Jo Harman speaks to Toby Roland-Jones, the Middlesex quick who is back to his best after four years of injury torment.
Some things really are worth the wait. After the best part of a decade plying his trade on the county circuit, it took Toby Roland-Jones just 10 balls to make an impact at Test level, Dean Elgar feathering an edge through to Jonny Bairstow to give the Middlesex seamer an early breakthrough at The Oval in 2017.
He took another wicket in his next over, and another in the over after that – a ripsnorter which took the glove of Hashim Amla, who he’d also dismissed on his ODI debut two months earlier. When Quinton de Kock fell in Roland-Jones’ sixth over, the debutant’s figures read 4-20 from 33 balls.
He would finish the innings with 5-57 and the match with 8-129 – the best figures by an England bowler on Test debut since James Kirtley in 2003, also against South Africa.
Having gobbled up wickets for fun on the county circuit – including a haul of 54 in Middlesex’s Championship-winning season of 2016, when Roland-Jones’ hat-trick against Yorkshire sealed the title on a magical final day at Lord’s – this classical English seamer had proved he could mix it with the very best.
“I felt like playing at the highest level was bringing out a good side in my game,” Roland-Jones tells Wisden. “The pace of Test cricket – physically it’s incredibly taxing. But it also probably enables a higher intensity, and it’s designed to create that. I felt like that was something helping me find an extra five per cent in my game. Even though it was the later part of my career, I was still starting to trend upwards.”
He finished the 2017 Test summer with 17 wickets at 19.64 and was set to form part of England’s Ashes attack that winter before he pulled up during a Championship match against Lancashire, a scan revealing a stress fracture to his lower back.
Given the shellacking England received in Australia, it didn’t feel like such a bad tour to miss – three bowlers who featured on the tour averaged in excess of 100 and haven’t played a Test since. But when Roland-Jones’ 2018 campaign was aborted after just three matches due to a recurrence of his back problem, it became clear that this was more than a temporary blip in his fledgling England career.
Even worse luck was to follow when a quad strain and a shoulder problem meant he didn’t make it on the park in 2020 before a knee cartilage tear forced him to miss the majority of last season. Roland-Jones, now 34, admits he wondered if he’d ever be the same bowler again.
“Alongside the physical side of it and making sure you come back and there’s going to be no recurrence, there’s also that mental battle of working out what it means for you as a bowler. Will you have the same sort of ability and the same skillset that you had before?”
He says the birth of his son offered a welcome distraction and strengthened his resolve to fight his way back to fitness. “I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve got a young son, and it’s been a great time to be around and experience maybe a little bit more than I would have done in his development, and that’s been a real plus for me. It’s also added a bit of motivation – the hope that he can see me play, and to understand what his dad does.”
This summer, Roland-Jones has produced a string of performances to be proud of. After seven Championship outings he had taken 36 wickets, making him the most prolific bowler in the country. The skills that made him one of the most relentless and penetrative bowlers in the county game are still there in abundance and have helped spearhead Middlesex’s promotion bid.
“A lot of hard work has gone into the physical side of things, and you hope that alongside that you can retain the technical aspects as well,” he says, “so it does feel like a nice reassurance that I’m still able to really contribute and produce meaningful performances. I certainly feel I’m bowling as well as I have done in a long time.”
He says he relished working alongside Shaheen Shah Afridi during the Pakistani quick’s early-season spell at the club – “He came with a lot of buzz, he’s an infectious character” – and is enjoying a more positive feel around the club after a miserable run since their Championship triumph of 2016.
“There’s a recognition that we’ve been stranded in the same position for a few years now. We’ve had a little bit of a sticky period following that title win. It feels like there’s a little bit more positivity around the place now and the results have shown that there are guys who are willing to step up a little bit more in games that maybe we’ve lacked over the last few years. We spoke about making sure that it’s an 11-man effort and trying to make sure that you don’t leave it to the next guy. The stats probably reflect that.”
It’s not been a vintage summer for seamers, with the Dukes ball receiving widespread criticism, but Roland-Jones takes a pragmatic view.
“I’ve carried my own ball with me for most of the season,” he jokes. “They’ve certainly been a little bit indifferent. Any new ball is always going to have its challenges for batsmen, and that period remains reasonably similar, but I think it’s more how quickly the balls have gone soft.
“It’s a really good skill for any seamer to try and put their mind to utilising those flatter periods in the game – to still contribute and take wickets and find different ways to be effective. I think that’s fundamentally what makes people better bowlers as they grow and learn.”
There aren’t many cannier seamers on the county scene, and with a number of England quicks succumbing to stress fractures and other injuries of their own, an international recall could be within reach. Roland-Jones hasn’t given up hope of resuming his England career but says it’s not what drives him.
“It’s always nice to be remotely close, let alone thought about. I guess I’ve always liked the idea of pushing myself to see what happens, and never saying never. I’ve seen a few guys mentioned. The ambition should always be to see if you’re able to play international cricket. I’m no different, until the body suggests that is unrealistic.
“My main focus has always been to try and perform well at county level and to know that if you do that for long enough, then you at least ask questions of people. That’s what got me into that position originally in 2017 and it’s not something that I particularly dwell on or strive towards. It’s about focusing on the present.”