Toby Roland-Jones is not being taken seriously. South Africa certainly learned he was no joke after five wickets in the first innings and three in the second, but outside the confines of The Oval boundaries, Roland-Jones’ success was met with a cheeky grin.
He was viewed as the everyday chap with a posh-sounding name who doesn’t bowl particularly fast and is getting on a bit, but nevertheless is taking it to the Saffers. Every post-wicket cheer may as well have been rounded off with a ‘go on my son’.
But Roland-Jones isn’t the havea-go hero you’re just as likely to meet in your local club’s pavilion as at Lord’s. He is a proper, Test-class bowler to be fawned over, just like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, rather than someone to be faintly patronised.
The air of condescension started as soon as Roland-Jones started chipping way under gloomy, spitting clouds. ‘Great bowler in these conditions’ they crowed.
Well, Anderson, of nearly 500 Test wickets, is the archetypal bowler under grey skies – and he was hooked out of the attack in a bold move by captain Joe Root to accommodate the new man. Everyone else followed his lead.
One prominent journalist even suggested Alan Richardson, a highly productive if limited county seamer who never won a cap, would have been ‘unplayable’ in such conditions while others offered more English stalwarts of that ilk such as Dave Masters, Rikki Clarke, and even Kent’s chief dibbly-dobbler Darren Stevens.
They would only have ever touched 80mph on a very energetic day. Even though he comfortably exceeds that mark some of you, by habit, will have checked the speed gun following each of RolandJones’ wicket-taking ball and applied an asterisk to both barrels of his name.
Roland-Jones had watched Anderson and Stuart Broad bowl a touch short and immediately started pitching it fuller.
It was a change of tack that showed all his wiliness yet often on the international stage, if you lack the searing pace or simply don’t pass rigid physical parameters, guile or cleverness is sneered at as an inadequate substitution.
In fact, England have stumbled upon a highly consistent, classical seamer who perfected his game on the county circuit and delivered on debut like a player who is supremely confident of his ability.
By accident or design, they have finally placed their trust in polished county products as Tom Westley, who also showed promise as No3 batsman, plugged away at Essex for a decade before receiving his cap at the age of 28.
At one point during the first innings Roland-Jones conceded four runs from an overthrow. It may have knocked an ordinary rookie off his stride, but not a 29-year-old who has sent down nearly 17,000 balls in his first-class career.
He erred from a good line at times – he went for four an over in the second innings, a debutant can’t have it all – but he simply ambled back to his mark like he belonged. And he does. Roland-Jones also belongs in an Ashes squad, as neither flat tracks nor Australian sunshine should reveal any deficiencies.
He has taken apart some of county game’s best batting units on many benign wickets with Middlesex at Lord’s – until last year, results at the home of cricket were few and far between.
The next big thing can wait for now. The present generation, it turns out, are quite good.
No matter how much praise captain Virat Kohli heaped on his bowlers for earning those Sri Lankan wickets, and the truth is they didn’t come easy, an away Test win rarely comes as such a formality as it did in Galle.
After Shikhar Dhawan laid the foundations with a monumental knock on day one and Sri Lanka lost valuable batsman and fifth bowler Asela Gunaratne to a broken thumb (ruled out of the series), it was inevitable the Test would only have one outcome – an India win.
Cheteshwar Pujara’s hundred, Sri Lanka’s inexperience and naive shot-making, a Kohli ton and the Indian spinners wrapping it up with an entire day to spare, all then became regulation as the tourists sauntered to a 304-run victory.
As for the hosts, a blow to veteran Rangana Herath’s middle finger while fielding – it had to be his bowling hand – added insult to injury.
Sri Lanka will be indeed hoping their luck changes in the remaining two Tests – starting in Colombo on Thursday.
The fact India had to take 17 and not 20 wickets to go one-up in the series explains everything in itself. If that doesn’t, the fact it was India’s biggest-ever away win in terms of margin of victory, certainly does (their previous best being the 279-run triumph against England at Headingley 31 years ago).
For captain Herath and his men, it was their heaviest Test defeat and needless to say had him commenting post-match: “We are a better team than this.”
Amidst all of this, India think they have found an all-rounder in Hardik Pandya, who made his Test debut at Galle. The faith team management and captain placed in him was all too evident when he got the nod ahead of Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav, who had actually enjoyed a fine debut Test against Australia at Dharamsala earlier this year.
While the pitch wasn’t as favourable for a bowler like Pandya who likes to hit the deck hard, he still had a decent game.
What was absorbing to hear though, especially if you’re Pandya, were Kohli’s words in his press conference when asked about what the 23-year-old brings to the Men in Blue.
“First innings, he didn’t get the opportunity to bowl much but I think in the second innings, he bowled really nicely on a wicket that wasn’t offering much and he kept it in the right areas,” Kohli, who himself got back to form with an unbeaten ton, said.
“He used the bouncer well and bowls around 135kph, when he bends his back he can bowl faster. He is a great asset.”
Pandya bowled 10 overs in the Test and claimed the solitary wicket of Nuwan Pradeep. While his bowling was solid, the Mumbai Indians’ star’s batting spoke for itself. He hit five fours and three sixes in his 50-run knock from 49 balls, while having to refuse some runs, thanks to tail-enders at the other end.
It’s early days but there were signs Pandya will go on to play similar knocks in the future.
The newbie’s greatest challenge, and what he will face in the next couple of Tests, is the tag of becoming India’s all-important fifth bowler away from home. It’s perhaps a luxury position for most teams but it’s one that comes with plenty of scrutiny. Many teams face a similar dilemma though.
