give up and not want to go again, but the way I like to see it is as a chance to prove them wrong – have a step back and then go again.”
Did it make him feel as though that was him done, that he wouldn’t make it? “I think so,” he adds, with an honest smile. “That’s it. I’m not good enough.
“At the same time, a lot of people don’t play for England at under-19 level. A lot of people who are unbelievable now didn’t. For people coming through, if you don’t get picked then, it’s not the end of the world. But it is nice to have that, just to put on the England shirt at any level is quite prestigious.”
Since then, there have been two first-class centuries: the first a moment of joy – an outer-body experience to an extent; the second both better and more important for his own clarity of mind. That, at least, is how Robinson recalls them, coming in successive red-ball appearances against Warwickshire and Yorkshire.
“I think the second one was best,” he explains. “The first one – I don’t want to say that anyone can get a hundred, but you see people make a hundred. It’s knowing that you can do it again and can back it up again. That’s a better feeling; I had to work harder for the second – the first one you’re kind of not really thinking about it, you’re just batting. And then suddenly, you look up and you’re on 80. But to do it again is the crucial part; if you can back it up, that’s when you know you can do this.”
They were the highlights of a summer that have left him feeling established – and not – in a young, likeable Kent unit. Much will depend on whether Billings opts to take the gloves, but Robinson was one of five ever-presents in a side that finished fourth on its return to Division One after being expected in many quarters to struggle.
“Obviously, I want to keep,” he stresses. “I feel like I’ve put my name in the hat now, so I have to back it up again this year. If I do that, then I’ll feel much more settled in myself – I’m confident and happy to play as a batsman, but it’s that feeling of knowing you can do it again.
“People are going to have more plans against you this year; they’re going to have a lot more footage. You almost get away with it in your first year; nobody has got any footage, no one knows what you do, where you score your runs.”
Robinson's two first-class centuries have come against Warwickshire and Yorkshire
A waiter walks over to remove an empty coffee cup, before conversation takes a nuanced turn. So much has changed for Robinson in such a short space of time that it seems a pertinent question: did he think he would make it?
“I don’t think you look at that at the time,” he reflects, then pausing for thought. He has been reminiscing of days spent at under-19 level playing against India’s Prithvi Shaw – now a Test cricketer. We have touched on Zak Crawley, only a year older than Robinson. Both are examples of how much is possible in a short period. He thinks back to his first professional contract in September 2017 and signing on at the academy three years earlier.
“At the time, it is literally massive,” he continues – he has been part of the Kent system since he was 11. “For me, I saw it as such a prestigious thing. It sounds stupid, but you see people with the Kent badge and ‘academy’ written underneath, someone like Ryan Davies.
“I’d look at him and see him in his academy kit. I’d just be like: ‘That looks amazing. I want that.’ As you go up as well, the next goal is that same feeling. When you get picked as an 11-year-old, it’s great – you’re happy with that. And then you go up to the academy and it’s brilliant. Then, there’s that relief. But then there’s a next level – I think that’s the same in all forms up to Test level, I guess.
“It’s all you’re working towards. I missed a lot of school through playing cricket – I missed a whole month during my first year of A-Levels. I went to Antigua when I wasn’t on the staff at all at Kent but was part of the academy.”
Was that a gamble? “I remember sitting down with mum and she was like: ‘Look, you’ve got to do it.’ She said I could always go back to education if I needed to, but I couldn’t come back to cricket – you’ve got one shot at this, really.”
Robinson is living his dream; there is something quite joyful about the way in which he talks of Kent – as a youngster in love with his surroundings. The culture of a group moulded by Billings and Matt Walker has instilled an attitude “that gets you up when you’re down”.
And then there is Darren Stevens, who made his first-class bow a year before Robinson was born. His eyes light up at the mention of the allrounder. “Unbelievable,” he smiles, sitting speechless for a moment. “At the start of the year, people would be like: ‘Darren on flat wickets, he might go around the park here.’
“And then he got a five-wicket haul at every Test ground. I don’t know how he does it. People just kick them or leave straight ones – I don’t know how they do it. He’s a legend of the game, a proper legend.
