Toby Roland-Jones has already found himself in the top five of England’s Most Valuable Player rankings in Test cricket. Not a bad accolade after a single Test. One more impressive performance will surely get him on the plane to Australia for the Ashes.
That debut could have been more remarkable yet as he fell a foot short of a hat-trick in South Africa’s second innings, Chris Morris’s edge not quite carrying to slip. “That might have been too greedy,” he said. You could almost imagine him turning it down, like a third helping of gooseberry crumble.
While the PCA’s computer algorithm is beside itself with excitement after his eight wickets at The Oval, Roland-Jones does not look the sort to succumb to overnight visions of superstardom.
He is 29, self-effacing, somewhat out of fashion as far as Test fast bowlers go, and he views county cricket as a rewarding and contented life, unlike some ambitious, single-minded achievers who proclaim they only play it in the hope that one day the call will come from the national selector.
In view of England’s fluctuating Test form, the need for consistency has been a topic of conversation in the England group. England’s response to winning well at Lord’s was to lose recklessly at Trent Bridge. A similar outcome would enable South Africa to square the series.
“There’s been a bit spoken about how this team has responded to winning games and trying to stop that up-and-down nature of results,” Roland-Jones said. “This game seems like as good a time as any to try to change that and really cement the series win.”
To bolster his balanced view of life, one of his guiding hands is Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s director of cricket, whose 177 Test wickets in 46 toiling Tests were about as stable as English cricket got in the 1990s. Fraser is so committed to his players keeping their feet on the ground it is a mild surprise they do not have to wear lead boots.
“I approach every game in the same way,” Roland-Jones said, two days out from the final Test against South Africa at Old Trafford, in which England need to avoid defeat to take the series. “It’s a case of just reverting back to type, and starting from scratch again.”
Reverting to type might be a good way to go. Manchester has soaked up weeks of rain and the outfield is punch-drunk with moisture. The portable heat lamps are shining upon the soggiest bits. Old Trafford can produce fast, hard pitches if the weather is clement, but it isn’t. Traditional line-and-length, just as it was at The Oval, is likely to be invaluable here.
Fraser sent him a congratulatory message after The Oval. A downbeat message presumably? “He is pretty straight in his words, but he said how proud he was,” Roland-Jones said. “I have been a part of Middlesex for eight years and he has played a huge role in aiding me both on and off the pitch.”
It was Fraser, more than anyone, who persuaded Roland-Jones that he had England quality and that in an era when explosive bowlers were most in vogue – quicks who could make things happen on flat pitches, Mark Wood being a prime example – he could still make his mark with the more consistent attributes of an old-style England seamer.
“Keep him sweet since he has been an England selector has always been the ploy,” Roland-Jones said, light-heartedly.
“He is a realist. He does not say things for the sake of it. He has always been quick to tell me to be myself. Play my natural game and don’t look too far outside of what I do and keep plugging away and there might be a chance, has always been his message to me.
“There is a lot of talk about bowling certain speeds and that is something I have never had in my game necessarily but if you stick to basics that can work. It helps that he sees a bit of his game in what I am looking to do so that has always meant our views have aligned pretty much over my career.
“His mantra on cricket is viewing fast bowling sometimes as a boring wearing down of the opposition and also knowing that when evenings happen like day two at The Oval when things go your way you can take clusters and try and find a way of turning matches.”
With an Ashes tour on the horizon, however, he is sensible enough to challenge perceptions that his effectiveness is limited to England in an unsettled summer.
“Not necessarily. Naturally that is where I have played my cricket so I am more adept in those conditions more than anywhere else purely on the basis of playing so much over here. But certainly I don’t see that as a limiting factor for me.
“I’ve enjoyed bowling whenever I have gone away. I was in Sri Lanka with the Lions this year and I enjoyed the challenges that those conditions offered and I’ve played in Australia and South Africa. So I see myself as someone who adapts to whatever conditions I play in.”
His home ground of Lord’s (if Middlesex can call their tenancy a home) also works in his favour. The most sedate Championship pitches in the past few years have been found in St John’s Wood. Even in Middlesex’s Championship season in 2016, they were nearly broken by a series of Lord’s draws.
“In the last few years they have appeared to be a lot more batsmen friendly,” he said. “Those experiences make you a better player for having to learn different modes of getting people out, whether that is with the fields you set or reverse swing, trying to find the most dangerous approach on the day.”
For many seasons, seeking to produce match-winning performances for Middlesex has sustained Roland-Jones. It was other names which flashed briefly into wider public consciousness. If Roland-Jones attracted the headlines it was just as likely to be for some barnstorming late-order hitting, an attribute which was also on show at The Oval.
“I suppose it hasn’t always felt like it was particularly close – dipping in and out of form,” he said of England selection. “You never really know exactly where you are on the pecking order.
“But at the same time I have always felt that when I am sustaining my best I have been able to put in match-winning performances for Middlesex. I have always been pretty content with that.”