24 November 2002

The England pace bowler goes under the knife this week as he begins the long haul back to fitness

You can forgive him the faraway look. For as Simon Jones hoists his injured right knee against the railing and looks out from Llanelli, not Adelaide, at the Bristol Channel, not the Tasman Sea, the question for him and for England cricket is how far is faraway?

Even optimists say it may be a year; pessimists think it never. That’s the seriousness of the cruciate ligament injury caused in Jones’s jack-knifing slide on the sanded outfield of the Gabba in Brisbane two weeks ago. It threatens to be the most remembered, most symbolically damaging image of the whole tour. For the 6ft 3in, 15st paceman who has just limped with us out to his home town’s New Millenium beauty spot, the threat is much more direct. It is to the dream that his true place will once again be beyond the horizon making the world’s best batsmen wince.

But now we are into details not destiny. He got back to England on Wednesday, spent Thursday with his county captain Steve James and the rest of the Glamorgan support team in Cardiff, goes to see a specialist in Sheffield tomorrow, will have the operation later this week, and then the long haul of recuperation will begin. On Christmas Day, Jones will be celebrating his 24th birthday, not with the Test team down in Melbourne, but with his parents and twin brother Matthew back home here in Llanelli. When his next over starts is very much open to question.

For while Jones has the class of the thoroughbred in every long, loose-limbed, broad-chested line, the breed brings fragility with it. In his early Glamorgan days, he twice had stress fractures of the foot and while in the sixth form at Millfield he broke his left leg playing rugby. “Those other injuries put me out for two or three months,” he says, “this is going to be nine or 10. I may not play at all next season but I have got to be patient. It will be a massive test for me but I have to see it as character building. I shall be working in the gym, I will be guided when I can bowl and when I can’t. I know what is at stake.”

The reminder is sitting, silver-haired and supportive, on the leather sofa in the back room of the white pebble-dashed semi which has been the Jones family home since before Simon was born. Sixty-year-old Jeff Jones also once had the bowling dream. He won his first cap, like Simon against India, back in 1963 and by the time he went for a run-out in Guyana in 1968 he had been on five tours including an Ashes trip on 1965-66.

“I went to throw it in under-arm like the West Indians do,” says Jeff, pulling up a sleeve to reveal a strangely twisted left elbow. “As I did so I felt something click. I told John Snow and he said just to rest it until the start of our season and it would be OK. But it never was. I fiddled through that summer, was picked to go to Pakistan but the first time I really let go, it went on me and everything was over. I was devastated,” he concludes, the Welsh syllables sing-song in their sadness. “It took me years to get over it.”

The son has heard this all before but there is a look in his eyes that suggests he wants the parable to never die. This is a family intense in its bonding. Dafen is a small unpretentious village tacked on to the north of Llanelli. The Jones house in Havard Street is as unremarkable as its neighbours or as the primary school across the road where mother Irene works as a dinner lady. In the spick-and-span hallway there is a picture of older brother Richard wearing the mortar board of graduation day. On the right there is a cartoon of Jones senior in a charity match with other old England heroes. In the front room there is the simple framed photo which every cricketing father must hope to see: Jeff with his arm round Simon’s shoulder, the son now wearing the England badge.

Jeff remembers his own Test debut at Lord’s. “Cassius Clay, as he then was, was over to fight Henry Cooper,” he says. “He came into our dressing room, ate all the sandwiches, lay down on the benches and went to sleep.” But he remember Simon’s start this summer even better: the wonderfully attacking 44 in 43 balls from No 10 and then the three wickets culminating in Virender Sewag’s cart-wheeling off-stump and Mark Nicholas’s Channel 4 summary: “Simon Jones is a fabulous prospect in an England shirt.”

Time was when many thought that Jones’s fragility might be in the mind as well as body. “He was really quite shy,” said Steve James, “but his stay at the Cricket Academy under Rod Marsh in Adelaide last winter made an enormous difference. He believes in himself now. This is a bad injury but he is young, there is plenty of time. There is no reason why he should not return better than ever.”

Team-mates always say that, but as we walk along the sea front there is an edge to Jones’s civility which makes you believe he has thought through his injury as well as his profession. “I was lucky that it was just the cruciate,” he says of that calamitous first day at the Gabba. “There was nothing else ruptured and there really was not that much pain. I was just so frustrated and looking back I am still annoyed that I chose to slide. Ricky Ponting did a video at the Gabba the day before and said he would not slide because of the sandy outfield. Why weren’t we told?”

At this stage there is still a charming touch of the stage-struck novice mixed in with the self-awareness of the big-time predator he must become. So he talks of Alec Stewart moving England’s most immaculately folded kit to one side to make space on the bench at Lord’s, of Darren Gough coaching him through his five-wicket spell in Perth, of the much-admired Nasser Hussain forgiving him his opening fumble when first on as 12th man at Edgbaston. “These men are legends,” he says, “and here they were trying to help me. It was awesome.” He “detests” those who rubbish his England team-mates. “We have a lot of bubbly young guys and while we will have to play out of our skin we have got to believe we can beat the Aussies. There is no point in playing any game unless you believe that.”

“They call it the Australian way,” he adds, “but it’s common sense really and has nothing to do with all that verbal abuse they give us. Do you know, one of them shouted `get up you whingeing Pom’ as I lay injured. Steve Harmison, who is a very good friend, wanted to jump in the crowd and thump him. But being with Rodney Marsh last winter was tremendous. Towards the end of the stay he said `I can’t go on wrapping you guys in cotton wool. It’s time for you to go out into the Test arena and show what you can do’. When I came back I had put on a stone in muscle but so much more in confidence. Dad noticed it straight away. I now have so much belief in my ability that I know I have to really make this next year count.

“My main focus in life has to be my fitness and my cricket,” he says, trying to push away the depressions and temptations which lie in wait. “I have a contract with Glamorgan and they are going to pay me as if I was playing. I will go in every day, do the rehab, help with the youngsters, talk at the corporate boxes, do everything I can to help the team. The winter before last I worked in a garage to make things meet. I know how lucky I am to be paid for doing the thing I love when Matthew, with sports science qualifications, is looking for work. I don’t over-rate myself but once fit I will back myself against any player in the world.”

Bold words, boldly spoken and as they linger two distant, strangely humped figures creep across the tideline. They are ponies pulling the baskets for the cockle pickers. It is an old but dangerous game with quicksands and rushing tides to trap the unwary. The young prince of a village boy looking out across the Bristol Channel faces elements just as perilous. But if he holds himself together, who should say that he will not overcome.

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