Oh, for one more Welshman in Cardiff… (Cricinfo)

Published in Cricinfo, July 2009

As all those rugby loving Welshmen in Cardiff last week, perplexed by the unexpected opening act of an age old tradition of the island watched their city taken over by cricket, a lad from nearby Morriston, Swansea in Wales was the one who was so poignantly missing out there on the fresh turf of Sophia Gardens. Cardiff, as a choice for the first Ashes Test of 2009 was a tough pill to swallow for the more traditional venues, especially out in Manchester, but it would have been poetic if – Freddie aside – my favourite bowler from the previous edition of the Ashes of 2005 had lined up for the national anthems on July 8th, 2009, before the horns were locked.

“Seems like just the other day
Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

sang that indomitable Welshman Tom Jones in “Funny How Time Slips Away”. It has been four long years since the Trent Bridge Test of the 2005 Ashes. Four long years since that other Welsh Jones – the Simon, not Tom – fielded a ball at square point, grimaced suddenly and wandered off limping like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. His substitute in the field Gary Pratt’s throw and the ensuing outburst of a pricked Ricky Ponting over his runout bemused and tickled everyone silly to no end and garnered enough newsprint to kill a forest. Yes, we did read about the man nicknamed “Horse” desperately trying to accelerate the healing of his ankle in an oxygen tent at Arsenal’s home in Highbury days later, hoping to be fit for the nerve wracking fifth Test at the Oval. But it wasn’t to be, and it was Paul Collingwood who took his place at the Oval for the denouement of a compelling and dramatic series. And Simon Jones somehow was forced to cede the stage he had graced till then and resurfaced to only collect his Ashes medal at the end, clad in beach flip-flops. And he hasn’t played for England ever since.

That was Freddie’s Ashes, yes. And rightfully so. Flintoff’s towering, exuberant, aggressive, overpowering and ubiquitous presence for every second of that series was unquestionable. His numbers were there to prove it too – 24 wickets at 27.29, the most by a bowler and 402 runs, the second best on England’s batting list. But there is that small matter of the bowler below Freddie on England’s bowling list for the series. 18 wickets in only 4 matches and at a miserly 21 a piece were the numbers for Simon Jones. Prime statistics they are and tell the story of an integral contribution to the team cause. But when the books were being tallied, the champagne being popped, a Prime Minister being visited at home and MBEs being awarded to the entire crew, he had somehow faded into the background, nursing his errant ankle.

Freddie’s astonishing bowling – especially to left handers – harvested the bulk of the watching public’s psyche, but can we forget what Simon Jones did in 2005? Michael Vaughan, who garnered accolades for his innovative captaincy four years ago seemed to have an uncanny, if not spooky knack of bringing on Jones every time he needed to turn a trick to nab a wicket. And Simon’s penchant for grabbing one of the first ball of his spells must have left Vaughan wide-eyed and chuckling in glee. But it was his astonishing control of reverse swing, honed to an art and science for the team by his close friend Troy Cooley that mesmerized. Screaming corkers whizzed past outside edges and swinging yorkers thudded into disoriented batsmen’s pads time and again.

Cheeky grin in place and an almost mock seriousness on his mien the rest of the time, the Welshman was a revelation and joy to watch – especially to neutrals not versed in the details of his sojourns for Glamorgan or England. His smooth and relaxed runup disguised the guile that was waiting to reveal itself to unsuspecting Aussie batsmen. Overshadowed on pitch and in print by Freddie’s belligerent presence, he seemed to glide through the entire series, smiling. Harmison and the reticent Hoggard even, seemed more visible all through. Always fielding on the boundary somewhere, he seemed to be only in the peripheral vision of the national consciousness. Except when Vaughan threw him the ball and the smooth and upright runup proceeded to unleash those zingers at the batsmen. Or when he indulged in some clean hitting at innings end, clearing the boundary with surprising ease (“Sixaah!” exclaimed Mark Nicholas as one of his crisp swings cleared the ropes effortlessly). There was something relaxed about him with the bat or ball in his hand, and in the uproar over the conquered urn, he was the one poking his head between shoulders in all the group photographs it seemed.

In the years that followed, Vaughan and Flintoff’s injuries barreled all news of his travails under the surgeon’s knife to the periphery of cricket’s awareness. Harmison decapitating the slip fielder with the opening ball of the 2007 Ashes and Hoggard losing his place to Sidebottom are recalled with more alacrity by cricket flowers than the footnotes Jones was making in the papers with his unsuccessful attempts at getting back to playing with some semblance of regularity. Frustrating and dark times they were at a critical juncture in his life and career but he somehow was left to fend off his demons by himself.

“Before these funny familiar forgotten feelings
Stop walk’ all over my mind”

crooned Tom Jones again in “Funny familiar Forgotten Feelings”. So, before things get too heavy in the upcoming weeks continuing at Lord’s, and minds get trampled over with the drama of events on the field, I just want to say this Simon: You were missed out there in Cardiff, bachgen. You were special the last time we saw you and while your career may have unfortunately swung in reverse, those screaming reverse swingers and those scorching yorkers in 2005 won’t be forgotten for some time. Fate and your body have conspired to keep you away from what you do best, but rest assured, you were a champion. And as you watch your mates from 2005 out there at Lord’s, and you nurse feelings like that your countryman Ryan Giggs has watching the football World Cup or the Euro, keep your chin up laddie…and keep smiling.

“Raise your arms in the air, now shake ’em”
-Tom Jones, “You can leave your hat on”

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