Toby Roland-Jones admits he was slightly taken aback when the England Lions head coach Andy Flower asked him to lead the team for the historic four-day match against Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi this week.
But the 28-year-old is not a captaincy novice, having led age-group teams and the Middlesex Second XI in the past – and he is relishing the responsibility, as shown by his five-wicket haul on the second day.
“I wouldn’t say they were nerves, but I did have to get used to the idea,” he said. “But I enjoyed it. I had quite an easy attack to navigate I guess, a lot of guys who know what they’re doing and know their roles. It was a pretty hard fought day as well, a bit of to and fro. So yeah, all in all pretty pleased.
“I suppose the only thing it changes is once you’ve finished bowling there’s not much time to switch off. Your head’s always in the game. But I suppose that’s a positive as well, you’re always concentrating and thinking, so you’ve got a pretty clear head when it comes to bowling. I enjoyed the challenge today.
“It was hard work. Early on we probably weren’t at our very best in terms of hitting our lengths when the ball was nipping around a little bit. And it was a shame late on really [as the Afghans recovered from 175 for seven to 273 for nine, with some unorthodox stroke-play from Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan]. It’s pretty hard to set fields at times like that - a few things came off for them, and to be fair they struck the ball pretty cleanly.
“We feel like maybe we’ve bowled ourselves into a strong position and perhaps let that slip a little bit, but I don’t think that’s due to any lack of application from the guys. It could have gone the other way very quickly also. I think the guys will be pretty happy today with the way we’ve gone about our business, and certainly hope to finish it off tomorrow morning and do well with the bat.”
Roland-Jones acknowledged the contribution of his Middlesex team-mate Ollie Rayner, and Surrey’s Tom Curran, who each took two wickets and also took an excellent catch off the bowling of the new captain.
“With Raynesy, he’s made that his thing all year I guess, even in situations where it’s not turning as much he’s found ways to affect the game, with a couple of wickets. As for TC, I don’t think he was overly happy with how he bowled early on even though he’d done more than a job - I guess it sums up his character the way he came back later on when we needed wickets.”
Leading the Lions in the UAE is an appropriate ending to a memorable 2016 for Roland-Jones, which had started with an unexpected late call-up to the Lions squad for their 50-over series against Pakistan A in January.
Between times, he has come closer than ever to a senior England call-up, and played a pivotal role in Middlesex’s County Championship-winning campaign, climaxing with that hat-trick against Yorkshire at Lord’s.
“It’s nice to feel like you’re getting to an age where people talk about guys knowing their game, and feeling like that’s coming into place yourself and you’ve got a pretty strong identity,” he reflected.
“There’s always room for improvement though, and that’s pleasing, to know that your effect on the game is growing. This year I certainly wouldn’t have thought that things would have gone as they have since that call-up in January - so yeah it’s been great, I’ve enjoyed it.”