It would be easy to mope if you were Toby Roland-Jones. Four years ago, he was the toast of the English game – a broad-shouldered seamer with classical English traits, who sealed the County Championship for Middlesex with a hat-trick in 2016, then claimed eight wickets on Test debut against South Africa at The Oval the following summer.
With a deck-hitting action that could trouble well-set batsmen, and a grooved ability to bang out line and length for sessions at a time, he was a shoo-in for further honours on the 2017-18 Ashes tour, until a stress fracture of his back unleashed a run of injuries that has scarcely abated since.
In the summer of 2018, Roland-Jones didn’t make it past the first month of the season – his diligent recuperation that previous winter had earned him an England Lions trip to the Caribbean, but the crack in his back was shown to have widened after he limped out of his second match of the season at Derby.
And though he showed signs of his best form the following year with 37 wickets at 28.21, 2020 was another write-off – a shoulder injury this time kyboshing any involvement in that season’s rejigged itinerary.
But now he is back, and seemingly with a vengeance too, thanks to a rigorous off-field regime that, in the words of his Middlesex head coach, Stuart Law, has “completely changed his body shape and body composition”. At the age of 33, time is not entirely on Roland-Jones’ side if he wants to make up for the lost years of his prime. But he’s adamant that, this time, he’s given himself the best chance to succeed.
“Last year did have a lot of perspective attached to it, with all the [Covid] goings on,” Roland-Jones tells ESPNcricinfo. “But given the disappointment of those recent seasons, my focus this year has been on a long-term goal, and making changes from a physical standpoint as well as a bowling standpoint, to set things up for one, two, three summers, rather than hoping to get through three games back-to-back.”
Roland-Jones himself is modest about the changes he has made – and perhaps cautious too, given how much he has learned from painful experience in recent years. But when Law, a hard-bitten Aussie not given to hyperbole, states that a player has “changed the way he’s gone about doing things” and is looking “super fit”, it’s obvious that the effort is more than just a case of “training more and eating less”, as Law also (more flippantly) put it.
“I’m not sure that’s the technical term for it!” Roland-Jones jokes. But either way, he hopes that this lighter load through the crease, and a reduction of strain in his action, will break the cycle of injuries that, he believes, all stem from the same initial problem.
“With bowling there is a definite connective chain that goes on,” he says. “With so many pressure points, particularly in the lower back, if you’re trying to offset anything from there, it’s tricky because other areas are really going to feel that load.
“In the frame that I had, for maybe the last year-and-a-half or so, my action was starting to feel a little bit jerky, and things looked like they were harder work than they needed to be.
“A lot of fast bowlers can make it look effortless, no matter how much work they put in, so I’ve tried to enhance the mobility on my bowling shoulder, and lean up to create a little bit more room for the joint to regain its elasticity, which was probably getting a bit lost while I was combating so many injuries.”
There’s only so much that can be read into pre-season friendlies. But Roland-Jones’ match figures of 16-6-22-2 in his first run-out against Yorkshire at Merchant Taylors’ last week hint at a bowler who is comfortable with where his game is at, without over-extending any ambitions for the sharper end of the season.
“That first run back on grass always has a period of adjustment, of getting back to it,” he says. “But, to a man, everyone seems to have found their rhythm as it went on, so it was a really positive couple of days. The sun shone on us as well, which is always a blessing at this time of year. After spending lots of the winter in the gym and a tent, it’s so far, so good.”
Roland-Jones’ upbeat demeanour isn’t solely connected to his optimism for the season ahead. In December, he and his wife Harriet had a baby boy, Rory, and so – while the rest of the country was dealing with the strictures of a winter lockdown, his main focus outside of training has been on nappies and night feeds.
“It definitely offers you some good, fresh perspective,” he says. “But it’s been really enjoyable. We’ve been fortunate to have a great distraction during a tricky time for the country, and it’s enabled us to really enjoy that period of being at home and just having time together as a family. And it’s also a timely reminder of the fact that you’re a little bit older, which is always good!”
Back in his day job, however, there are still a pair of ongoing reminders that Roland-Jones is not yet over the hill in sporting terms. In 2017, he was considered one of the frontrunners to take over from James Anderson and Stuart Broad, then 34 and 31 respectively, as England’s attack leader when Father Time finally caught up on their remarkable careers. Four years and several Indian summers later, they seem no closer to the ends of their respective roads, and by extension, neither need he be.
“What those guys are still managing to do to further their careers is pretty inspiring,” Roland-Jones says, “and it’s a testament to all the work that goes on behind the scenes.”
As for whether he might yet be able to join them in Australia this winter, and fulfil the ambition that was so cruelly denied him on the last Ashes tour, Roland-Jones is understandably coy.
“I guess that’s where you’ve probably got to state the difference between goals and ambitions,” he says. “Like anyone, I have ambitions to play higher up. I was lucky enough to get a taster for that, and absolutely, I want to put myself back in the hat.
“But, as someone who has been out of the fold for a little while now, you’ve got to do your grounding in the domestic game and not look too far ahead.
“Because I was never dropped by England, there were certainly a few times, coming back from injury, when I felt I must be only a couple of performances away from being right back in their thoughts.
“I personally didn’t find that a particularly good mindset to be in, and it possibly led to me being a little bit absent in games for Middlesex. So while the ambition is always there, that’s really not my goal for this summer – even though you know that if you put the numbers up that you think you are capable of, anything is possible.”
In many ways, Roland-Jones’ own career trajectory mirrors that of Middlesex as a team – the unforgettable finale at Lord’s in September 2016, when he dramatically settled a must-win encounter with Yorkshire, giving way to the misery of relegation the following summer and a succession of seasons in the doldrums.
Do the glory days feel a little bit distant at times? “I guess they probably need to, to be honest,” he says. “If you’re playing any sport and crowing back to past successes, then you’re probably focusing on too many wrong pointers.
“That’s not to put it in a negative light at all, but while you’re playing, you have to focus on the moment, and that’s often no further than the day’s play that you’re in.
“Whether we as a team have fallen foul of that over the last few years, that’s maybe up for debate,” he adds. “But enough time has passed for the guys to look back on it as something they want to achieve again, without reflecting on it too much.”
With a seam attack that features two other Test veterans in Steven Finn and Ireland’s Tim Murtagh, as well as future England prospects such as Tom Helm, Ethan Bamber and the 19-year-old Blake Cullen, Middlesex have an abundance of weapons with which to take on the new season, although Roland-Jones acknowledges that their returns haven’t always lived up to expectations in recent years.
“That’s something that, as a bowling attack, we need to address,” he says. “On paper, we’ve had a great attack for a number of years and whilst many individuals have performed well over that period, I still think we can look back and say that there’s more to come from us.
“And that’s not a bad thing at all, because that’s how you should be feeling going into a new season. This is a real chance for all these components to come together at the same time.”
And after everything he’s been through these past few years, nobody better embodies the optimism of new beginnings.