New Zealand, for example, have been searching for a pace bowling all-rounder and have given both Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme a go, with not great rewards thus far.
South Africa too haven’t found someone as capable and skillful as the legendary Jacques Kallis. Faf du Plessis recently called Vernon Philander ‘the new Kallis’, but he’s some distance away from that privilege – despite his skill with the ball. Likewise, Chris Morris, the talented Proteas quick who at times can struggle for consistency.
For Australia, Mitchell Marsh has been trying for a while to revive his fortunes in Test cricket.
So that leads us to Ben Stokes, arguably the best Test all-rounder in world cricket, across all formats. And Kohli thinks Pandya can emulate Stokes in the future. Can he? Could he? Will he?
“When you play away from home, one guy [the all-rounder] gives you a lot of balance, and I think Hardik can be that guy going ahead, especially playing so much cricket away from home.
“If he grows in confidence – you see someone like Ben Stokes, what he does for England. An all-rounder brings great balance and I see no reason why Hardik Pandya can’t become that for India,” said Kohli.
While Pandya had his feet up after playing his maiden Test in Sri Lanka, Stokes delivered a Man-of-the-Match performance against South Africa, with his century turning the match in the hosts’ favour at the Oval. The Durham man claimed three wickets too and always seems to be involved in the key moments.
It’s too early to say whether Pandya can mirror Stokes in the coming years, but with continued backing from Kohli, there’s no reason why he can’t prove to be just as effective if he nails down that berth.
Stokes’ dogged approach has been key in sky-rocketing his stature and as for Pandya, we’ll have to wait and see as to what really drives him. Only time will tell.
Joe Root has coped under siege from some of the world’s fastest bowlers but, as the newly anointed England captain, he is well and truly in the firing line now.
And the boy who hitherto can do no wrong will be fielding questions off the back foot all summer if his first big call does not pay off – the recall of Gary Ballance.
By all accounts Root’s influence is a key factor behind England’s decision to hand another chance to his Yorkshire chum Ballance, who was last seen in Test whites edging his way around Bangladesh.
That tour, which saw him scratch out 24 runs from four painful innings, was already his second bite at the cherry after struggling against Australian pace in 2015. If he does not show marked improvement against South Africa, and particularly speed king Kagiso Rabada, there is no way England will let him dock in Brisbane ahead of November’s (pencilled in for now) first Ashes Test.
But Ballance’s return is hardly Yorkshire cronyism in action. There are a heap of reasons why the left-hander has been favoured – 815 of them in fact.
That is the amount of runs that Ballance has scored in the County Championship this season – second only to the evergreen Kumar Sangakkara – having broadened his shoulders over the winter with the Yorkshire captaincy.
The 27-year-old needed to make that type of statement to turn a call-up from an improbability into a possibility. All Root has reportedly done is nudge him over the line.
But what happens if Ballance flounders at Lord’s this week? The decision to call him up in the first place will be lumbered upon Root rightly or wrongly. He will also be praised or pilloried for the batting line-up, the bowling choices, the body language, the fielding placements.
And in case he forgets, he still has his batting record to worry about as well. Now, for the first time in his career, Root’s burdens will extend beyond the next ball he faces at the crease.
The relevancy of a captain in many team sports can be debated but certainly not in cricket. When you are standing in a field for more than six hours a day the mind invariably wonders but while others will be thinking about what they are having for tea, Root will be scrutinising and second-guessing every decision he has made and is yet to make.
As far as previous England captains go, David Gower perhaps shares most with a happy-go-lucky Root in the personality stakes but even he was ground down – twice – by the nature of the beast.
“If your side is losing, then it can be very lonely,” Gower told The Telegraph in a recent interview. “You have these insidious little doubts. It takes you five overs to make a decision. And the reason it all ends in tears is that inevitably, at some stage, it gets too much.”
Gower was forced out for good in 1989 and his relationship with successor Graham Gooch rapidly declined. Ian Botham resigned during the Ashes. Kevin Pietersen quit after three Tests. Alastair Cook stepped down after a 4-0 thrashing to India. If this is the kind of fate that awaits Root, he must be mad.
But it would have been bonkers not to accept. The prestige of captaining your country and guiding it to victory is unparalleled – it is just that the negatives will be felt all the more acutely.
So in supporting the return of Ballance, Root is tied up in another sub-plot just as his first chapter as England captain begins. He can only hope it does not become the main story of his summer.
Lasith Malinga is – quite literally – the biggest culprit of Sri Lanka’s fatness farce but you can have a certain amount of sympathy for his scathing assessment of the blazers in charge.
After Dayasiri Jaysekara, Sri Lanka’s sports minister, pointed out that the team was not fit enough, Malinga replied: “What does a monkey know about a parrot’s nesting hollow? This is like a monkey getting into a parrot’s nest and talking about it.”
The sympathy doesn’t rest in Malinga’s flimsy defence over his size, but that his bosses have only just woken up to the problem.
Just two players in the entire squad for the current series against Zimbabwe are thought to have passed an endurance test. While professional athletes should of course take some responsibility for their shape, why is it only now that the administrators have recognised the situation?
As elite sport increasingly uses technology to identify marginal gains – there have been tales of teams searching for the comfiest of pillows to ensure a good night’s sleep – that Sri Lankan standards have been allowed to slip so badly is a damning indictment.
The resignation of head coach Graham Ford last month will not fix a culture of laziness that is deeply embedded across the board, including the board.