Eng v SA

Published on July 28th, 2017 | by Arunabha Sengupta

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Toby Roland-Jones rushes in

Seven years of preparation. A platform painstakingly built, season by season.

Such a prolonged wait can go either way. It can forge a fighter out of you. But fruitless knocking on the door is more likely to plunge one into depths of despondency.

It started out great. 38 wickets in the first summer, the incredible high of running in with the historic pavilion of Lord’s behind you. Wickets heaped at just 19.60 apiece. First-Class cricket seems easy if that happens.

Then another season, and then yet another. Wickets kept piling up by the bushel.

But then, there was James Anderson, a big, big name. A classy one at that. He had the new ball for England in his firm grip. There was Stuart Broad, oozing talent, too full of pop and fizz to be everyone’s cup of tea, but a regular in the side all the same.

And then there were many, many others down the years. Chris Tremlett, Tim Bresnan. Then Steven Finn from his own county, who quickly became a regular, went past 100 Test wicket. All the while our young man kept waiting for his turn. Chris Woakes, Mark Wood, Chris Jordan, Liam Plunkett. A plethora of worthy names. Finally Ben Stokes, the man who could turn it on with both bat and ball, electric and high voltage.

In the meantime, the early form withered. You cannot remain at the peak all the time. That is why it is called peak. First-Class cricket is a tough, tough arena. And of course, the lot of the fast bowler is the toughest.

There were perhaps words of encouragement. From Angus Fraser, a man Middlesex is fortunate to have in their midst, charting their direction. But there was also bound to be self-doubt, and moments of despair.

But Toby Roland-Jones carried on. Proving his worth, again and again, year after year. 54 wickets as Middlesex won the Championship. A 10-wicket haul in the crucial victory against Yorkshire. So effective was he from the Pavilion End that his county preferred to toss him the new ball rather than Finn, in spite of the latter’s 100-plus Test wickets.

Yes, 2016 was a great year. But he was 28 by the time the season was over. The use-by date of a fast-medium bowler seemed to have been passed along the way. There had been glimpses of hope in the fantastic summer, but surely there were doubts. Was it too late?

The Lions tours to Abu Dhabi, to Sri Lanka … all encouraging. But the crucial final call did not come. Yes, there was a ODI in May. But that was about all. Always on the fringes, always just about to cross the threshold into big-time cricket. But never quite managing that last, defining step.

And finally, as the season progressed into its latter phase, Roland-Jones was included in the side. Third Test against South Africa, in the midst of a keen, see-saw series.

What did one expect from him? Nerves, perhaps? Rendered overawed by the pressures, of the gushing feeling of seven years of expectations.

But when he walked out on the second day, for his first bit of action, he seemed to belong. Why, this was easy. This was what life was supposed to be.

Oddly enough he did not start out with what he did best. Roland-Jones trotted in to bat, with England at a not-too convincing 279 for 7. He was supposed to be decent with the willow, a non-rabbit. That was about all.

And then, whatever he did came off. There was Stokes at the other end, the same Stokes with the flaming head, who wielded his bat more and more like a devastating mace as wickets fell around him. But even then, as they put on 37, it was Roland-Jones who got 25 of them. At a run-a-ball. Flicking Chris Morris to the fence, driving Morne Morkel straight and on the up, whipping Morris twice more off his pads.

Then Morris pitched short and Roland-Jones pulled. It went off the top edge and sailed over fine leg for six. He could do no wrong. In the next over Rabada dropped short and there was the pull again, this time all middle, no edge. The ball rocketing to the square leg fence.

Test cricket seemed simple.

Yes, he fell to a change of pace, with Keshav Maharaj coming on with his left-arm spin, sending in an arm-ball. But he had done his job.

And then he walked out to do what he was indeed good at.

After 3 overs from Anderson the senior paceman was rested and skipper Joe Root tossed the ball to the rookie. The 29-year-old rookie.

An edge induced in the first over. Off Dean Elgar. Falling short.

And then he ran in for his second over. Elgar pushed forward, the ball hit something and ended up in the gloves of Johnny Bairstow. Appeal. Roland-Jones going up, eyes a curious mixture of hope and disbelief. Aleem Dar’s finger went up as well. That should be good enough for most. Dar seldom has decisions overturned. Yet, Elgar reviewed. There was a big edge. The rookie had struck in his second over. It was Tea.

The first ball after the break and he almost had Hasheem Amla. The review showed the ball was just about clipping the stumps, but Dar could stick to his decision of not out.

But further success was crowding around in the wings. A full, straight ball. Heino Kuhn was trapped in front. Another review, but the decision was out.

The following over. The ball took off from short of good length. A batsman of Amla’s class could not get his glove out of the way. Roland-Jones had the first three.

Quentin de Kock counter attacked. Two boundaries. Then one bounced a bit more. He tried to work it to the leg side. The leading edge went the other way. The bucket hands of Stokes closed around the ball at gully.

South Africa 47 for 4. Roland-Jones 6-2-20-4.  The first four Protean wickets.

Test cricket was a cakewalk. Was this the domain which he wanted to enter for so long and had been told he was not ready yet? Roland-Jones was out to make up for lost time. It looked likely that he would make up for 7 long years in one solitary overcast late-afternoon.

True. It was overcast. The floodlights had to be turned on. The ball moved about. Batting was not easy at The Oval. The South Africans were panicking, especially evident at the way Faf du Plessis padded up to a straight one from Anderson.

Roland-Jones did have the conditions in his favour.

But, that can take nothing away from his incredible entrance on the big stage.

The years of patience. It had not only borne fruit, it had come up with a bumper harvest.

Yes, Stokes with his application at the beginning, his rain of sixes towards the end of the innings, with his spectacular flourish as he completed the fighting century, was perhaps the marginally more important man in the context of the game. The one who had come in at a precarious 120 for 4 and shepherded England to 353, milking the bowling at first, pulverising it towards the end. The indisposition of Vernon Philander had helped matters, but Stokes had been nothing short of magnificent. He also got a wicket late in the day as the Proteans dug themselves further and further into a giant hole.

Yet, it was the fairytale debut of Roland-Jones, that has got to be the highlight of the day, the sweetest fruits of patience and labour that was harvested so delightfully at the historic ground.

Cricket, as the cliché goes, is a game of glorious uncertainties. Some of its uncertainties are glorious enough make one break into a wide smile, at the realisation that life can indeed be immensely joyful after all the trials and tribulations and setbacks and delays it puts one through.

Toby Roland-Jones. It has been a long, long journey, sometimes frustrating, often exasperating. But you have finally arrived, and how!

Take a bow!

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About the Author

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Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.



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