It was a complete mismatch. A 29-year old debutant pitted against one of the best batsmen in modern day cricket. There was little doubt in the viewer’s minds as to who would emerge on top. After all, this batsman had scored 312 in the very same ground five years back against an even better bowling attack. This seemed like child’s play.
We are talking about Hashim Amla, that bearded warrior from South Africa and Toby Roland-Jones, a fringe player for over a year who finally won his debut cap at The Oval last week against South Africa in the third Test of the series.
But 33 balls into his Test debut and Roland-Jones was trending all around Twitter. He had destroyed South Africa with his brilliant seam movement and impeccable lines. The visitors were reduced to 47/5 and four of those had belonged to Roland-Jones.
Four wickets in the first 33 balls of his Test career was beyond any debutant’s dreams. That the four victims included Hashim Amla, who had tirelessly weathered out England at The Oval five years back further enhanced Roland-Jones’ credentials.
He had already dismissed Dean Elgar with a peach of a delivery when Hashim Amla walked in at no.3 to face him. Soon enough, the ball took off from the surface to surprise Amla, found the edge of his hung out bat and rested safely in the mitts of Johnny Bairstow. Roland-Jones had struck for the third time in 24 balls.
There was a wide smile on his face this time. He knew he had grabbed a prized scalp. Amla was a demi-god in this South African line-up, a fighter of the highest standards. Debutants are meant to be punched solidly through the covers by Amla, not bewilder him with bounce and movement. Yet, that is exactly what Roland-Jones did on his debut. And, he wasn’t done yet.
In the second innings, Amla was even more watchful against Roland-Jones, survived 36 balls for 5 runs before the 37th ball forced an outside edge from him that Root gobbled up in the slip cordon. Roland-Jones had devoured Amla for the second time in the match. No, not done yet.
Amla switched his approach at Old Trafford for the last and final Test of the series. He appeared more positive at the crease and unfurled his array of drives, punches and flicks. He drove and punched Broad through cover and point off consecutive balls before glancing Roland-Jones to the square-leg fence.
Yet, in the very next ball, the Middlesex bowler earned a slice of luck when he had Amla nicking one down the leg-side through to Bairstow. It was a nothing delivery, on the stumps, moving straight, one which Amla would flick to the fence all day long. But not this time.
He walked across in his usual calm demeanour, brought his bat down from the gully area and unleashed the flick. But the ball hadn’t found the meat of the bat. It found a feather off the willow and went through to Bairstow who completed an easy catch. Three in three for Roland-Jones.
One could probably attribute that last wicket to slice of luck but Roland-Jones had earned it. Any other time, Amla would have flicked that nonchalantly. He was perturbed by England’s new-found third seamer and it showed in his approach. There was indecision in shot making and lack of clarity behind the thinking.
Amla’s second innings at Old Trafford generated quite a lot of buzz. Sure enough, Root handed the ball to Roland-Jones quickly when Amla started off. He had to. The Middlesex man had found a way past South Africa’s brick wall and the English had to exploit it.
But Amla continued to attack Roland-Jones, a method he deemed would disrupt the rhythm of the fast bowler. A good length delivery outside the off-stump was dispatched with an elaborate drive through the covers. Two balls later and he unfurled another drive, as Roland-Jones persisted with his channel to Amla. Back to back fours ensued as the ball scurried past cover and mid-off in the next two balls. Three boundaries had come off the over.
Two overs later, Roland-Jones hadn’t still changed his tactic against Amla and neither did the South African. The driving continued and yet another ball raced through the covers off the meat of the bat. Amla was creaming the ball now. This was Amla in the best of touches. Root never bothered to bowl Roland-Jones to Amla in the next 20 overs and the South African was eventually undone by Moeen Ali for 83 well-made runs. South Africa needed more but Amla had conquered a personal demon.