“He’s probably one of the hardest to keep to because you have to stand pretty close and, if he gets it right, he’s got a little bit of zip about him where it kicks on. As a slip cordon, we almost try to go flatter rather than a stagger, so we have a bit more time. He can be hard work; he wobbles it as well.”
It had been announced in July that he would leave the club at the end of the season, only for the 43-year-old to string together an outrageous run of form that convinced Kent to keep him on.
“That Yorkshire game was a joke,” Robinson adds, shaking his head. Stevens would make 237 from 225 balls, having come to the crease at 39 for five.
“I’ve never seen anything like it – some of the most remarkable cricket I’ve ever seen. I chatted to (Yorkshire batsman) Tom Kohler-Cadmore about it with the Lions from their point of view. They came back at lunch all buzzing. Then they came in at tea and nobody said a word.
“It was a good watch – quite an intense watch though – because you thought he was going to get out every ball!”
He is equally effusive in his praise of Billings, a man who “cares so much about Kent cricket” and “is brilliant to chat to and keep with”. In a sense, he should be the perfect guide for a youngster following in his footsteps.
Robinson finds himself in a curious subsection of English cricket; the wicketkeeping universe is an intriguing place. Arguably, the stocks have rarely been so well filled. Beyond the three-way fight for the gloves at national level, he is the youngest – and, by his own admission, the furthest down – of the chasing pack.
“Obviously, you’ve got Ben Foakes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow,” he acknowledges, “but behind them there’s a broad group of people. You have to want to be the next person – I think that would be my way in, which is obviously a long way off.”
The Lions tour gave him the chance to work with Bruce French – “an absolute guru and literally the most amazing person”, who has long been lauded as one of the best in the business. The duo forged a bond on their travels, with the mentor taking his apprentice rock-climbing on one occasion. French has worked with Matt Prior and Foakes, and Robinson is happy to admit to watching and admiring both.
“I liked how Prior kept,” he explains, “but you look at Foakes – he’s the best. Good to watch. I think that’s pretty common knowledge – he’s the best at the moment. He’s just a pure keeper; he nails the basics, which allows him to do everything else. You look up to him as someone you aspire to be like – for me anyway. That’s what I aim to be.”
Robinson was left out of England's squad for the Under-19 World Cup in 2018
It is hardly news to suggest that keeping wicket is a challenging role, and even more so for a youngster making his way in the game, coming into four-day cricket on the back of a diet of shorter games.
That is what Robinson has faced; he confesses to finding it difficult at first – taking the gloves comes with setting the tone. Stepping into a side with the experience of Joe Denly, Heino Kuhn and Stevens at its core, it was – at first – a daunting gig, even more so when replacing the club captain in the role.
“I remember keeping against Somerset in my first game and dropping the first nick,” he laughs. “I was like: ‘Here we go.’ Then, I didn’t drop one until the last game of the year, but it is tough. The second game we had against Warwickshire, we went back to back – they followed on, so we did something like 230 overs. I remember the third day; I actually couldn’t walk.
“My hips and groin had just totally given up on me. It’s like anything. If you train for it, you’re more prepared for it. If I did it now, I think it would be fine.
“I find it harder in T20 cricket in terms of trying to create energy because in four-day cricket, it’s pretty quiet at the ground so you can shout a lot more. Whereas at Lord’s last year in the T20, I remember shouting and just thinking: ‘No one can actually hear me here.’
“You have to do it with your body language more – the way you catch it and the way you move around. You have a lot of quiet keepers who don’t really say much, but they speak at the right time. It’s not just about shouting rubbish – people who literally just want to say something. It’s about saying meaningful stuff that’s actually going to help.
“Sometimes, you shout stuff and think: ‘Why did I say that?’ But it’s just part and parcel of it. It’s a lot more than shouting – it’s creating that theatre as a unit. If you’re making the batsman feel comfortable, he’ll probably thrive off that. It’s not about being horrible or spraying the batsman, but just him knowing you’re there and that there are 11 lads who are trying to get him out.”
Ironically, he labels Canterbury as among the toughest grounds he has had to keep wicket at. The slope, he explains, used to leave him wrong-footed against the ball nipping in.
He has got the hang of it now. And just one full season into a professional career that has already seen England recognition, it is hard not to be impressed by Ollie Robinson, a young man making a name for himself, even if he has to share it.
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