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over 5 years ago | Interviews

Raring to go

For county cricket fans, the off-season can be tough, an endlessly stretching expanse of checking off days on a calendar, waiting for the next campaign to begin. However, this year has been different. While winter seems to have ended early this year, with a February heatwave drawing out the sunbathers even as it worries the climate change campaigners, for Middlesex fans, even without it there would have been plenty to puncture the gloom.

Perhaps top of the list was a tweet posted by the official Middlesex twitter account, which showed fast bowler Toby Roland-Jones steaming in at full pace in the nets at La Manga, a sight not seen since the beginning of last season, when a recurrence of a back stress fracture ruled him out indefinitely.

While the weather out there in the supposed Mediterranean reportedly didn’t compare well to the balmy climes in the UK, there was little that could dampen Roland-Jones’ disposition; he’s back, and he couldn’t be happier. “I’ve waited a long time to be in this position, and all the work I’ve done leading up to it, it certainly is a nice feeling,” he says. “I felt like the rhythm was there by the end, I was hitting the crease well. I certainly had no restrictions or limitations going through the crease, and once you get that feeling there’s nothing physical that you’re thinking about.”

That Roland-Jones is bowling at all is a story in itself, but it is perhaps worth tempering some of the fervour surrounding his return. There is still work to be done, but encouragingly, the man himself recognises this.

“There’s the reality that these overs count for nothing, nothing replicates being on the park. That’s still the endgame, to try and be ready and raring to go at the start of the season. It certainly feels like a step in the right direction, but there’s plenty more to go.”

After a long period out, it’s only natural to expect a reacquaintance period with the intricacies of your own action, and also the aches and pains that are the fast bowler’s lot. “I’m just trying to get back to the position at the crease which I feel gave me my identity, if you like,” Roland-Jones says. “I’ve always had a fall-away at the crease, so it’s trying to maintain that but also be nice and strong in that position.

“When you haven’t bowled for a while, your body takes a bit of time getting up to speed and getting hardened to something which is pretty unnatural for it, to be honest. There’s a bit of getting used to all the aches and pains that come. You’ve got embrace them really, that’s all part and parcel. There’s not many times where you’re fully fit of feeling 100 per cent fresh heading into any game. It’s just about managing that, managing workloads etc. and getting used to that feeling of bowling.”

“Managing workloads”, as Roland-Jones puts it, is sure to be a key phrase going forward, and it’s another aspect where the seamer’s realism should come to the fore. “With any big injury you’ve got to be smart enough to realise that you’ve got to manage it a bit. The plan is to be able to compete from the start of the year and to take it as any normal one and we’ll react to anything that comes our way. If the back feels a little bit stiff one day then you might have to react and be a bit smart in what you do going forward.”

Whatever uncertainties there might by over Roland-Jones’ physical state however, his competitive spirit has only grown stronger during his enforced absence. “Fundamentally what you want to be doing as a professional and as someone who enjoys the game and has grown up playing at Middlesex is you want to play and compete. Once you get that green light to go and once you’re passed fit again the edge kicks in 100 per cent. That’s the only place you want to be really.”

His return only adds to a growing sense of excitement surrounding the year ahead. With a pair of high-profile T20 imports in Mujeeb Ur Rahman and AB de Villiers – whose signings are described by Roland-Jones as “a statement of intent from the club for T20 cricket” – and new head coach Stuart Law injecting a breath of fresh air, hopes are high that the coming season could be a special one for the club.

“There’s definitely lot of positives,” Roland-Jones says. “The guys feel relaxed, I don’t think there’s too much of a sense of guys feeling like they’ve got to prove themselves or do too much but at the same time obviously a new coach does bring elements of guys wanting to impress also. There’s a positive aura, guys are enjoying their training, so hopefully that leads to a positive season for everyone.”

For all that, Roland-Jones, sensibly, isn’t thinking much further from a personal point of view than just getting back on the field. “I’ve never been someone who’s looked too far ahead in terms of achievement or what defines a good season,” he says. “There’s so many different limiting factors so I try and take it one day at a time really and not try and get caught up in what should define a good season. If you only play 10 games in the year then your wicket haul will be dependent on that. I don’t try and focus on that too much, I’d rather focus on one day at a time, one step at a time.”

It’s an attitude you fancy has served him well. Taken as a whole, being out for the best part of 18 months could seem daunting. For some players, it could even be damaging. Taking it one day at a time might not make the time pass quicker, but it does allow you to use that time as best as possible. Roland-Jones has worked towards a business degree, been able to stay around the squad without feeling like he’s missing out, and even got married at the end of 2018.

For someone facing a potentially career-defining injury, an ability to focus on the good in the here and now is invaluable. But really for anybody choosing to make a career in sport, especially one like cricket, where fortunes can fluctuate wildly by the day, and with plenty more highs than lows, such a trait is worthwhile.

“I’ve certainly always tried to stay in the moment and not think too far ahead and think of what might come; I like to think that’s what gave me a good chance of getting where I did in the first place, just concentrating on Middlesex. I feel like they’ve been great in the way they’ve stuck by me in the past few seasons so I’m definitely going to try and repay a bit of that.”

There’s no telling what he’ll go onto do, but considering what he’s been through, even bowling that first ball will represent a significant achievement. It would also be no less than he deserves.

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