SAM Robson, formerly of Sydney but more recently of North London scored his first Test century in only his second match at the highest level to help England towards a position of dominance, although with a smaller lead, 63, than looked likely during the afternoon.
But, with the pitch starting to help seam bowlers – a bit of cloud cover and Headingley bares its teeth – any lead is valuable and England will be pressing today to increase it to over 100. The three wickets which fell in a cluster in the last hour could have been five as both Matt Prior and Chris Jordan were dropped.
That will have irritated the England management, but they would also have been pleased as it proved the pitch would offer the bowlers more assistance in the second innings. Batting can be a perilous business here, which makes Robson’s century crucial.
He moved to London in 2008 and, since then, has earned a reputation as a tough, disciplined batter. His innings yesterday typified that.
It was based on graft, accumulation and patience. Old-fashioned traits which used to be expected of every opening batsman, and he is, in style and temperament, a bit of a throwback to a bygone era. There was no single memorable shot, nor any trademark flamboyance to lift the crowd. It was functional and mightily effective.
Robson looks a very settled character, possibly because he is 25 years old in nine days and has already played first-class cricket for six years.
He has matured, both as a person and as a player, so he has come into international cricket more developed than many that are heralded when very young as the “next big thing”.
The curious thing about his innings was what was absent. There was no noticeable weakness and no noticeable strength. He just occupied the crease. Analysts around the world will pore over the video and forensically examine his footwork and areas of scoring but the key to his batting is his phlegmatic nature. He appeared unfussed. Even his celebration on reaching his century was undemonstrative.
In an era of instant celebrity when most players celebrate a milestone with a routine that that would embarrass the most garish of Hollywood producers, Robson raised both arms, acknowledged the crowd and then replaced his helmet to get back on with the job of scoring runs.
It was refreshing and exactly what this youthful England side need, some stability at the top of the order. It was a surprise when he was bowled on 127, a drive being beaten by a good ball from the persistent Nuwan Pradeep which nipped back between bat and pad.
Robson was ably supported by Gary Ballance, who backed up his first Test century last week at Lord’s with a pleasing 74.
Their partnership of 142 in 50 overs steadied England after Alastair Cook had been dismissed in the third over of the day.
With Ballance and now Robson scoring centuries what England really needs to exorcise the ghost of the terrible winter past in Australia is for the captain to regain form.
Maybe the cares of captaincy have done for him and reduced his batting to a secondary consideration in his mind, or he is wasting mental energy complaining about comments in the media criticising his captaincy. His pre-match Press conference was tetchy and petulant and he really should have more pressing concerns on his mind than the musings of Shane Warne and other scribes and broadcasters. What he should be worried about is how every team now probes around his off stump with full-length deliveries. He likes the ball short outside off-stump for a powerful back cut or around his hips for a glance. He scores the majority of his runs in these two areas and, when teams restrict his scoring opportunities, he looks vulnerable.
Not so Ian Bell who crafted another half-century in his 100th Test match. The glide to third man was used frequently and it would not be a Bell innings without a couple of sumptuous cover drives. Nor sadly would it have been without a frustrating dismissal.