England v Australia, NatWest Series, Chester-le-Street July 6, 2012

Swann fitness distracts from Tredwell return

It is the lot of the understudy that even when an opportunity arises for them to show their paces, attention can remain fixed on the star of the show. So it was for James Tredwell. As he prepared for a potential international comeback against Australia, it was the fitness of Graeme Swann ahead of the marquee Test series against South Africa that really mattered.

As England's NatWest series against Australia reached its penultimate game and rain lashed the north-east, forcing both sides to practice indoors, discussions were already underway about whether Swann needs to prove his elbow injury has stabilised in time for the first Test against South Africa at The Oval, which starts in just under two weeks' time.

This is not quite the routine injury England would have you believe. For Swann's elbow read Flintoff's knee - a slight exaggeration perhaps but it is a known vulnerability. He refers in his autobiography, The Breaks Are Off, to "career-saving surgery" in Minnesota three years ago, when the renowned elbow surgeon Shawn O'Driscoll found 29 fragments of bone and removed 26 of them, leaving only the three that were too close to the nerve for extraction.

Swann tells how Dr O'Driscoll's pastor was even called in to chat cricket and say a lengthy prayer before the operation for his full recovery. Swann briefly suppressed his hysterics to pray with him. Now the injury has recurred, he might be searching out the prayer book again.

Before the operation, the injury had a habit of returning every couple of years and was normally cured by a couple of week's rest. England now face the dilemma of whether to trust in old remedies or ask him to prove his fitness for Nottinghamshire against Middlesex in the Championship at Uxbridge, beginning on Wednesday.

The injury flared up in only his third Test for England, a hastily rearranged affair in St John's, Antigua three years ago when he took eight wickets in the match, but needed constant treatment and cortisone injections to get through it.

He described it as "an intermittent problem, which has started in my first year at Nottinghamshire and surfaced every blue moon… basically, my elbow just locked up at funny angles now and then and on this occasion I couldn't straighten my arm at all."

Tredwell cannot even expect to remain Swann's understudy in the Test series. That role is more likely to belong to Monty Panesar. Hopes of selection in the next two ODIs are likely to be as good as it gets for a while, although the unrelenting rain might tempt England into fielding Samit Patel as the sole spin-bowling presence. Talk may be of Swann's elbow but Tredwell is the one normally given it.

He last appeared for England in their World Cup quarterfinal defeat against Sri Lanka in Colombo last March, such an unhappy night that he prefers to backtrack to his four wickets that sparked a narrow win against West Indies earlier in the tournament. Since then, he said, with characteristic decorum: "The selectors have not overly regularly been in contact." They preferred to keep in touch, he suggested, "at a distance".

What is left is daily dedication on the county circuit in defiance of one of England's most climatically cursed cricketing summers. Spin bowlers have been living on scraps, forever drying sodden cricket balls, bowling negatively, building pressure but Tredwell dismissed suggestions that, at 30, he had become resigned to his county lot.

"Hopefully I can get another game and try to make my mark again," he said. "You get the idea that the selectors are keeping an eye on you. They are keeping in touch with what you are doing as opposed to putting you under pressure by giving you a call here, there and everywhere.

"If you get to that stage you are going through the motions. As a county cricketer, even if you feel you are never going to get to international level, you try to reach those heights if you can. You look on as a spinner and see Graeme as probably the best in the world at the moment. They are big boots to fill but hopefully I can come in with decent form and put in a performance. Who knows, I might be able to stay around the squad. "

"You try to emulate Graeme, but he is the man in possession. All the time he is doing really well, it is going to be tough to push him out. You have to enjoy where you are. If I wasn't a cricketer, I might be a dustman or something. Every day is a bonus really.

Test and one-day tours to India this winter are enough to persuade him that his best England moments might still be to come.

"Once you have had a taste of international cricket you want more. Whether it is to oust [Swann] or play alongside him, if you are doing exceptionally well in the first-class game then there may come a point where they have to pick you. You have to try to keep that in mind. I have probably not reached that level yet.

"They might have to play the two of us together. If I'm doing all of the right things, showing the people that matter what I am about, hopefully they will decide to pick me as well. You don't want to wish injury on anyone, but it could happen to anyone throughout the XI. It only takes a little niggle and somebody else gets a go."

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo