Sam Robson has champagne poured over him by his team-mates

Young and anointed: Sam Robson gets a champagne shower after England's series win over India in 2014

© PA Photos


New England rising

Gary Ballance, Chris Jordan and Sam Robson were born in three different continents, thousands of miles from Lord's. What does their journey mean for the future of English cricket?

Daniel Brigham  |  

In October 1988, Rosita and Robert Jordan celebrate the birth of son Christopher at Barbados' Bayview Hospital, a ten-minute drive south from the Kensington Oval. In July 1989, seven days after Steve Waugh scored 152 at Lord's to sauté English minds, Sam Robson is born in Sydney to Rosamunde and Jim, a well-known Grade cricketer. In November that year, Zimbabwean tobacco farmers Gail and Simon Ballance welcome the arrival of their first-born son, Gary, not long after Harare native Graeme Hick has finished the English County Championship season with 1595 runs.

Across 13 months and thousands of miles, the first foundations for three unlikely paths to England's Test team have been laid. In the English summer of 2014, 25 years on, those paths converged. The future caught up with the present.

After the Ashes whitewash in 2014, the two great ghosts of southern Africa - Andy Flower and Kevin Pietersen - haunted England. The public had turned against a surly, insular national side. Peter Moores, an ex-partner of English cricket dumped once for being too intense, was reluctantly given another chance. He set about rebuilding and rebranding a New England, around Chris Jordan, Sam Robson and Gary Ballance. Ben Stokes, born in New Zealand and a couple of years younger than our trio, is also part of this future.

Ballance made his Test debut in the fifth Test in Sydney, a man parachuted onto the roof of the Towering Inferno. Jordan and Robson joined Ballance in June at Lord's for the start of Moores' new era. Over the course of six months, the three became the 11th, 12th and 13th overseas-born players to make their debuts for England since the 2003 Galle Test.

That match is of some significance. Remembered for a gripping rearguard from England's tail that helped them hold on for a draw in the dusk, it was also the last time an England Test XI did not feature anyone born outside the country's borders (Madras-born Nasser Hussain missed out with a viral infection, replaced by debutant Paul Collingwood).

Eleven years and 138 Tests later, an all-England-born XI has not been picked again.

The 13 months between the births of Jordan and Ballance was a seminal time. There were the Tiananmen Square protests, the submission of Tim Berners-Lee's proposal for a World Wide Web, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, and the elder George Bush being sworn in as president of the USA.

Sam and his younger brother Angus would read their dad's English cricket magazines when growing up and listen to his tales of cricketing adventure in the old country

Lower (but only a little) on the scale of historic moments, a bubble-haired Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut in Karachi, seven days before Ballance was born. A few months earlier Allan Border had led "the worst team ever to leave Australia" to a 4-0 Ashes win (sticking with the theme, six of the 29 players England used in that series were born abroad - including Barbadian Gladstone Small, who was schooled at Combermere, which would later welcome Jordan as a pupil).

The fire in Babylon was still burning fiercely in the Caribbean. West Indies hadn't lost a Test series since Michael Holding's stump-karate in Dunedin in 1980. They were everything they no longer are: feared, unified, unbreachable, a statement of cultural pride. Into this world came Jordan.

If tech geeks have Silicon Valley and music geeks have Graceland, then cricket geeks have Barbados; the island of Walcott, Weekes, Worrell, of Hunte, Hall, Haynes, of Griffith, Greenidge, Garner and, of course, Marshall and Sobers.

"Cricket was all around you," says Jordan, his Barbados accent undiminished. "You had no choice but to know all about the three Ws and Greenidge and Haynes."

Jordan's cricket genes came from his mother Rosita, who was born and raised in Teddington, south London, before moving to Stevenage. Her father Denzil Olton had captained the Stevenage West Indian Sports & Social Club, and she spent her childhood watching him play.

