After a several years as England’s next-in-line, has Durham’s wicket-taking machine Graham Onions been cruelly queue-jumped once and for all?
Matthew Sherry met the steely-eyed metronome at the Riverside in the early part of the summer to discuss his hopes of adding to his nine Test appearances as England move into a new era.
Turning up at Chester-le-Street in mid-April, it felt like an Onions Day. He was on home turf, facing a fragile Somerset batting line-up served up to devour like a lone wolf in a field of prey. Then again, Graham Onions has never been the kind to bear his teeth and snarl. He is more the predator who stalks you all day, finally pouncing just as you feel settled. That is Onions. No strut; he moves by stealth. So stealthy, in fact, that he can too easily be missed; as AOC is watching the Durham man – we listen to a journalist extol the virtues of the latest kid on the block, Sussex’s Chris Jordan. In that writer’s opinion, it is Jordan rather than Onions who should complete England’s Test seam attack alongside James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
And therein lies Onions’ problem: always, seemingly, the guy after the next guy, rather than the next guy. As a bowler, he resembles Glenn McGrath, relentlessly dropping the ball on a length and throttling batsmen with metronomic line and length. But while McGrath was your typical Aussie, in essence a bad winner who always won, Onions is your archetypical Englishman. Reserved, buttoned-up, the steeliness that helped him fight back from a crippling back injury still wrapped in the softest tissue. In cricketing terms, such humility can be a good quality, especially in the water-carrying toil of fast bowling. Yet all the while, you get the impression of someone who will hit a batsman with a bumper and immediately ask if he is ok, rather than fill the air with abuse.
It is at odds with English cricket’s vaunted meritocracy that such a ‘straight guy’ has been so regularly overlooked in recent years. Seventy Division One wickets last year yielded no England appearances, and not even a place on the plane for that tour of Australia. He played the last of his nine Tests against the West Indies at Edgbaston in 2012 – the perennial stand-in given a game at the end of a series already dead. He took 4-88 in the first innings, but then it rained, robbing him of another blast in the second. Looking back on that dreary game now, and recalling the immense triumph and heartwarming sight of seeing Onions again in an England shirt after that career-threatening injury, has since taken on a bittersweet tinge.
And so, Graham Onions is here again, at his haven beside the river, hoping his marathon on the county treadmill will be interrupted by a diversion back to the big leagues.
At least he seems glad to be back in this sanctuary. Looking out over the Riverside ground, Onions fixes AOC with that flinty, faraway stare. “Every year is important, but this is a huge one,” he says. “Obviously I’m not getting any younger but I feel like I am in my prime.” He is 31, with 125 first-class matches; in 40 of those, he’s recorded at least a four-wicket haul in an innings. Ask any county batsman and they will tell you that Onions most certainly is “in his prime”. Northamptonshire captain Stephen Peters summed Onions up best by saying: “He gives you absolutely nothing”. But even after that first question – simply pertaining to ‘getting back out there’ – you can sense the frustration.
After all, Onions is just a few weeks removed from being a late call-up for England Lions’ tour of Sri Lanka, when he replaced a county teammate in Mark Wood, who he comfortably outperformed last season (while Onions grabbed 70 Division One wickets in 12 games, Wood claimed 27 having played just four matches fewer).
There is a fair argument to be made that the hierarchy wanted a look at the younger options; that they know what they have in Onions. We don’t probe, as he seems to have enjoyed the trip, but you do wonder how he felt when receiving the SOS.
Onions is more unequivocal, though, when it comes to discussing his omission from the Ashes party. “It is, of course, hugely frustrating because I am a strong believer that if you put in the hard work, you will eventually get the rewards. That hasn’t changed even though the rewards haven’t come yet, but I do still feel like I can play for England.
“Not being picked in the winter was disappointing. You want to be there, especially against Australia. They obviously wanted guys who were slightly taller and I had to kind of take it on the chin. I have just about done that now; it has been frustrating but I am raring to go for this season.”
You get the impression that, to Onions, admitting such “huge frustration” is the equivalent of Kevin Pietersen or Nasser Hussain calling the national selector and demanding a face-to-face meeting. Such table-slapping is hardly Onions’ style but, were he to push his case in the Court Of Team England (chief among his arguments would be a very solid Test average of 29.9), the seamer could certainly make a strong argument.
“I have played the nine Tests and, although that is not a great deal of games, I have played a lot of first-class cricket,” he added. “That puts me a step ahead of some guys and that counts for a little bit. But you have got to get into that side in the first place. If I get there, I’ve been there and done it. If I am bowling well, I am convinced the wickets will come and I’ll be there or thereabouts when it comes to that squad for the first Test.” (As it turns out a back injury – from which Onions is still returning come the first squad announcement – not untypically gives the selectors enough cause to overlook him once again).
More intriguing than a solid record, however, is the kind of bowler Onions is in comparison to the rest of England’s attack. With James Anderson providing swing, Stuart Broad bounce and Ben Stokes aggression and willpower, Onions’ cocktail of stump-to-stump accuracy and ability to ‘kiss the surface’ would seem a perfect complement.
“I am slightly different,” says Onions. “I get close to the stumps and get a little bit of seam, plus I can swing the ball as well. The consistency is hugely important too and that is something England are certainly looking for.
“A lot of people say I’m similar to James Anderson – and he’s one of the best bowlers around – but I don’t think I’m like him at all. I believe what I bring is different and I do believe I’ve got what it takes to get back into that England side. Actions speak louder than words, and I have to get wickets again this season.”
We sat in the Riverside media centre to see if Onions could do just that. The stage seemed set, with Somerset requiring 337 in a little over two-and-a-half sessions after Paul Collingwood had declared at 11.52pm. Onions was on it from the first over, repeatedly slanting the inducker away from the left-handed Marcus Trescothick as his opening four overs cost just four runs. Partner-in-crime Chris Rushworth was the beneficiary, however, pinning Trescothick plumb in front, and it was Onions’ new-ball buddy who would grab the second as well, another lbw verdict ending Chris Jones’ stylish 24. With the opening spell gleaning the ideal rewards, Usman Arshad capitalised after lunch as Alviro Petersen fell to an injudicious stroke before James Hildreth nicked a good ‘un behind.
That was to be Durham’s last scalp, however, as their attack hunted without reward. The leader, Onions, went wicketless, his 18 luckless overs costing 73 runs. On another day, he might have had five, but it was not to be. So it had not been an Onions Day. Two other men aiming to be in the England XI come June 12, Nick Compton and Craig Kieswetter (Compton struck a superb 100 not out, while Kieswetter ended unbeaten on 73), had seen to that.
That day, in a nutshell, has been the story of Onions’ season so far. He is, by his standards, enduring a lean spell. In isolation, the figures (11 wickets at an average of 34.81 in four Championship appearances up to mid-May) are not too bad. Yet during a summer that the man himself admitted is a big one, they do not fly off the page. With Onions, you get the impression they need to fly, for the wildcards like Jordan and a resurgent Steven Finn are always sexier than the tight-lines merchant.
As if those returns had not been frustrating enough, he missed Durham’s return clash with Somerset due to a back niggle that would keep him out for a while. Such a lost opportunity to prove his worth is hardly what Onions would have hoped for. But surely the selectors know what they have? And if not, surely they have watched him bowl this year? Stuart Rayner, a north-east journalist who covers all of Durham’s games, certainly has.
He said: “The back injury came at a bad time for him. But he has had his usual solid start to the season. His first-innings performance against Somerset was a masterclass in how to make full use of helpful Chester-le-Street conditions, something he is renowned for in English cricket circles.
“But it is his bowling on flatter pitches, especially in the second innings, the England selectors have their reservations about. Still, at Northampton on the final day of Durham’s opening Championship game of the season, Onions showed his skill at that too. Ultimately his reverse-swing bowling was unable to magic up a victory from a lifeless surface, but it was a reminder that he is not one to be underestimated.”
After encouraging performances from Chris Jordan and Liam Plunkett in the opening Test of the summer – and Ben Stokes still to return – at this stage it doesn’t look likely that Onions’ bizarre Test exile will end this summer. As AOC peeled away from that match against Somerset, it was easy to think that it had not been the Onions Day we had expected. And yet, in some ways, it was the epitome of an Onions Day: class, toil, and hard work, without quite earning his just rewards.