By Neville Scott
DESPITE an impressive 584 first-class wickets taken with brisk fast-medium, it was Mark Robinson’s unfortunate fate to be famed most for his dreadful batting.
Few people knew that he was effectively blind in one eye which helps account for his making only 590 runs in 259 innings (112 unbeaten since batsmen at the other end tended to lash out as soon as he arrived).
He set a world record of 12 consecutive runless innings, albeit he was unbeaten in seven. But Robinson deserves more acclaim than that and will have gone into his interview for the England coach’s job on Wednesday hoping to emerge with more appropriate recognition.
With the new emphasis on “team culture” in the England camp, he was well qualified to speak about what had been achieved on those lines at Sussex where, taking over from Peter Moores, in October 2005, he led the club to the Championship in each of the following two seasons and added four one-day and t20 trophies for good measure.
“I inherited the beliefs and values of Peter which made it easy for me to continue and build on the ethos of the club. You have a strong sense of being a smaller county at Sussex but we don’t accept that this can ever permit weakness.
“It’s an attitude of ‘make the best of everything you have’. There are severe planning and space restrictions at Hove but the drive is always to make the best we can. You can go to Test grounds and see what they have but you must never feel inferior. I’m very lucky – the players buy in to this attitude.
“Everyone from dressing-room attendant to captain has to be respected and their input maximised.”
Sussex, under Moores, were famous for the emphasis on training and peak fitness, a novelty at the time which Robinson, as a player, and then as Moores’ assistant coach, embraced.
“We stole a march to be fitter than everyone else. Most teams are very fit now and recognise that need but, arguably, we got ourselves organised earlier and it was part of our initial success.”
But it is not about hard work alone. Robinson, at times, can wax philosophical.
“You can’t guarantee happy endings, we know that. You have to have a sense of reality, even brutality at times to achieve success. The challenge at Hove was to adapt to what we had. With Mushtaq Ahmed, providing spin on most surfaces, and James Kirtley and Jason Lewry giving us swing, it made sense to play on slow wickets.
“When Mushtaq finished we didn’t have the trump cards and had to re-think. We tried to get more grass and pace but found we were outgunned. Now we’ve put together a better attack to exploit that. Everything evolves.”
Part of this evolution – certainly for England – involves new players, about whom Robinson is qualified to comment. He is especially familiar with Chris Jordan (‘CJ’ as Robinson calls him), whom he signed in 2013.
“Three or four bowlers were up for grabs, most obviously James Harris (who signed for Middlesex) but we weren’t going to afford him. Though ‘CJ’ had been released by Surrey, I thought he could bowl at 85mph and bat up the order so it was right to take a punt.
“There was an injury history but we got all his data from Surrey and felt “low risk, potentially high reward. He has proved brilliant and totally self-reliant, a lovely, humble bloke.
“We’ve given him an environment he likes after being released by a big club and sometimes you have to go through hard times to come out better the other side. We have to remember that his family are not here (his parents and sisters live in Barbados) and it’s not easy for him.
“In terms of England, he has big competition from other good players but obviously has the temperament and that’s three quarters of the issue. Given a chance, CJ will certainly not bottle it. Doubt is your biggest enemy in cricket – the one you want to keep outside the door.
“The biggest growth to come will be in CJ’s batting, which has some way to go. He has the technical ability and now needs to learn how to build an innings to the context of a match.”
Robinson can offer further insights on Matt Prior, another of his Sussex charges and for so long the pivot of the England side. After ten Tests in which he found only one fifty and recorded five ducks, Prior was dropped in Australia.
“It’s a new chapter of his career, almost; the final third of his book. He kept outstandingly in Australia but three obvious errors were built up. He’s played so much cricket non-stop, chasing his tail for so long, and I’m sure that’s the main issue – we’ve made slight differences with his pick-up but mostly he’s now gained some head space.
“He’s seen his family again and slept in his own bed. He’s come back a bit quieter from the Ashes but he clearly still has a hunger for runs. Even in pre-season friendlies in Dubai, he was nervous before batting – that was a good sign, especially for young players to see how much performance always means to top players. I can’t believe Prior won’t be straight back in to the England side.”
The other opportunity for Robinson to review England’s prospective talent came this winter on the England Lions visit to Sri Lanka, where he led the tour as coach after fulfilling the same role earlier with the England U19s.
“You can’t judge on the facts and figures of the Lions tour alone – there were a lot of players in different mental places, some arriving after Ashes failure. But Liam Plunkett was a good surprise – the enforcer, taking wickets and scoring runs down the order.
“James Taylor made a 250 – he specialises in going big – but the really impressive thing was that, in the heat, he was still stealing twos and threes. It was this real thirst for runs that was so good.
“Sam Robson, the other big batting success, has the ability to play every ball as if it’s the most important one in his life. Off the field, he came across as the most unaffected, scruffy little bloke and there’s no danger of him getting above himself. Somehow you have to shut out everybody else’s expectations to avoid pressure and he can do that.
“Chris Woakes captained the side really well and we soon found a good relationship as to how to work together. Part of a coach’s job is to grow people, making judgement calls as to whether to intervene. Together we had to get players used to facing a lot of spin for very long periods with intense appealing all around them. I was pleased with the success we achieved together.
“Moeen Ali is an impressive, developing bowler beginning to see himself as a frontline spinner. You could still call him a batsman who bowls but he should learn a lot if he gets the chance to bowl overs at Worcester and spend time with Saeed Ajmal.
“Simon Kerrigan, who replaced him, came good towards the end of the tour and learned a lot.”
The England future, then, may be a little brighter than in the gloom of a dreadful winter. How Robinson would appreciate a chance to be part of it.