Derek Pringle explains why successful Test debutant Toby Roland-Jones has what it takes to be an Ashes hit…
In a field obsessed with speed and wham-bam-action plans, Toby Roland-Jones’ sensational Test debut has been a triumph for the old-fashioned values of accuracy, patience and graft, attributes for which English seam bowlers used to be famous.
Headline writers and correspondents certainly had fun playing with his name after he took 8-129 against South Africa at the Kia Oval. Toby Bowler-Batsmen (this after he scored crucial runs as well) and Toby Roll-em-over-Jones were just two examples of the hyphenated hyperbole that occurred after his superb bowling helped England take an unassailable 2-1 lead over South Africa in the Investec Test series.
To take those wickets at the Kia Oval, the house of the Capulets to Middlesex’s Montagues, must have been gratifying too, though perhaps not as much as taking them on a pitch not traditionally kind to bowlers like him.
Times and tides change, just as the patience and defensive techniques, those twin pillars of Test match batting, have changed, eroded by the freneticism of white-ball cricket. What we got at the Oval was a culture clash with the ‘old school’ virtues of Roland-Jones’ nagging line and length exposing the vices of today’s batsmen in ways unlikely even
15 years ago. Not that his high action and hit-the-pitch-hard method would not have brought him success back then, only that he would probably have needed to bowl more overs to gain it.
Those last two attributes – the height and the way he bangs the ball down hard on the seam, not short but on a good length, is what makes him a front runner for the fourth pace bowler’s spot in this winter’s Ashes.
There will be rivals like Mark Wood, Steven Finn, Jamie Overton and even possibly Tom Helm, a young Middlesex bowler who will benefit from more bowling in the first team while Roland-Jones remains with England.
Providing he can present himself fully fit, many like the cut of Wood’s jib with his direct 90mph skidders. For one thing his shorter run-up is not only better suited to over-rates than Roland-Jones’ 30-yard gallop, but also to the 90F-degree heat that can accompany Test matches in Australia. Yet Wood, through no fault of his own, fails Allan Border’s main criterion for being a successful Test pace bowler – height.
Border’s argument is that the best Test batsmen are usually dismissed when you bring them forward on to the front foot rather than when you drive them back, when they have that extra fraction of a second to judge the ball and adjust their stroke accordingly. In bringing them forward the ball needs to carry comfortably to slip, something tall bowlers like Roland-Jones, at 6ft 3in tall, manage to achieve more often than those of shorter stature.
That is not to say sub-six footers cannot be successful at the highest level only that they need to be exceptional, like Malcolm Marshall. Wood has the 90mph pace, but the bar is set very high in other ways. Before he got injured, he was quick but also gun-barrel straight.
What about Finn, some of you might ask? He’s even taller than Roland-Jones, his Middlesex team mate and quicker. Well, height and pace (unless you bowl 93mph plus) alone will not get you the gig for long unless you possess accuracy and, perhaps just as important, the ability to hit the pitch hard on a good length. If that second attribute sounds straightforward enough, it isn’t, and there have been plenty of tall bowlers who have found it difficult, Andy Caddick among them.
A fine bowler, Caddick’s natural length was about seven or eight feet short of the full length sometimes required when the ball is swinging or seaming. When he did pitch it up, it often lacked that crucial bit of venom, at least when compared to his standard delivery. With Roland-Jones there does not seem to be such a disparity between lengths, which bodes well for the harder surfaces of Australia.
Finn, for all his qualities and early successes, does not possess anywhere near the drip-drip accuracy that bowlers like Glenn McGrath turned into a such a potent asset. Roland-Jones is not yet in that class either, but as his pitch map from the Oval suggests, he is better at it than Finn.
One thing the pair do share, though, is an overlong run-up presumably from their emulation of Angus Fraser, now Middlesex’s Director of Cricket and another pace bowler who needed a Satnav to find the end of his mark. Now that captains can be banned for slow-over rates you’d think such lengthy run-ups would be seen as a luxury too far.
Forcing batsmen to take risks in order to score runs off accurate bowling on true pitches is what much of Test cricket is all about – the gunfighter’s stand-off. Amla, who made an unbeaten 311 the last time he played England at the Oval, is a difficult man to prise from the crease and not prone to blinking first. Except that Roland-Jones, who was getting the odd ball to seam, forced him into an injudicious nibble outside off-stump.
Amla’s dismissal to Roland-Jones in the second innings, after he’d faced 36 balls, was even more symptomatic of the power of accuracy, the batsman caught in two minds whether to leave the ball on line or, given the extra bounce that had dismissed him in the first innings, length. Whatever his thought processes they seemed to occur that crucial fraction of a second too late, the ball clipping his withdrawing bat and ending up in Joe Root’s hands at slip.
There is never an optimum time to blood players in international cricket though at 29, Roland-Jones might have thought his time had passed. Having been around the block will help him keep grounded though he will need to keep learning the odd new trick just to cope with his latest challenge.
Mature he might be, but he is not immune to bone-headedness as his bowling at Alastair Cook in Middlesex’s Championship match against Essex in late June revealed. Cook made 193 but Roland-Jones bowled too short at him, something akin to charity given the batsman’s penchant for 85mph bouncers. Such posers will need to be overcome if he is to have a late flowering at international level.
So far, with a sensible head on his shoulders and the necessary inches Border feels are crucial to success in the Test arena, the omens look good.