Toby Roland-Jones, the scourge of Yorkshire, breakfasts on champions. Three times in the space of 13 months he cut down the White Rose with zeal, culminating in a hat-trick at Lord’s to finish off an epic title decider, and deliver Middlesex their first County Championship since 1993.
In September 2015, Roland-Jones had transformed the Lord’s match against Yorkshire with a maiden first-class century, followed by a five-wicket haul. Then, last July, he launched Middlesex’s title tilt with another blistering batting display, this time at Scarborough. Two months on, in the late September sun, he charged in from the Pavilion End to take five wickets in 16 balls, the hat-trick the coup de grâce. He finished with ten in the match and 54 for the season, including 29 at 27 apiece on Lord’s pitches which drove less skilled bowlers to distraction. It took his averages against Yorkshire to 37 with the bat and 18 with the ball. Amid it all, it was easy to forget he had been called up to the Test squad against Pakistan at Lord’s. After a season to cherish, he briefly captained England Lions in the UAE.
Reaching the crease from a long run-up (exactly 20.1m, he says), Roland- Jones seams the ball from an awkward length. With Tim Murtagh, he has formed a daunting new-ball partnership which has taken two-fifths of Middlesex’s Championship wickets over the past five seasons. The pair embody the unflinching pride in the club advocated by Angus Fraser, their managing director of cricket. The Lord’s flourish would not have been possible without the years of hard work that preceded it.
TOBIAS SKELTON ROLAND-JONES, born in Ashford, west London, on January 29, 1988, grew up in nearby Sunbury-on-Thames, a town once in Middlesex, now in Surrey. This geographical ambiguity still prevails in his life: he and his girlfriend, Harriet, live in Surrey – “behind enemy lines”, as he puts it. He first experienced cricket aged four at the Sunbury club – where his father, Russell, coached junior sides – and attended the sporty Hampton School, which was also the alma mater of Surrey’s Zafar Ansari and where England’s assistant coach, Paul Farbrace, once taught. Roland-Jones began as a batsman, but a growth spurt in his late teens meant fast bowling became the priority. Even so, it was not until his final year studying accounting and management at Leeds University that a professional career dawned on him.
Positive feedback from umpires helped earn trials in 2009 with Surrey and Middlesex, who offered him a one-year contract. In a grim 2010, when they finished eighth in Division Two, he topped the averages with 36 wickets at 19. Injuries restricted him to a supporting role in their promotion year of 2011, but he bounced back spectacularly. The following summer he took 61 Championship wickets to help Middlesex finish third in the first division, was named their Player of the Year, and earned selection for the England Performance Programme. He believes he has never bowled better.
A hat-trick in 2013 against Derbyshire, who were dismissed for 60 at Lord’s, suggested an instinct for game-changing moments. And in 2014 he blitzed Northamptonshire with 12 wickets and a 30-ball 60. Freer from injuries, Roland-Jones was performing more reliably, but without losing his show-stopping capability – nor his competitive instinct. Watching Yorkshire retain the Championship on the first day of the 2015 game at Lord’s “did smart a bit. It’s tough to concede a title to a team on your home ground, even if they were worthy winners.”
But that game wasn’t over, and the response from Middlesex, though in vain, was ferocious. They had been dismissed for 106, and trailed on first innings by 193, but by the end of the third day had 573 for eight, with Roland- Jones 103. Misinterpreting a signal from the dressing-room, he had thought a declaration imminent. “So I started going bananas with two overs to go and luckily managed to avoid a few fielders – everything came off.” Five for 27 on the final day secured the match.
Last July he effected a more meaningful result. This time it was at Scarborough, where Yorkshire had never previously lost a Championship match by an innings. Middlesex resumed on the final day on 470 for eight, ahead by 64; after Roland-Jones’s unbeaten 79, from 51 balls with six sixes, the lead had grown to 171. He then took three wickets as Yorkshire were bowled out for 167.
After drawing their first six Championship matches, Middlesex were up and running. “We needed to find a way to win key battles and key matches. We felt we’d started to turn up against the big teams.” There are none bigger than Yorkshire, their opponents in the excruciatingly tense finale. “It was the toughest experience I’ve had,” he says. “The pressure, the crowd, the TV – it was all on the line. I was fielding in front of the Middlesex hospitality box and never looked up once – I just took deep breaths and kept looking at the ground. I wanted to try and find a way.”
And find a way he did. At 174 for six, with 66 needed from six overs, Yorkshire’s title hopes had disintegrated; a draw would leave Somerset champions. But Roland-Jones had Azeem Rafiq caught behind off the last ball of his 12th over, then – after Steven Finn knocked over Steve Patterson – bowled Andrew Hodd with the first of his 13th.
As Roland-Jones reached the start of his run-up, he glanced towards Murtagh, at mid-on. Both men puffed their cheeks, and exhaled: “I was just trying to remember how to bowl.” The next delivery, to the left-handed Ryan Sidebottom, was straight. Sidebottom moved too far to the off side – and lost his leg stump. Roland-Jones did not even realise he had taken a hat-trick. No matter: Middlesex had their first title for 23 years and, for the first time since 1947, the summer of Compton and Edrich, had secured the Championship at Lord’s.
A batsman who became a bang-it-in, seam-bowling all-rounder, and appears to thrive under pressure… there is a touch of Stuart Broad about Roland-Jones. “I want to be the guy who’s there when it counts, the guy the captain knows he can turn to,” he says. “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.”