Toby Roland-Jones will be missing from England’s Ashes squad when it is named on Wednesday morning after the Middlesex seamer was diagnosed with a stress fracture to his lower back with only a week of the season remaining.
It is a cruel blow for the 29-year-old, whose breakthrough international summer of 17 wickets from four Tests, including eight on debut against South Africa at The Oval, demonstrated his accuracy and bounce that made him certain to be heading to Australia at the end of October.
Roland-Jones pulled up with stiffness late on the opening day of his county’s 36-run victory over Lancashire at Lord’s this week, with a subsequent CT scan since showing up a stress fracture in his L5 vertebra. Both Middlesex and England simply stated his domestic season is over without offering a long-term prognosis.
The first Test at the Gabba starting on 23 November sits nine weeks into a recovery time of between six and 12, meaning Roland-Jones will surely be targeting a return for the back end of the series at best. His county team-mate Steven Finn and Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball will now likely slot into the squad behind the first-choice seamers Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes.
Durham’s Mark Wood, in theory England’s fastest, is also a doubt given a persistent heel problem but with a Lions squad set to shadow the senior team for the first part of the tour, the selectors are at least able to give themselves plenty of seam-bowling options for Australia across the two squads.
England’s limited-overs captain, Eoin Morgan, has endorsed both Alex Hales and Jos Buttler for the senior Test squad even though it would deny two of his leading one-day players a chance to further their white-ball experience in Twenty20 over the coming months.
Hales will be discussed for a batting spot, while it is likely to be between Buttler and Surrey’s uncapped Ben Foakes for the reserve wicketkeeper role. Should the call not come, Hales will head to South Africa’s Global T20 League to play for Stellenbosch Kings and Buttler to Comilla Victorians in the Bangladesh equivalent.
Morgan has long been an evangelist for the various short-form domestic tournaments but while he himself is now a white-ball specialist and looking to build a side capable of challenging for the 2019 World Cup, the prestige of taking on Australia in Test cricket is still recognised.
He said: “I’d like to see them play in the Ashes. Ashes and World Cups are the pinnacles of our careers. They have a huge amount of ability in all three formats of the game and if an Ashes opportunity presented itself, as opposed to a T20 league, I’d say take the Ashes every time.”
Both players appear at crossroads in their careers given the abundance of Twenty20 opportunities around the world. For Hales, playing at Stellenbosch could open up the Indian Premier League next spring (a tournament Buttler already plays in) given Stellenbosch are owned by Preity Zinta of Kings XI Punjab and coached by Stephen Fleming, also of Chennai Superkings. Faf du Plessis, the captain of both South Africa and Stellenbosch in the country’s rebooted T20 league, made Hales his first-round pick in the draft last month on the back of the Nottinghamshire opener’s form in their victorious NatWest T20 Blast campaign and his nerveless match-winning 187 not out in the final of the Royal London Cup.
Du Plessis told the Guardian: “I was really pushing for Hales – he was my first choice from the word go because he’s the most in-form opener around. I just hope he doesn’t make the Ashes squad. I have heard he’s close and there is no higher honour than playing for your country but from a selfish point of view, I hope he’s available for us.”
A first-class 218 against Derbyshire by Hales in August notwithstanding, both players in question would essentially be wildcard selections for Test cricket Australia given their summers have been spent predominantly in the limited-overs formats. They have only one innings – albeit again in one-day cricket against West Indies in Bristol on Sunday – to make a further statement.
Andrew Strauss, the director of England cricket, is keen for divergence between the national teams and is relaxed if Test snubs now send the pair into white-ball specialism. It is, he has stated, down to the individual to map out their career. Morgan sees the future being more fluid, however, not least in terms of runs in limited-overs cricket building a case for Test call-ups.
Morgan, who played the last of his 16 Tests in 2012, said: “My way into Test cricket was through white-ball cricket. Jos is similar and there are other cases around the world that are the same. As cricket evolves over the next five or 10 years, it will continue to go that way.”
On Hales, Morgan added: “I think it’s nice he has an alternative plan [this winter] so it is not the be-all and end-all for him to be selected for the Ashes. It takes a little bit of the weight off his shoulders. But certainly the form he’s shown throughout this summer, he’s got to be one of the most in-form batsmen in county cricket at the moment.”