Sam Robson struggles outside off stump. That is the general consensus. The cricket elite, twitterers and taxi drivers have spoken. Cricket gospel is written and evangelized by them.
But don’t all batsmen since the beginning of overarm bowling have a problem just outside off stump in the corridor of uncertainty? Or whatever people call it now. Then there is the length, which is rarely described much more than just back of a length. It is the magic spot that Test bowlers from around the world hit.
You cannot drive it. You cannot pull it. You cannot cut it. It is just close and uncomfortable, like Hessian underwear, or that creepy bloke from the pub.
The ball is left outside off stump with the assurance of a man who knows spiritually where his off stump is at all times. In his sleep, or during an attack by giant moody birds. His straight bat comes down so safely that an edge would seem like a rude shock. Runs do not flow, they often barely trickle. But every ball faced takes up more time. Bowlers tire as the ball loses colour, shape and hardness.
That is how Nick Compton plays. Today Compton used none of those skills out on a cricket ground, but was instead on a bus to Nottingham taking photos of people playing cards and a selfie of himself in sunglasses.
It was Sam Robson who used them.
Robson leaves the ball well. His bat is straight. He covers the off stump. He rocks onto his front foot. Yet, in his first Test he went out twice to fairly standard deliveries. The first time was after just a few balls. It seemed like Sri Lanka had either done their homework on Robson, or just bowled fractionally outside off stump as you would with the new ball to practically any human being.
The second innings at Lord’s was longer. But Sri Lanka refused to leave his awkward spot alone. If they went straight, he clipped it on the leg side and scored easily. Outside off stump he scored once. An edge past slips. There was no push to point’s left hand, or dabs short of cover, no forcing, or opening the face, he just went nowhere.
Eventually he ran into Shaminda Eranga, who bowled the best spell of the Test and tortured Robson outside off stump. It was the two outswingers and one straight ball combination that had Robson dragging a ball back onto his stumps. Enough was seen. You did not need to be the Sri Lankan video analyst to suggest he had a broken technique.
It is hard to clean bowl Sam Robson. Early in his innings he protects his off stump like a grumpy old man with a shotgun protecting his youngest daughter’s virginity. A middle-stump guard quickly becomes more of an off stump with an early trigger shuffle. It gives him more balls at his strength on his pads than most batsmen would get.
For all the talk about his weaknesses, he does have scoring zones. He can cut, in county cricket they talk of pull shots and overpitching will result in him driving. But it is that awkward line on that awkward length that people talked about the most. His biggest problem with this zone is not a weakness, but dryness.
Robson does not score when the ball is there. Virtually at all. He does not hit boundaries to put pressure on the bowler. As a top order churner, he does not have to. But he also does not find singles. He cannot get off strike. He is just a slow moving target protecting his weak spot.
His first 50 balls today in this area had Robson scoring four runs from the seamers. Against Eranga in that time, it was one run off his first 30 balls there. That is five overs of a bowler bowling in the exact zone of trouble without the batsman getting off strike more than once.
Now exchange the name of Eranga for Steyn, Harris or Boult. Would anyone want to give them 30 balls at you without getting off strike? Would many be able to? In first-class cricket you can sit on a bowler for a while. In Test cricket, the bowlers will sit on you.
Analysts the world over will mine every single aspect of Robson’s strong willed, disciplined, nuggety, patient hundred today. He might have made 127, but his metadata score will be far higher. The video packages will show ball after ball of him not getting off strike. Plans will be hatched, attacks will be prepared and pitch maps will be emailed.
Robson will patiently try to outlive them. That is his most impressive trait. Patience. It could be used against him, but he certainly will not run out of it anytime soon. You can only imagine the stick he received as a young guy playing the patience game in Sydney grade cricket while hummer driving bankers from Paddington and bearded brickies from Blacktown abused him for never playing a shot.
Nothing about his batting against seam bowling even hints at coming from Australia at all. His pointy back elbow makes him look like an accountant from Somerset. His fidgeting with his front bad is straight out of Millfield School. And the squat bounce at the crease is often seen at places that sound like Thurrock, Frieth and Whitestaunton. Until he moves out of the crease against spin, his batting is as English as Gooch’s back lift, Grace’s belly or Atherton being caught down the leg side.
The ball was full and wide, Robson chased it and drove it efficiently and inelegantly into the covers. He ran hard, and easily made his second run, and then looked for a third. Having scored his 100th run, he did not throw the bat up, abandon a potential run, take his helmet off, kiss any logos, jump or even show any acknowledgement to the crowd. He looked for a third.
Sam Robson may make a lot of Test runs, but he will have to work harder and longer than most to make them. He will always be looking for a third.