Cocooned in cricket, from the age of four, Jordan played everywhere: on the road, in the back garden, in the classroom, on the beach, and in the house - where, Rosita confirms, many vases were broken in the making of Jordan's cricket career. "Any chance you had to play cricket, wherever, you just did it," Jordan says. "We had rules like, if you nick the ball three times you were out, if you get hit on the pads three times you were out, if you hit it into someone else's house you're out as well."

Some of his earliest cricketing memories are of playing on the Kensington Oval outfield during lunch breaks in Tests, enveloped by stands bearing the names of greats born in streets close to where he lived. The power of West Indies cricket was at his fingertips: on more than one occasion Jordan was home late because he was busy giving throwdowns to Brian Lara after the cricket had ended.

From Kensington to Kennington: Chris Jordan was spotted by scouts in Barbados and was soon flying across the Atlantic to begin a new life

From Kensington to Kennington: Chris Jordan was spotted by scouts in Barbados and was soon flying across the Atlantic to begin a new life © Getty Images

There was no such history for Ballance to look back on. Cricket in Zimbabwe was still a fledgling in its nest, peering over the edge. In 1983 they had shocked the world in their first-ever ODI, Duncan Fletcher leading them to an outlandish victory over Australia at the World Cup. By the time Ballance was born, Zimbabwe still awaited a second victory. That, and Test status, were three years off.

Cricket, though, had a loose grip on the country. It was a universe away from the cricketing nirvana of Bridgetown, but on the Ballances' isolated tobacco farm in Nyazura, a three-hour drive east from Harare, there was a cricket net in the garden. Rugby was Simon Ballance's preferred sport, but he spent many of his evenings netting with his three sons. "He'd do his day's work," says Ballance, his accent now softened. "Then in the evening he'd come straight to the nets and help me and my brothers [Bruce and Dylan] with our cricket. It was really good of him, because after a few years his shoulder was knackered from all the hours he put in." Competition between the three brothers was intense. "It always ended up with one of us in tears." Never, Gary claims, were they his tears.

Robson's early impressions of cricket were formed by his dad Jim. He manages the Indoor Centre at the SCG and played Sydney Grade cricket for 30 years for the University of New South Wales. In 1979 - the year Rosita Jordan moved to Barbados - Jim enjoyed a year playing for Worcestershire 2nd XI, where 47-year-old Basil D'Oliveira was captain. Three years later Jim toured England with the Australian Universities and in 1985 played a season with Hythe CC in Kent. Sam and his younger brother Angus would read their dad's English cricket magazines when growing up and listen to his tales of cricketing adventure in the old country.

Jim would take Sam and Angus to the SCG Test every year. An intense love of the sport was formed, helped by an English mother happy to indulge her family's love. "We watched cricket on TV from around the world, regardless of who was playing," says Sam. He still has the kind of old-world Aussie drawl that evokes news reports of Bradman's Invincibles.

Angus, who has followed Sam's path and plays for Leicestershire, says his brother stood out for having a greater knowledge of cricket than his peers. They were cricket geeks. "We've certainly studied the game and its history," says Angus. "Not just modern-day cricket either, and we tended to get a little bit of stick for that. When we were both at school, and I was around seven and Sam around ten, each morning we'd check the English county scores before school. Even back then we were interested, and that probably came from our father speaking so highly of the county game."

Backyard cricket involved a tennis ball and a bit of wire taped onto it to create a seam - "It was dangerous," says Angus. "If you got hit you were in trouble." They would hang around weeknight training sessions with their dad, making sure they got to the nets before any of the adults. Cricket was tightening its hold.

Gladstone Small wasn't the only Test cricketer before Jordan to have gone to Combermere in Bridgetown. When Jordan moved from lesson to lesson, he walked the same corridors Frank Worrell and Wes Hall once had. Cricket, it is fair to say, was taken rather seriously there, among the oldest secondary schools in Barbados.

