England or Australia: Which way will Sam Robson sway?
Sydney-born batsman was prolific last summer for Middlesex as Australia toiled in the Tests. But, after honing his game here, his heart’s set on an England cap over the Baggy Green, he tells Kevin Garside
Lord’s shifts easily into the museum setting, especially on a still autumn morning in October, when the square is silent and the grounds are populated only by visitors in organised groups enjoying curated tours. In the Long Room a green-jacketed guide delivered in suitably reverential tones a digest of the significance of that hallowed space to the game of cricket. Outside a grey pall hung over the outfield, and the middle, heavily watered despite the threat of rain, appeared darkened by new growth. On the boundary fence by the steps leading down from the pavilion the presence of a tousle-haired figure in jeans gazing across to the Nursery End went unnoticed.
He might have been a tradesman making the most of circumstance to steal a sneaky peak down the cricketing years. The thought that one day the name Sam Robson might appear on the celebrated Lord’s honours boards never occurred to the tweed-clad observers taking in the scene.
It wasn’t much on Robson’s mind either when he arrived in England, a teenage Australian of dual nationality chasing the rather prosaic idea of becoming nothing more than a professional cricketer. Six years on, Robson is maturing at warp speed and he is in demand.
The sensitivities of which country he might represent at Test level entered Ashes discourse during the spring when the weight of runs he plundered for Middlesex in April and May coincided with the arrival of an Australia team with holes to fill at the top of the order. They hardened considerably after a summer in which he cracked 1,180 runs at 47 from the top of the order, bettered only by Gary Ballance, with his inclusion in the England Performance Programme development squad that leaves for Australia next month.
Born in Sydney to an Australian father and English mother from Nottingham, Robson represented New South Wales through the age groups and Australia at Under-19 level but has never played first-class cricket in the country of his birth. Before he could properly use a razor he was on a flight to London following nothing more than a hunch and the promptings of a friend, Tim Murtagh, with whom he bonded playing for Eastern Suburbs as a boy.
The nationality issue is a tension he has had to confront only in the past couple of years as his star began to rise. You sense in conversation that he is constantly balancing the desire to declare absolutely for England against the impulse not to offend the country of his upbringing.
This is not a case of the opportunism that brought Kevin Pietersen to England seeking a route into Test cricket via the convenience of an English mother. Pietersen was hard-boiled when he pitched up at Nottingham as an off-spinner who could bat. Robson was pursuing nothing more than a vague idea crudely formed.
“I didn’t have a clue how it was going to pan out or where I was going to end up. It was just a great opportunity. The first year I lived down in Surrey, a little village called Ash Vale near Guildford. I played club cricket for Normandy in the Surrey League. I had trials with Middlesex midweek. That year I was on the road constantly playing. I just wanted to improve and get better. That was my drive.
“I didn’t have a grand plan. It could all have been over in a year. You never know. Coming through the rep sides in Australia as a kid you start to think you might one day become a professional cricketer. That has always been what I’ve wanted to do. But playing Test cricket and who I might play for was the furthest thing from my mind when I got on the plane.”
In another, not too distant epoch, Robson (right) could have declared for the old country without anyone flinching Down Under. Entering this world just a slog-sweep from the SCG in Paddington would have counted for nothing in the era of Taylor, Slater, Hayden and Langer. In this iteration of the Baggy Green you are a contender as long as you can hold a bat and stay out of nightclubs. It is Australia’s misfortune that Robson happened into St John’s Wood as an 18-year-old boy and swooned.
“The first time I played here it felt incredible but even when you turn up on a Monday morning and there are not many people around, you stroll across the ground to put your kit in the dressing room, seeing the pavilion, the Long Room or whatever, you realise this is such a special place, the tradition that comes with it, all the great players, the great games. I think all the Middlesex guys recognise that. I’ve got a good gig, if you like.”
It’s not just about the cricket. He is hanging out in a city that rivals any in the world. Yesterday he set off with his mates for a weekend in Barcelona promising to be “professional at the right times”. He lists Rome as the favourite place he has visited, marginally ahead of Capri. Take a 90-minute flight out of Sydney and you might still be in New South Wales. “I love living in London and feel very lucky to be here. The city has got everything, especially for a young bloke, but on top of that, being a professional cricketer turning up at Lord’s every day doesn’t really get any better.”
He says he has not given much thought to the reception he might get in Australia, where the development boys play two fixtures in Brisbane and Perth. “There will be a bit of banter but nothing I’m not used to. I’m looking forward to it, being around good players, good coaches for four weeks. Family and friends back in Australia have been very supportive of what I’m doing.”
The debate surrounding Robson has been driven largely by an Australian media having to process the decline of the national team. That the career progression of a relative novice with a promising future should trouble them is a desperate commentary on the state of Australian cricket.
It takes the kid himself to remind people that there might never be a decision to make. “I’m not getting ahead of myself. This EPP squad is my first focus. I’m just going to try to get as much out of the programme as I can and see where it takes me. Hopefully the things that have worked for me so far will hold me in good stead.”
Should Robson progress all the way to the Test arena then Australia must prepare for disappointment, for England it will be. “At 18 you are not thinking of Test cricket. I had to come here, trial, get a contract at Middlesex and then force my way into the first team. I have done that all through this system here in England.
“Now I’ve been selected for the EPP. I was really chuffed when that came up. It feels like the natural progression to me. I’ve developed as a professional cricketer in England. It’s not like I have been here one year or two.
“But it could all come to a quick end,” he admits. “I don’t allow myself to think where I’ll be in five years. That is not my style. Yes, as a cricketer you have ambition, you want to play at the highest level, but for me it’s always been about being the best I can be, giving it a crack and seeing where that takes me. Right now it’s the EPP. That’s my commitment now.
“If you are asking me down the line if I got selected then yes, I would love to play for England. There is no doubt about that.”
Home from home: England’s imports
* Six members of England’s squad for this winter’s Ashes tour were born overseas.
Jonathan Trott (Born in Cape Town, South Africa)
England Test debut 2009 Tests 48
Kevin Pietersen (right, Natal, SA) 2005/99
Matt Prior (Johannesburg, SA) 2007/72
Gary Ballance (Harare, Zim) n/a
Ben Stokes (Christchurch, NZ) n/a
Boyd Rankin (Londonderry, NI) n/a
* England have a long history of players representing them despite being born overseas, including former captains Andrew Strauss (born in Johannesburg), Allan Lamb (Cape Province, SA) and Nasser Hussain (Madras, India), along with Andy Caddick (Christchurch), Graeme Hick (Salisbury, Zimbabwe), Devon Malcolm (Kingston, Jamaica), Ted Dexter (Milan, Italy) and Adam and Ben Hollioake (both Melbourne, Australia).
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