Toby Roland-Jones’ Debut Worth The Wait

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Toby Roland-Jones
Photo: Philip Brown/Getty Images

By Jeremy Blackmore for LastWordOnCricket

It was perhaps fitting that Lord’s was the setting for Toby Roland-Jones’ long-awaited England debut against South Africa on Monday.

The Ashford-born paceman has a special affinity for the famous old venue in NW8. And not just because, as a Middlesex player, it’s his home ground.

Lord’s was where Roland-Jones wrote himself a permanent place in the Middlesex record books last September, when in the dying moments of the season, he grabbed a hat-trick against defending champions Yorkshire to clinch his county’s first Championship title in 23 years.

He was unable to repeat such heroics against South Africa, but in the middle of a batting collapse, unprecedented even by England’s standards, he showed no shortage of steel and an ability to rise to the big occasion. As Middlesex know well, he is a good man to have in your corner in a crisis.

Finding himself at the crease much earlier than he could have imagined after England slumped to 20-6 after five overs, Roland-Jones set about supporting last remaining specialist batsman Jonny Bairstow rebuild the innings.

Adopting England’s mantra of playing positively, the pair put on 52 in 8.2 overs, as Roland-Jones belied his lowly position in the batting order. Befitting a man with a first-class century, he caressed his third delivery to the long-off boundary to raise the spirits of the England faithful.

The next ball he faced was a snorter from Chris Morris, deflected into his helmet and prompting the attentions of the team physio and doctor. It must have unsettled him for a moment, but he refocussed quickly, playing some classic cricket shots including a gorgeous on-drive off Kagiso Rabada as well as one audacious top-edged hook shot for six into the top tier of the Warner Stand.

Rabada tested him with some more short stuff, but Roland-Jones hung on to push the total above 150. He was last man standing when England were all out, undefeated on 37, scored at exactly a run a ball.

Then with ball in hand, he bowled a tidy and often testing seven-over spell from his favourite Pavilion End at speeds in the mid-eighties, conceding 34 runs and picking up a distinguished first scalp in Hashim Amla.

For a brief period when Roland-Jones bowled in tandem with Jake Ball under lights, the ball nibbling around and both bowlers extracting some bite out of the pitch, England looked like they could have had South Africa in trouble had they had more runs to play with. Indeed, two of Roland-Jones’ overs were maidens (the first Englishman to bowl two maidens on debut since Matthew Hoggard 16 years ago according to BBC Test Match Special statistician Andy Zaltman).

The England camp and former players watching in the commentary box declared themselves suitably impressed with both Roland-Jones’ ability and the way he handled the occasion.

Middlesex team mate and England one-day skipper Eoin Morgan said: “I thought he did really well. Debuts don’t always go as they’re planned. They’re a great day for everybody around your family. Everyone within the team can relate to their first game and I thought he handled it beautifully.

“The way he batted really sums up the type of character he is. He came out and we were in trouble and managed to steer the ship with Jonny and actually work together as a partnership, which was very impressive. And then when he bowled he didn’t let us down. If he’d bowled this morning, it would have been really interesting.”

Making an international debut at the age of 29 is relatively rare these days, but Roland-Jones’ first cap – presented by a man he’s often compared to, Middlesex Director of Cricket Angus Fraser – should come as little surprise. He’s been on the fringes of the England scene for the past year. His call-up as cover for James Anderson for the Test against Pakistan last summer was fitting reward for two seasons in which he claimed 102 Championship wickets.

He missed out on that occasion to Jake Ball, but it was a sign of how his career had developed since missing much of 2013 and 2014 due to injury, which affected his consistency and form. Few bowlers in the county game use the famous slope that runs across Lord’s to better effect, but he’s also shown he can operate on all types of surfaces and get the ball to reverse on flatter wickets at headquarters.

Lions tours to the UAE and Sri Lanka followed over the winter and Roland-Jones made no secret that while helping Middlesex defend their Championship title remained his first priority this year, he continued to harbour ambitions to win full international honours.

Speaking about his call-up this week to the Middlesex website, Roland-Jones said: It’s a special moment to be called in to represent your country, and to be at Lord’s, in front of a packed house, on debut is as exciting as it gets.

“It was a special day for me, a bit of a shame that we were on the losing side, but a great experience.

“All of us county cricketers, we aspire to play international cricket. To come here and be a part of what’s a really special dressing room at the moment, to get a glimpse of that, I was made to feel very welcome.”

Roland-Jones agreed it was extra special making his international debut on his home ground: “It’s a special place and obviously with Middlesex playing here, it felt a little bit familiar. At the same time to be here in front of a packed house to try and battle the nerves, you want to be in those positions to test yourself and try to feel comfortable in those environments, so I certainly enjoyed the challenge.

“Going out to bat, it was almost a no-lose situation which can help sometimes; it released a bit of the nerves. That wasn’t a bad thing. I didn’t feel like I necessarily bowled my best, but at the same time there was some good stuff in there and a bit of rust, bit of nerves, so hopefully with it being the debut, it was to be expected. So, I can’t complain.”

Roland-Jones had a wry smile when reminded about his first wicket: “I’d rather it just said ‘bowled’ maybe, than ‘played on’ the way that he did, but you take whatever you can get. I guess whenever you play in a game like this, a one-off perhaps for now, it’s nice to feel that you’ve got a wicket, got something under your belt to take away, so hopefully those debut nerves are released now. If I can keep pushing myself for any future honours, then hopefully I can try and express myself more.”

It’s clear he doesn’t intend to be a one-cap wonder: “When you’ve experienced this, the crowds, just being part of a group like that and playing on this stage, you naturally get that urge to really keep working hard and pushing more and more. These guys have been great in terms of making me feel very comfortable; that’s something which you want to be part of really. It will be nice to take this back to Middlesex now and hopefully take it with a bit of confidence and try and put in some performances back there.”

Along with his county team-mate Steve Finn who also played on Monday, Roland-Jones remained just outside the core group of fast bowlers in England’s first choice squad for the Champions Trophy. Both men were called into the side for Monday’s final ODI against South Africa, with England opting to rest Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett. Meanwhile, fitness permitting, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad stand ready to come back later in the summer when the Test series against South Africa and the West Indies begin.

However, with such an exceptionally long international season ahead, followed by an away Ashes series, it’s likely that opportunities may arise due to a combination of injuries and the need to manage players’ workload.

It may have been a one-off appearance for now, but Roland-Jones will have done his chances of winning a prized Test debut no harm. His performance on Monday will certainly keep him in the frame should a gap open up during the rest of the year.

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