England have over time selected players born in Papua New Guinea, Denmark, Zambia, Germany, Peru, Italy and Hong Kong

Jordan's batting stood out then, earning him call-ups to the Barbados Under-13 and U-15 sides. Roddy Estwick, a former first-class cricketer who took over cricket coaching at Combermere in 1999, remembers Jordan as a conservative batsman. Sure, he could attack - this was Barbados, after all - but he liked to build his innings. "He was also captain of the school," says Estwick. "A straight-down-the-line captain, not doing funky fields or anything. Other boys looked up to him. He was a quiet lad but always competitive, with a desire and passion to do well and it was only when he was around 15 that he started being more aggressive on the field, even though it wasn't in his nature."

Around this age Jordan's bowling developed. His shuffling run-up today gives the impression of a man struggling to bear the weight of his own muscles, but as a youngster his frame was too slight to deliver the ball rapidly. Despite begging wicketkeepers to stand back, they would always creep forward until they stood at the stumps. Then he and his friends started hitting the gym. His body strengthened, his bowling gained pace. Within months, no wicketkeeper was standing up.

"I never looked back," says Jordan, preferring not to model himself on any of the many fast bowling heroes around: "I just sort of freelanced it along the way."

School for Ballance was boarding at Peterhouse, situated in Marondera and halfway between Harare and his parents' farm. Paul Davis, who was Ballance's 1st XI coach there, says this of the appeal of Marondera: "I'm certainly not here for the nightlife, that's for sure."

In this sleepy environment, Ballance's potential was immediately clear. "We've got featherbeds in Zimbabwe and most batsmen tend to rock on to the front foot," says Davis. "Suddenly there was this boy who was very good on the back foot and had wonderful hands. I knew straightaway that I was going to throw him lots of balls and not give him much advice."

Ballance wasn't perfect. He acquired the ironic nickname "Bullet" at school from older team-mates because he was slow across the outfield due to his small and tubby build. Still, this didn't stop him being pushed up an age level to face quicker, meaner bowlers, where "Bullet" earned a reputation for bravery in the face of pace.

The bat says it all: Gary Ballance's strong back-foot play as a youngster set him apart from the other boys at school

The bat says it all: Gary Ballance's strong back-foot play as a youngster set him apart from the other boys at school © Getty Images

He was also a loveable rogue with an ability to talk his way out of trouble. Ballance was representing Zimbabwe U-16 by this stage, where Jim Redfern, who also coached him at Peterhouse and was a national youth selector, says Ballance became the willing fall guy for most of the team pranks. "Two of the older players were attempting to buy a 'stolen' cell phone from a most suspicious vendor," he says. "It was little Gary who was set up to hand over the money and attempt to take possession of the non-existent phone. The poor boy was scared witless."

Robson's path was different and very un-English. He had no conventional coaching as a child - never a lesson or weekly sessions. His early cricket was played in the back garden of his parents' house in Maroubra, a Sydney beach suburb best known for the Bra Boys, a notorious gang of surfers. "I didn't go to a big private school or anything," Robson says. "Over here [England], cricket is played seriously at private schools. My school in Sydney wasn't like that at all. It had one team and more than anything it was something to get you out of class on a Thursday afternoon. It's not like I went to so-and-so college and broke all the batting records."

Instead, Robson's cricketing education was formed in the evenings and on weekends. While his friends were surfing, Robson was netting. He made his way from Randwick Junior CC to playing Grade cricket with the University of New South Wales and Eastern Suburbs, playing alongside David Warner, Brad Haddin, the late Phillip Hughes and Steven Smith.

He was also on the books at New South Wales, where Mark O'Neill - later his batting coach at Middlesex - first came across him. "The first thing I noticed about Sam was, he had racing car driver's eyes," says O'Neill. "He was intent on becoming a better player. He asked questions and really wanted to understand how batting worked."

Those eyes would soon be turning away from his homeland and setting their gaze on England. Thousands of miles away in Bridgetown and Marondera, Jordan and Ballance were doing likewise.

Despite appearing 11 times in 2007 for Australia U-19 as a legspinner who would often bat as low as No. 9, Robson wasn't being offered any first-class cricket by NSW. He had represented them through the age groups. He had bonded with Middlesex's opening bowler Tim Murtagh during his stint for Eastern Suburbs in 2007-08, and with the promise of trials with Middlesex and the fond impressions of his dad's time ringing in his ears, Robson headed to England.

When Jordan moved from lesson to lesson, he walked the same corridors Frank Worrell and Wes Hall once had

Ballance played for Zimbabwe at the 2006 U-19 World Cup - taking 3 for 21 with his leggies and top-scoring with 47 in their win over England in Colombo - but by this stage he already knew he would soon be pursuing his cricket in England (his grandparents were born in Britain). Former Zimbabwe batsman Dave Houghton, who is married to a cousin of Ballance's father, was Derbyshire coach and offered him the chance to show his talents to an English audience. Aged 16, he played in several 40-over matches for Derbyshire and also won a scholarship to study at Harrow, one of England's most sought-after public schools. In 2007 he signed an academy contract at Yorkshire after Geoffrey Boycott saw his potential and charmed Gary and his parents with talk of Yorkshire's history. There was no turning back.

Jordan's route to England was also aided by a former Test batsman. England's Bill Athey was scouting in Barbados for a recipient of a scholarship at Dulwich College in south London, and the boy to most impress him was Jordan. An academic entrance exam was passed and, in 2006, Jordan headed to London. He excelled in cricket at Dulwich - despite being taken apart by Ballance in a match against Harrow - and, with close links to Surrey, Jordan was given the opportunity to impress in the nets at The Oval. He was offered a contract by the county, debuting in 2007.

Jordan had grown up hoping to play for West Indies, but he says the decision to head to England was simple. "My dream was always to be a professional cricketer," he says. "That fell in line with that. It was a pretty straightforward decision."

Robson, meanwhile, says he spent little time thinking about the move. He just embraced it: "I didn't really come with any preconceived ideas. I turned up and loved everything about the cricket set-up straight away. Training at Lord's was just awesome and the prospect of living in London was awesome. You think it's the best thing in the world - you're a professional cricketer."

In October 2013, England and Arsenal footballer Jack Wilshere caused a stir when he said, "The only people who should play for England are English people." He was reacting to a question about Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj, who had the choice of representing Belgium (where he was born), Albania (through his father), Turkey (through his mother) or - through a residency period - England.

Imported from Australia: Sam Robson scored his maiden Test century in only his second game for England

Imported from Australia: Sam Robson scored his maiden Test century in only his second game for England © Getty Images

A piqued Kevin Pietersen tweeted back. "Interested to know how you define foreigner? Would that include me, Strauss, Trott, Prior, Justin Rose, [Chris] Froome, Mo Farah?"

While many rounded on Wilshere's view for being outmoded and possibly xenophobic, to some he was articulating an instinctive feeling that international sport can only survive if national allegiances aren't muddied.

Angus Fraser, the former England fast bowler who is now an England selector and managing director at Middlesex, doesn't believe that world exists anymore. "You can't persuade someone of their nationality, it's a very personal thing," he says. "I think people who say you have to be born in England to feel pride to represent your country, I think that's wrong. I know that playing for England meant more to Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Graeme Hick than it did for some Englishmen."

Robson, Ballance and Jordan are no pioneers. Migration in cricket has always existed. Billy Midwinter, most famous for being kidnapped by WG Grace, was born in England, played in the first-ever Test for Australia and represented them eight times. He also played for England in four Tests. And England have, over time, selected players born in Papua New Guinea, Denmark, Zambia, Germany, Peru, Italy and Hong Kong.

Most foreign-born cricketers are fully embraced by the English public. Some of the country's most popular players - from Ted Dexter to Devon Malcolm to Andrew Strauss - were born abroad. Pietersen isn't disliked because of where he was born (otherwise how do you explain the popularity of Smith, Lamb, Strauss and Matt Prior?) but because of his nature. Jordan and Ballance have both quickly become favourites among England fans, while Robson, despite his struggles against India, was admired for continuing a very English legacy of stoic opening batsmen.

"You can't persuade someone of their nationality. I know that playing for England meant more to Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Graeme Hick than it did for some Englishmen" Angus Fraser

But could England's gain ultimately be their loss? With the luxury of being able to accept these overseas gifts, has the ECB perhaps taken its eyes off the development of homegrown talent? Iain Brunnschweiler may not be a familiar name, but he is one of the most important men in English cricket, responsible for finding the new Joe Roots and Jos Buttlers - that is, young, England-born talent. After playing six first-class matches with Hampshire in the early 2000s, he has been a coach for the England Development Programme since 2011, where he heads the U-17 national programme and works closely with the U-19s and U-16s. His job is to ensure that the English cricketing pyramid, from schools to clubs to county academies to the national team is working as one, with one goal: to ensure as much talent as possible makes it to the top. With a brief like that, he'd be forgiven for looking rather forlornly at the number of England players born abroad. Not so.

"I think having diversity in any sort of environment is a positive thing," he says. "Any player who comes in and drives the standards up has got to be good… regardless of where they're born, if they're coming into the English system we have to embrace that and to utilise everything that's good about them.

"Our scouting process over the last three or four years has been looking at an even wider number of players, and we spend even more time on guys from schools, clubs and districts. The regional programme has grown both at U-15 and U-17 level over the past three years, so the investment going in at a younger age into the development of players is really growing and hopefully we're seeing the fruits of our labour."

Ballance and Jordan arrived at an age where they could still be moulded, thus raising the standards of the English game

Ballance and Jordan arrived at an age where they could still be moulded, thus raising the standards of the English game © PA Photos

The ECB gets many things wrong, but it seems its commitment to youth is laudable. It has created a production line that ensures the best young players are ready by the time they make their international debut - Root had already toured the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia, the UAE, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and India by the time he won his first England cap.

In 2009 the ECB successfully lobbied the UK Home Office to tighten up rules governing the movement of Kolpak players - cricketers born abroad who are not England-qualified but available for counties because they are eligible to work on a European Union passport. The idea was to force counties to place greater emphasis on developing homegrown players rather than take the easier, myopic option of recruiting experienced players from abroad. The number of Kolpak players has drastically reduced since. Kolpak has almost become a derogatory term; Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale was banned for two matches after calling South Africa's Ashwell Prince a "f***ing Kolpak" last September.

Brunnschweiler knows the benefit of an overseas pro - he saw the great work Shane Warne and Neil McKenzie did on and off the pitch at Hampshire - but believes the move was the right one. "The danger with Kolpak players was that you were searching for a short-term answer to what's not a short-term problem," he says. "If you invest in youth then you are pushing young players through who are game-ready in their early 20s. And that's our goal - to have as wide a talent pool as possible."

Ultimately it comes down to talent and timing. While many - but not all - Kolpak players were blocking the path of young English players, the likes of Robson, Jordan and Ballance increased the standard and arrived at an age where they could still be moulded. Wherever they were born, they are ultimately products of the English system. As long as England remains a seductive place to earn a living as a cricketer, the influx will continue. Eighteen counties means there are plenty of opportunities and the money is good. And where there's money, migration tends to follow.

"People travel all over the world for opportunities and that's the way it is these days," says Robson. "People want to play county cricket - it's awesome. Being a professional cricketer day in, day out is very attractive when you're young and then you get used to life here, live here and become part of the system."

Their accents may betray their heritage, but in more ways than one, the three are the face of New England.

Daniel Brigham is a sportswriter and editor. @dan_brigham