Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sam Robson - Australia's "What If"

At first glance, Sam Robson has the pedigree for international success: he was raised in New South Wales and monstered county attacks for years before getting a Test call-up.

Only it was for England.

In his second Test – the deciding match of the series against Sri Lanka that concluded dramatically today – Robson made his maiden Test ton, an unspectacular but very interesting 127.

The ECB deploying cricketers born overseas is hardly new*. The ranks of proxy Englishmen have swelled even recently as players from five countries turned out for the Three Lions in the series defeat by the Sri Lankans. Even poaching Aussies isn’t a new one; however, the biggest difference between Sam Robson and Martin McCague (or Alan Mullally, ad infinitum) is that Australia desperately wanted him in a Baggy Green.

Robson’s selection (and early success) means that he’s one of Australian cricket’s more curious “What Ifs”. These enjoyably pointless conundra have over the years formed the atria for great bar-room debates**. While Robson’s decision to play for the Old Enemy isn’t likely an epochal moment in Australian cricket, it is relevant as the Test Champions again peer questioningly at elite batsmen who, when asked their age, mumble “thirtysome…” before incoherently tailing off.

That as a teen Sam Robson was unable to secure a chance in a Blues lineup featuring current/future Australians Warner, Ed Cowan, Usman Khawaja, Simon Katich, Phil Jaques, Phil Hughes and Peter Forrest – not to mention rising Test captain Michael Clarke – means this “What If” stretches back over half a decade, even if Cricket Australia have only sought his services for a the past couple of years.

Robson has been on CA’s radar for some time, to the point of administrators changing their First Class eligibility rules with him in mind***. However, there’s no real way of telling if Robson would even have played for Australia; Mickey Arthur’s scattergun approach to selection resulted in pleading glances in his direction, but since arriving at Middlesex in 2008, the player has shown no inclination to play for the country of his birth. The fact he signed a letter of intent to try to play for England upon signing for the county and chose to wait for a blue cap suggests Australians only ever had a slim chance of seeing Robson walk out beside David Warner.

Even had he opted to play for Australia, the relative strength of that New South Welsh batsmanship may have kept him from developing into the player he is today. Even had he become a player of similar caliber, with Darren Lehmann’s coaching manifesto plastered across every cricket club’s pinboard in the country Robson might have had to wait behind Warner and Chris Rogers for a Test spot despite his talent. While the team doesn’t necessarily need Robson’s bat now, it may well do so by 2018.

The Australian batting is less tangibly effervescent than it might appear to casual fans. Long-term prospects include Steve Smith, Warner and perhaps Alex Doolan; the rest of mob triumphant against England and South Africa during the past Southern Summer are all age mumblers. A twenty-five year-old opener with an Athertonian skill-set around whom a top order can be built would do very nicely. While there are still doubts over his technique, in the year 2014 there are few 24 year-olds about whom this can’t be said.

Robson’s personal “What If” moment took place in 2008; unlike many of us, he has been able to revisit that over the past four years regularly as new information came to hand. One one hand, he would partner the selfish (Shane Watson), the stupid (Warner), the Anti-Warner (Cowan) or his Middlesex captain Rogers; each time he has had the opportunity to revisit his choice, the other sees him partnering one of the doughtiest opener ever to doughty, Alastair Cook.

Cricket Australia really had little control in losing Robson to England. Few teens would have been able to dislodge the batsmen New South Wales had at their disposal in 2007-08; it just so happened that Sam Robson’s passport allowed him access to eighteen counties and five states, rather than only the latter. We still don’t know how many Test runs he will score, or if during his career Australia will unearth David Warner’s (other) perfect foil.

Which is why we watch - and love - the games.

*Keep in mind this quiz is from 2009. Remember to include Robson, Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan, Boyd Rankin and Ben Stokes.

**Some starters: What if the ACB had accepted Packer’s first offer? What if Shane Warne never recovered from his 1992 Test debut? What if Ian Chappell had gone to the West Indies with the 1964 Australians? What if Paul Sheahan had played ten years later? And most controversially, what if Adam Gilchrist had been a really good wicketkeeper?

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