England v Sri Lanka: Sam Robson opens his account with slow and steady century

New opener stakes claim but rest of top order are culpable as toothless  Sri Lankan attack stick to task, writes Stephen Brenkley at Headingley

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The Independent Online

Cramped low over a tightly gripped bat as if he feared someone might steal it, Sam Robson scored his maiden Test hundred yesterday. He was the 159th player to reach the landmark for England, the third to do so having been born in Australia.

The innings was low on both error and entertainment, a model of patience and diligence. At no point did it convey the impression that Australia’s selectors might be as sick as a dingo that Robson chose to leave his native land for the country whence his mother hailed.

However, it was exactly what England required to assert control of the second Investec Test against Sri Lanka here. That they failed eventually to impose their authority as they ought to have done was no fault of Robson.

It took him 220 balls over a little more than five hours to reach his hundred, which included 11 fours. If it was difficult to recall a memorable stroke – though he was more expansive after reaching three figures with four more fours and a six  on his way to 127 – it was harder still to think of a false one. The pitch was made for batting, the bowling was far short of the highest Test standard, but Robson set out his stall from the start and never moved it a centimetre.

By the close of the second day the home side were 320 for 6, leading by 63, and the tourists, responding with spirit in the evening, provided another reminder that while they may lose they are not here to roll over and have their tummies tickled. Ian Bell, in his 100th Test, made a handsomely appointed 64, which was unluckily terminated; Gary Ballance, in his third, scored a painstaking 74 in a partnership of 142 with Robson.

All was not quite hunky dory for England’s top order. Their captain, Alastair Cook, was out in the day’s fourth over, pushing at a ball outside off stump and edging to first slip. It was a perfect replica of many previous dismissals in his Test career – a counterfeit artist would love such talent for precise copying – and it arrived at a bad time.

Cook has scored more than 8,000 Test runs and 25 Test hundreds but he has not scored many of either lately. To suggest that the captaincy is not affecting his batting will plainly not bear scrutiny. England have put abundant faith in Cook as batsman and leader, and whatever is said by pundits there is abundant goodwill towards him.

This cannot continue indefinitely, however. Or perhaps it can under the present regime, who have staked their reputation on Cook. Just in case, they might start working on a plan B. Perhaps the corner is there waiting to be turned but it is almost more worrying that Cook keeps apparently establishing himself in an innings and then being dismissed than it would be if he was continually being removed by the new ball.

Robson did all that could have been expected of him in his second Test match and if the selectors have been as diligent as he was, they will have known precisely what they could expect. There is nothing flash about Robson, whose hands are spread wide on the bat handle and his stance has a pronounced crouch. Batting is clearly a serious business for him and he never relaxed at the crease, preferring to tap the pitch earnestly between most balls.

He left assiduously, one of those who would probably avoid playing at every ball if he could. There were 192 balls in his innings from which he did not score but few if any of those genuinely beat him.

It is too early to say if Robson yesterday laid the groundwork for a durable Test career but this was a cracking start. He will certainly face more probing attacks than this one. But he played what was in front of him. If his limitations are many, he may have worked out how to play within them.

Robson was born and effectively learned his cricket in Australia. He came over here at the age of 18 to play for Middlesex. His brother, Angus, is now on Leicestershire’s books. Their father, known as Jungle Jim, is a legend in Sydney cricket circles and was here in Yorkshire with his wife to see Sam’s hundred.

“As soon as he turned 18 he came straight over to England to play. London is one of the great cities of the world and I knew how good the cricket set-up was and I knew he would play so much,” said Robson senior. “He always wanted to be a cricketer and over here is much better for a person like that. You play a lot more first-class games here and you have a second XI structure where you play a lot of games. I think that suited his style of cricket.”

The previous Australian born-players to score Test hundreds for England were Gubby Allen, who became as English as they come, and more recently Tim Ambrose.

Eventually, Robson may have to up the ante if he is to prosper as an opener. But in its way, in the position of this match, he went about his business impeccably. When he lost Cook so early, it was imperative that he stayed.

He and Ballance, fresh from his maiden hundred at Lord’s, were deliberately cautious. The run-rate was under three runs an over.

All the dismissals were avoidable. Ballance edged behind, Robson was bowled through a loose drive, Bell glanced down the leg side, Joe Root hung out his bat, Moeen Ali lunged at a wide one. An England win is not quite assured.