Towering Tremlett raises England's stakes
If any doubts lingered, they've been emphatically dispelled now. When Chris Tremlett took the plunge at the end of a dismal 2009 season, and said farewell to the Rose Bowl in a bid to further his England ambitions, he did so in the knowledge that his career was at its make-or-break moment. Three promising Tests against India in 2007 had given way to two seasons of flaky form and lost focus, and his shift to Surrey was a final opportunity to prove he had the temperament to use his incredible natural fast-bowling attributes.
Two years on, it is looking like the best decision he has ever made in his life. So far his triumphant return to Hampshire has lasted just 18.2 overs all told, but that's 18 more than it took for David Saker, England's bowling coach, to be persuaded that Tremlett was a talent that no self-respecting team could allow to go to waste. It was in the nets at The Oval last season, bowling to his new county team-mate Kevin Pietersen, that his exhilarating combination of height, strength, accuracy and technique were properly showcased in front of the England management.
"I just watched two balls and went up to Andy Flower and said 'This guy is a Test cricketer'," Saker recalled. "Any bowler with height excites me, but that day in the nets, because I was so close and watching from behind, it looked even better. I said I don't know what's happened in the past, but if we can keep this guy on the park I had no hesitation [in believing] he could play good Test cricket if he could get his body right. I suppose after the last 12 months, he's shown a lot of people in England he can do the job."
On the second day at the Rose Bowl, Tremlett was formidable. His two-wicket burst on the opening day had confirmed the restoration of his rhythm after a stutter at Lord's last week, and on Friday he followed up with three further scalps in a vicious six-over burst, before returning for a final surge shortly before the rain. From his first delivery, Suranga Lakmal flinched a panicky hook to the keeper to secure Tremlett his Test-best figures of 6 for 42, and there's the prospect of one more to come on Saturday morning.
This was fast bowling at its nastiest, albeit delivered from one of nature's nice guys. It was Tremlett's inability to cultivate a killer instinct that frustrated his captain, Shane Warne, and held his career back for most of his nine years at Hampshire, but in his second coming as an England cricketer, he has quite literally let the ball do his talking.
"Chris is a very introverted guy who just gets the ball in the right area time and time again," said Saker. "When he gets his length right, he's a huge handful. He's challenging the stumps, the batsmen's gloves, the splice of the bat, and batters really struggle against tall bowlers who keep hitting the splice regardless of length. All you need then is a bit of sideways movement that brings the rest of the fielders into play, as well as lbws and bowleds."
Tillakaratne Dilshan would certainly concur with that after being struck three times on the same thumb at Cardiff and Lord's, and this time it was Thilan Samaraweera who suffered the exact same impact. Tremlett's second delivery of the day reared brutally into his bottom hand, and before that initial over was out, Sri Lanka's most obdurate batsman had fenced limply to gully. Arguably not since Joel Garner was in his pomp has such a physically imposing cricketer produced such an impact in the Test arena, and while Saker was cautious about inviting comparisons with one of the greats of the game, he did not deny a certain degree of similarity.
Of greater consequence to the England management, however, is the manner in which Tremlett complements and enhances the threat posed by James Anderson at the opposite end of the pitch. With steepling bounce to ram the batsmen back into the crease at one end, and a jagging full length to lure them forward once again at the other, the two men form an alliance that has the same little and large menace that has proven so irresistible for South Africa's Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
As it happens, Anderson and Tremlett, plus Ryan Sidebottom, were in harness when India last toured England back in 2007, and all three performed admirably against an array of formidable batsmen. However, both of the survivors from that series have developed exponentially ahead of the rematch that is looming ever larger in July, and if the Rose Bowl conditions can be replicated elsewhere in the country, Saker for one believes that they can be a match for any opposition.
"India are a handful at any time with their batting line-up," said Saker. "But if we get wickets with bounce in them, that will suit Chris. The Indians will be troubled by him, and if he can get the wickets he needs, we're looking forward to that Test series very much. It was very pleasing to see how much it bounced here today, and if we had to wheel out a wicket week in, week out, that's what we'd like to see."
Before that series gets underway at Lord's in a month's time, however, England are desperate for their third seamer, Stuart Broad, to rediscover his best form. He was given every opportunity to scalp some easy wickets today when Andrew Strauss unleashed him on Sri Lanka's bruised lower-order, but instead he was stabbed and swatted for 20 runs in a wicketless six-over spell. It is unlikely that his mood was lifted when Graeme Swann then struck with his second ball of the match, although Saker was adamant that any problems were strictly temporary.
"He's been dreadfully unlucky, and it's only a matter of time before he turns it around," Saker insisted. "He hasn't put too many games together of late so the more he plays the better he's going to get. He beat the bat a lot in this Test, and if he'd got two or three more wickets in this series, not too many people would be talking about him."
Nevertheless, for all the bullish support from his coach, Broad does currently look like a man who has lost his purpose in the team. Not so long ago at the start of the Ashes, he, rather than Tremlett, was Anderson's splice-attacking foil, and yet at Cardiff last month, he found himself being jokingly referred to by his team-mate as a "midget". In five Tests since the last English summer, he has now taken eight wickets at 62.37, and no matter how much England talk up his value as a team performer, those sorts of numbers are going to start to chafe.
"Sometimes when you're looking for wickets, you do change your lengths a bit too much instead of banging away at an area," said Saker. "But as a bowling coach I'm really happy with the way he is going."
For the time being, that happiness involves backing Broad's penchant for the short ball, for Saker - an ugly-tempered paceman in his own playing days - values the intent that's on show every time the ball is banged down in his own half of the pitch. "When Stuart bowls them you can tell there's a lot of vengeance and aggression behind them," he said. "There's probably no better bowler in the world at bowling bouncers than Stuart Broad.
"That's definitely his personality and we do want him to be the enforcer in our team," Saker added. "We've got three different personalities and we try to bowl to their strengths as well as those personalities. Chris is a very introverted guy whereas Stuart likes to attack and he's warrior-like. We like him when he's aggressive and we want him to be like that."
There may yet come a time, with more match fitness and on a less responsive surface than the Rose Bowl, when Broad's stamina and desire does revert to top billing. But right at this moment, all the talk is of a bowler whose best spells come when he moseys along within himself. When your physique alone does the threatening, there's nothing more you need do but hit the spot and reap the rewards.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo