England vs Pakistan: Toby Roland-Jones wins well-deserved call-up to squad
England’s selectors have sprung something of a surprise by bringing Toby Roland-Jones into the squad for next week’s first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s. Not that his inclusion is exactly out of the blue. An impressive first-class average of 25.17 from 75 matches is just the kind of record you’d hope might lead to international recognition. Indeed, the 28-year-old was an ever-present member of the England Lions team during its winter tour matches.
Still, debate about England’s XI had focused largely on the likely batting line-up, so the inclusion of an additional bowling option was an unexpected turn of events. Whether Roland-Jones will take the field next Thursday remains to be seen, but it may be helpful that the match is taking place at his home ground – and with question marks over the form of Steven Finn, it is not impossible that England could field two debutants, in Roland-Jones and Jake Ball.
In any case, at least one of the pair will play, and so we will have a glimpse of what the future might look like without Jimmy Anderson, who is foiled by a shoulder problem. The beneficiary of his absence next week therefore has a chance to put down a marker for the post-Anderson world – hopefully still some way off, but not necessarily so distant if injuries continue to intervene.
If Roland Jones’s call-up is a triumph for consistent performances in the Championship, county batsmen may be left scratching their heads by the re-appearance of Gary Ballance. He made a century this week in a losing cause against Middlesex but otherwise has made just two fifties in 14 innings, with an overall Championship average of 33.64 for the season. It’s not the most obvious recall form.
With Scott Borthwick and Tom Westley scoring heavily (albeit in the Second Division as far as Westley is concerned), it is not as if there weren’t other decent contenders to replace Nick Compton at No 3. Yet Ballance seems to have been favoured because he has been successful for England in the past and because Trevor Bayliss is convinced that Joe Root should move up a spot and therefore a replacement is needed, in fact, at No 4 – the slot occupied by Ballance for Yorkshire.
Gary Ballance has been recalled to the England squad (Getty Images)
This desire to have the best batsman in the team coming in at ‘first drop’ remains one of cricket’s great oddities. From a practical point of view it presumes that batting at three gives a player the best chance of being at the crease for the longest possible time. Yet to many, the emphasis on this spot in the batting line-up is more about a traditional, if ill-defined aura of greatness – notwithstanding England’s endless difficulties in producing great No 3s. Indeed, with the exception of Jonathan Trott, have England had a consistently top-class occupant of that position since David Gower? Many good players have had a go but few made it their own.
Joe Root has already appeared at No 3 in five Tests, without much success. Yes, he is a better, more experienced player now and maybe he will be the long-term answer to the Gower conundrum. But the selectors are taking a double risk by their approach. Let’s hope they don’t come to regret it.
Pakistan will surely prove much tougher opposition than the meek Sri Lankans, who must be glad to see the back of England after failing to win a single match against them.
The return of spot-fixer Mohammed Amir will be of most obvious interest next week. That Lord’s should be the venue for his first Test back adds an extra degree of piquancy – although the reaction of the crowd in St John’s Wood is likely to be more polite than at Old Trafford or Edgbaston.
Mohammed Amir in action against Somerset (Getty)
Amir took good wickets in this week’s warm-up against Somerset; the booming in-swinger which did for Peter Trego was a reminder of the bowler’s talent. Also on show was leg-spinner Yasir Shah, who was too good for England in the UAE last autumn and took six wickets in Taunton. Between them, Shah and Amir offer the game’s greatest wonders – genuine pace and tricky leg-spin.
And if any man can offer fatherly guidance to these young guns it is Misbah ul-Haq. After the disgrace of 2010’s match-fixing scandal, Misbah almost single-handedly returned the Pakistan team to an even keel. When all the circumstances are considered, it is impossible to conclude there has been a better international captain this decade, although at the age of 42 Misbah presumably can’t carry on for much longer. More’s the pity – both for Pakistan and for anyone who loves the game.