The runs returned for Jason Roy in Bloemfontein, but just as notable was the return of his barrel-chested swagger, that rare cocktail of confidence created by his upbringing in South Africa and Surrey.
This was no coincidence. Roy’s thoughts before going out to smash a career-saving 79-ball century on Friday? “Chew some gum, give it the full bravado, say a few things to the opposition, get in the fight a bit”.
It worked. Having been dropped for last year’s T20 World Cup, he has laid the groundwork to make the squad for this year’s tournament, ending an ugly run of form and putting “a horrible year” behind him.
Roy accepts that his alpha approach to the game had been smothered over the last year, as on-field and off-field struggles overwhelmed him. He admits he had not “tried to impose myself”, because he was “worried about the perception”. That is not the Roy England became so reliant on leading up to the 2019 World Cup triumph, when he was both a bully and bellwether with the bat. When Roy was on, England usually followed.
‘I needed to work out a lot of things in my head’
Somewhere along the way, Roy veered off course. Almost a year ago, Roy’s form picked up as he batted superbly in the Pakistan Super League. Soon, though, he did not feel right.
“It’s definitely something for a way bigger conversation [about mental health] but the nuts and bolts of it are that it started right back at the PSL last year, just before I pulled out of the IPL,” he said. “I actually had a lot of fun [in Pakistan]. But I got back from there and all of a sudden hit some sort of… whatever it was. I pulled out of the IPL because I needed to work on a lot of things in my head.”
While away from the game, the ECB announced that Roy had been fined £2,500 for an undisclosed misdemeanour, understood to have been off-field, adding to the sense things were slipping away from him.
Roy spent time at home with his wife Elle and their two young children. He sought support from Angela First, Surrey’s “brilliant” psychologist.
“A couple of months in I started being happier as a person,” he says. “My cricket wasn’t doing well but I was a happier person so I didn’t really give a s— about my cricket, to be honest.”
The trouble was that the cricket “kept going badly”, to the point that England taking him to Pakistan before the World Cup “wasn’t even an option”. Existing on an almost exclusive diet of T20 makes finding form difficult. You cannot slowly ease your way in; Roy is required to go bang from ball one.
“It’s a relentless format,” he said. “You’ve got to keep going [hard]”. The upshot was a Hundred he describes as “disaster”. He managed 51 runs and three ducks in six innings. He was dropped from the T20 World Cup squad – a “hammer blow” – and lost his central contract.
‘I was gutted to be dropped… but to see them win the World Cup was incredible’
Roy was in Australia when England won the World Cup, for the ODI series that followed. But he believes he is at his best – as a player and person – when “enjoying other people’s success and giving back” so, as difficult as watching from the sidelines was, he embraced it.
“I was gutted, extremely gutted [to be dropped],” he said. “But honestly I was so proud of that group, I’ve been part of that group for such a long time. To see them win that World Cup was incredible.”
The same spirit emerged in the summer, when he feared the likes of Will Jacks and Phil Salt were “overtaking” him.
“Being where I was mentally, and the lads tearing it apart, that wasn’t easy at first, but then you realise that that was me once upon a time, and the journey they are embarking on is incredibly special,” he says. “The initial feeling was “oh, s—, these guys are overtaking me”. But then it’s “pull your head in. You’ve had a great career, you are playing well, if it stops tomorrow, I have had a load of fun”.
That ODI series in Australia in November was, according to Roy, “not enjoyable” and a “hell of a tough thing to do”. But when making 33 in a trouncing at Melbourne, Roy first felt something resembling form returning. That remained through the SA20 with Paarl Royals, but the runs still did not flow. Playing with Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan, with their families in tow, Roy began to feel better.
“They’ve [Paarl] put their arm around me and made me feel really welcome,” he said. “Now I’m really enjoying my cricket again, I’m enjoying the environment, I’m enjoying where I’m at. That’s how it should be, I’m playing for England, there’s no better thing to do, I just needed a bit of reality check.”
‘That hundred was the proudest of myself I have been’
In his form slump, Roy admits he had stopped preparing effectively, or “pushing myself”. But on the eve of the first ODI, Roy had a long net with Kevin Pietersen, his mentor, with whom he has had “great conversations” over the last year.
“We spoke about being free, not worrying about the outcome, just playing my game,” he said. “The top of my game is better than what a lot of bowlers can do to me so it was a case of just being positive and – not quite pushing the ‘f— it button’ – but the openness to go out and be myself.
“The big thing for me the night before the game was to go out on my own terms. Do I want to be remembered as a guy who had a great career, smacked it everywhere, then all of a sudden had a year of crap, and is a completely different player? Do I want to be remembered as a guy who went out there and attacked the bowlers? Fair enough I got out, but I got out on my terms.”
So he puffed out his chest and made a fine hundred. When he reached it, he he was “overcome with emotion” and his celebration even featured “anger”.
“You start doubting yourself as a player,” he said, “thinking people have forgotten about you even though you’ve played a huge amount of cricket, start doubting yourself as a guy, becoming reserved, which is just not me. To then come out and put that all in a closet, lock it away and play the way I played.
“To mentally overcome doubts and thoughts I had in my head towards the latter part of last year, that’s probably the proudest I’ve been of myself.”
Roy knows that this is just the first step on his road to the World Cup and, having been dropped once, there is “fight” to put it right.
“It’s one game into a series, one game into the year of international cricket,” he said. “So I’ve got to keep scoring runs and just building this team to the place where we were in 2019.”
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