England Lions v Sri Lankans, Tour match, Derby May 18, 2011

Onions battles back from 'dark times'

Graham Onions, the England fast bowler, feared his cricket career could have been over when he was told he needed surgery on his back last year. He didn't play at all during the 2010 English season, but returned earlier this summer and made such strides that he will appear for England Lions against the Sri Lankans this week.

The last time Onions played a match for England he staved off the final over from Morne Morkel in Cape Town, the second time in three Tests he performed that match-saving feat, having survived Makhaya Ntini in Centurion. He was controversially overlooked for the final match of that series at the Wanderers, and when the Test squad reassembled in Bangladesh last February, Onions began getting pain in his back.

He flew home from Bangladesh, and after three attempts to battle through and recover by resting, he had to go under the knife. It left him with a titanium pin in the left side of his back and, understandably for such a major operation, Onions admitted to "dark times" in the immediate aftermath.

"There have certainly been times where I've doubted whether I'd get the ball back in my hand - whether I'd still be able to bowl quickly, and be the same bowler," he said on the eve of playing for the Lions. "All those things go through your mind. There were times when I didn't think I was going to play again.

"There have been tough times, and dark times. But I'm sitting here today with an England tracksuit on and with a great opportunity to play against a very good Test side."

Onions has been carefully managed by Durham during his return to action and he wasted no time in making his mark with a five-wicket haul in his first match back, against Yorkshire. Despite the seriousness of his injury, Onions is confident he will suffer no lasting effects.

He has now set his sights on adding to his eight Test caps, although he knows others are ahead in the pecking order after his absence. A possible opening had emerged with Tim Bresnan likely to miss the Sri Lanka series because of a torn calf, but Onions isn't getting carried away. Ajmal Shahzad and Steven Finn are the more likely candidates.

"I'm playing professional cricket again for Durham, bowling as fast as I can, and I've had no reaction from it at all," he said. "I am 99.9% sure I will be absolutely fine for the rest of my career.

"My aspirations have never changed. I like to think I am good enough to play for England. A few people have leapfrogged me, and I appreciate that. It has been bitterly disappointing to be able to do nothing while my place in the England side is taken by someone else. But I am looking forward to challenging those guys who are ahead of me now - getting back into the side, whether it is next week or later in the season."

Onions is immensely grateful to the help he received from the ECB during his recuperation, especially psychologist Mark Bawden, and he also had phone calls from team-mates on the Ashes tour.

"The ECB have been absolutely fantastic. I cannot thank them enough," he said. "Mark [Bawden] has done so much to keep me on the right track. I've relied on the ECB to keep in touch when I've needed someone to talk to - and Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and Mark Bawden have all been absolutely brilliant.

"When they were at the Ashes in Australia, on the opposite side of the world, they had a job to do. I appreciated that, but once they did have five minutes or so they would give me a call to ask how I was."

And that help ensured he could see a light at the end of the tunnel. "I suppose I did honestly believe I was going to get back, prove myself and pull that England shirt back on. I feel very much ready now."

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo