20 July 2003

Brough Scott finds the Welsh paceman looking trim and full of optimism as he begins the long haul back to the international stage

It’s a sight for sore pads. Simon Jones is bowling again and if the ball gets through you had better have protection. Tomorrow it will be the England batsman who will need to buckle up. Yes, ninemonths after the surgeon’s knife, Jones will be in the nets with the Test team at Edgbaston.

Only off five paces at the moment, his first match with the Glamorgan 2nds is not until Wednesday week at Panteg near Pontypridd, but five paces is plenty enough to limber up the whiplash bowling action which works the thunderbolt of the Jones delivery. It was hot in Cardiff on Tuesday, 34 degrees on the thermometer, and so was he.

Sophia Gardens was a swelter, all sensible creatures seeking out the shade, but the cricket square was being crossed by an official-looking gentleman wearing grey flannels, long sleeve shirt and the Glamorgan CC tie. Being Wales, the runabout for the seconds was touch rugby not football, being a supposed rehab patient Jones was stretching and sweating on his own.

Back in November he was a mournful young man staring wistfully out across the Bristol Channel while his new England team-mates continued the `Tour From Hell’ on the other side of the world. The next week he was to face the operation made inevitable by the career-threatening moment in Brisbane which had seen his sliding right leg jackknife beneath him at The Gabba. Cruciate ligament injuries are bad for all athletes, especially bad for fast bowlers. It was going to be a long time.

But Tuesday did not seem so long at all. True there is a big scimitar shaped scar around the outside of the right knee, but otherwise what trotted in front of us had all the hallmarks of tall, lean athleticism which logged Jones as such a mouth-watering prospect when he made his three-wicket Test debut against India last summer. In fact, closer inspection suggests he is in better shape than ever.

“I have been in the gym every day, it was very boring,” he says, the Welshness stressed in the final word. “Glamorgan have been very good to me. I have done all sorts of exercises but the worst thing has been breaking down the scar tissue to get full leg movement. That was very, very painful, but I have now nearly got full movement. That will come, and at 14 st 4, I am more than half a stone lighter than I was a year ago. I feel better for it. I will take one step at a time. We began some bowling back in April and now I am ready to go.”

They all talk like that, but in the nets he began to add the ball to his evidence, to show that the rehab work has been as much on the technique as well as the physique, and that his country as well as his county have been involved. “Troy Cooley has been fantastic,” Simon says about the bowling coach England have brought up from Australia. “He knew me from my time at the Academy in Adelaide and once he arrived here he came to see me. I have been to him every fortnight since, and was bowling in the nets for the England boys before the one-dayers at Manchester and Nottingham. Troy is very realistic. He has altered some things, has modelled me a bit on Brett Lee, but he never asks you to do something impossible.”

For the non-technical the changes are not immediately apparent. “He seems just the same to me,” says Ian Thomas, as he straps a white box on top of his shorts like some medieval hot-weather cod piece, “they say they have changed his action a bit, maybe he’s a little more upright, but I am just concentrating on the batting. He still comes at you very fast.”

That became all too obvious as Thomas began to face his team-mate with admirable phlegm. The word `thoroughbred’ quickly surfaces when anyone describes the 6ft 3in of easy-limbed power that now lopes up to the wicket and unleashes another rocket towards the none too distant batsman. Sure enough it is one Troy Cooley uses as he explains the two-fold process he has worked on his protege.

“He has got great natural pace,” Troy says of Simon, “but we have tried to harness that explosive energy more directly, make his arms, legs, and upper-body, work in more vertical rather than horizontal planes. That first stage has included holding the delivery arm more to his side than across his chest but, the we have also worked on the placement of his right foot in the bowling stride, to make sure we don’t overload that knee.”

“England,” Troy adds significantly, “have invested a lot in this young gentleman and, if we keep him fit, the prospects have to be very good.” The country’s support system does not stop at the physical and technical end. Bad injuries leave scars on the mind as well as the body and last week Steve Bull, England’s psychiatrist had a private hour with Jones.

“It was a very good session,” says the player, “we talked about the injury, and about sliding, and of how it hadn’t been my fault (no one had warned that the Gabba outfield was sanded and therefore a sliding leg had a high risk of snagging), and that there was nothing wrong with the leg. You obviously feel a bit nervous and it’s good to talk these things through. I have worked hard but I have been so lucky in my support. I will take my time, I don’t think there will be much sliding in Panteg.”

The greatest support has come from home. His father Jeff, (“Dad’s been top drawer”) driving him from Llanelli to Cardiff for the many weeks when the Jones junior leg could not be risked on the accelerator, not to mention sympathising and inspiring by turns as only a former England paceman could to a similarly challenged son. It is, of course, the bitterest of ironies that Jeff Jones’ own career was cut short in 1968 with a elbow tendon injury which would have been little threat under today’s regime.

“But I am really thrilled for him,” says Jeff. “He has worked very hard. There has been no boozing, and in the nets he is beginning to do the business.” Word has it that the visiting Zimbabwe tourists had a nasty shock recently when they asked some innocent-looking Glamorgan bit players to bowl at them and got some of Jones’s rockets up their throats. Last week Ian Thomas was more prepared. Dopped from the first team, he has battled back with a double century and, with sky and side netting on Tuesday, was feasting himself on anything loose.

On a baked and dusty wicket Thomas was handling most balls that Jones was sending down but after a couple of overs one got through. The run up was still no more than five springy strides, but the whip through of the delivery had real purpose and the noise of the ball as it hit the pad was as if the actual canvas howled in pain. It is a long road from the homely delights of Panteg to the steamy ovals of the England’s winter tours of the sub-continent and the Caribbean. But the echo of that canvas howl could be one of the most promising sounds of summer.

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