Jaques plots way back from surgery
Nobody in Australia is more excited about the season starting than Phil Jaques, who is returning from three back operations which stole a year of his career when he was peaking as a Test batsman. Jaques' misfortune - two bouts of surgery were a "disaster" - came at a time when Matthew Hayden was struggling towards retirement, allowing Phillip Hughes and Shane Watson to pop up in Jaques' preferred position.
Now, softened by a prosthetic disc in the base of his spine, he is bouncing in anticipation, mapping his way into the New South Wales team and hoping to remind people who he is. Typing his name into Google brings up a link that asks "Is phil jaques test career over for Australia?" Most of the respondents confused him for Hughes, who was dropped during the Ashes.
In less than 12 months Jaques went from a dependable replacement for Justin Langer, scoring 806 runs at 50.37 in nine consecutive games, to a man on the outer and one without a Cricket Australia contract. He felt a "little bit" forgotten.
"It's hard to be remembered when you're out injured for a year," he said. "I'm not one to make a song and dance about what I'm going to do and when I come back I'll let my bat do the talking. If I score runs I'll be back in the frame."
A century for Sutherland in the opening grade game of the summer provided more joy than any medical clearance and the happiness at batting through an innings bubbles as he speaks. Being pain-free during a one-day fixture is a cheery achievement and his self-belief, in his body and his batting, has returned.
"The outlook was always good," he said. "I've been thinking positive to get back, but there were always doubts, especially with three back operations in a year. But I've come back to play and I feel normal." Now 30, he talks of a new lease of life for the second half of his career.
He managed the injury, which is similar to the one haunting Michael Clarke, for three years until succumbing on the 2008 India tour when he could barely get out of a chair. A microdiscectomy shaved some of the disc between L5 and S1 and he returned for two Sheffield Shield games at the end of the season. The pain flared so he missed the final match and the procedure was repeated.
"The second bout of micro-surgery didn't feel right either, it was basically bone on bone," he said. In June he underwent a disc replacement operation and aimed to be back for the third round of the grade season. After many hours with Pat Farhart, the former New South Wales physiotherapist, he was ready for the first match.
He will play a two-day grade contest this weekend before hoping to build up to a New South Wales 2nd XI fixture by the end of October. By then the top team will be home from the Champions League Twenty20 and preparing for their delayed opening Shield and FR Cup contests in the first week of November.
The extra time gives Jaques a better chance to prove he is ready to join Hughes, Watson and Simon Katich in an opener-heavy state XI. New South Wales haven't wiped Jaques from the memory and he is expected to slot in with Hughes at the top, and followed by Katich and Watson, the incumbent Test openers, when the side is at full strength.
"Hopefully my record from previous seasons keeps me in good stead," he said. "Simon and Shane have batted a lot in the middle order and I've batted down there. I think it'll just be getting the best six batters into the team. If you can open you can bat anywhere. If I get a chance, it won't matter where I bat."
When supporters recall Jaques the international batsman they talk of his 108 in the second innings against West Indies in Barbados in June 2008. "I hope it's not my last Test," he said. "People say I got a hundred in my last Test, but I hope I didn't get a hundred in my last Test. I hope I get 30 or 40 or 50 more Tests than finish with a hundred like that. But first it's Sutherland, then New South Wales, then hopefully one day back in the Australian side."
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo