Middlesex’s County Championship hero Roland-Jones relishing return to Lords
PUBLISHED: 10:00 20 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:00 20 April 2017
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No-one who was at Lord’s on that glorious late September evening last year against Yorkshire will ever forget Toby Roland-Jones running in from the Pavilion End like a man possessed to claim five wickets in 16 balls, culminating in a hat-trick to win the Championship.
He ended with 10 wickets in the match and 54 in total for the summer – including 29 at 27 apiece on difficult Lord’s pitches in what was a year to savour for the Surrey-born bowler.
Called up to the Test squad against Pakistan at Lord’s, Roland-Jones later briefly captained England Lions in the UAE. And he was recently honoured as one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Year, saying: “I’m very honoured to receive this accolade. It’s humbling to be part of such special company on the winner’s list. But now back to reality.”
Such level-headedness comes in part from his younger years. Before a growth spurt as a raw teenager he was a batsman for Hampton School behind enemy lines in Surrey. Even during his final year at Leeds University studying accountancy, batting was still as much a priority as double-entry bookkeeping, with thoughts of a career as a cricketer seeming far beyond his horizons.
Yet impressing in a trial for Middlesex shortly after his finals saw him earn a stab as a professional with a one-year contract. Middlesex finished eighth in Division Two in 2010, but Roland-Jones took 36 wickets at 19 in his debut year, topping the averages in an otherwise forgettable summer.
Injuries curtailed his progress during the promotion campaign in 2011, but he showed his talent the next summer by taking 61 wickets and helping Middlesex finish in third place. Not bad for a side many tipped for relegation, while Roland-Jones was named player of the year and selected for the England Performance Programme.
In 2013 a hat-trick at Lord’s against Derbyshire – who were 60 all out – indicated a penchant for delivering in big moments and in 2014 against Northants he took 12 wickets, while also smiting a carefree 60 off 30 balls.
But the following summer saw Yorkshire retain the championship at Lord’s. The memory stung. Roland-Jones recalled: “It’s tough to concede a title to a team on your home ground, even if they were worthy winners.”
The experience stood him in good stead. After drawing their first six matches last year they found form and he added: “We needed to find a way to win key battles and key matches. We started to turn up against big teams.”
It all came down to the final overs of the final match of the season – with three teams still in the hunt in those tense minutes – Yorkshire, Somerset and Middlesex. At 174 for six, with 66 needed from 36 balls, Yorkshire’s title hopes were over. Roland-Jones had Azeem Rafiq caught behind with the final ball of his 12th over and, after team-mate Steven Finn snaffled Steve Patterson, then bowled Andrew Hodd with the first ball of his 13th over.
The biggest County Championship final-day crowd for years had gathered expectantly at Lord’s that glorious evening and Roland-Jones walked to the start of his run-up and looked at team-mate Tim Murtagh. “I was just trying to remember how to bowl,” he smiled.
His next ball was straight and lefthanded Ryan Sidebottom moved towards off stump. Far too much. The ball removed leg stump and his team-mates swarmed towards Roland-Jones as the crowd celebrated wildly.
Middlesex had their first title since 1993 and for the first time since 1947 – since the summer of Compton and Edrich – this grand old club had won the Championship at Lord’s as they sealed a 61-run win.
He added: “It was the toughest experience. The pressure, the crowd, the TV – it was all on the line.
“I took deep breaths and kept looking at the ground. I wanted to try and find a way. I want to be the guy who’s there when it counts, the guy the captain knows he can turn to.
“If I’m judged at the end of my career as someone who pitched up when it mattered, I’ll be a very proud man.”
As his team prepares to defend their crown nobody can accuse Roland-Jones of failing to pitch the ball up when it matters.