Onions savours 'special' comeback
When Graham Onions underwent back surgery in the autumn of 2010, he feared his career in cricket was over. Surgery, he had been told, was the "worst case scenario" and meant that all his efforts to recover fitness through gym work and physiotherapy had failed.
So he went under the knife. A five-inch titanium pin was inserted in the left side of his back to heal and prevent a recurring stress fracture - "imagine a broken polo mint that is starting to crack" is how Onions explained it - and the long period of rehabilitation began. He admits now that he considered retraining as an umpire, a coach or even leaving the game and becoming a teacher. The prospect of bowling again, let along bowling again for England, seemed hopelessly distant.
He had played Test cricket before and with some success. His eight Tests had produced 28 wickets and a couple of spirited tail-end displays with the bat that had saved games for England. In his last Test, at Cape Town in January 2010, he saw off Morne Morkel's final over to achieve a draw after done the same two matches earlier against Makhaya Ntini.
But, in the 29 months since then, there have been times when such drama seemed to belong to another lifetime. As England's attack helped them to No. 1 in the world, there were times when it appeared Onions would be fortunate to even play county cricket again.
But on Saturday at Edgbaston, all the pain, all the hard work, all the hours of training and hope paid off. Onions not only took the new ball for England, but he produced an admirable display of fast-medium seam bowling that showed he belonged at this level. He generated sharp pace, hardly dropping despite the elongated day and the heavy outfield, maintained an immaculate line and length and claimed three Test wickets. He barely delivered a poor ball.
"I love this game," he said afterwards. "And all the hard work I did in the gym was just to play one more Test. Today was really special.
"A couple of years ago I genuinely didn't think I would play cricket again. Putting that shirt and cap on was special. I was nervous, but they were good nerves. It was like a second debut for me. That first wicket back was special. I'd waited two years for that one moment.
"It's nice to know that the performances I put in in county cricket - a lot of people underestimate it a bit - have been noticed and that all the hard work in the gym have been noticed and put me in good stead."
Onions said there had been two low moments. The first when he was told he would require surgery - "The ECB had told me that was the worst case scenario," he said - and the period working in the gym after the operation when he did not know whether he would ever be able to bowl again.
"Until I got to bowl that first ball I didn't know," he said. "It was a freezing day at Loughborough and I was with Kevin Shine and Mark Young of the ECB. I was incredibly nervous. But I bowled the ball, and then a spell. It put a smile on my face; I bowled a few more overs and just kept taking little steps. And here I am today with a massive smile on my face."
Such was Onions quality, that the absence of Stuart Broad and James Anderson was not felt nearly as much as it might have been. Indeed, perhaps it was in the field that Anderson's absence was felt most keenly. Three catches went down in the slips - one to Andrew Strauss, who is a regular at first slip - and two to Ian Bell, who is not used to fielding at third. None were, by the high standards of Test cricket, particularly difficult.
None were particularly costly, either. But while England may get away with such profligacy in a three-day Test against West Indies, they will not get away with dropping Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers et al in the series against South Africa. The truth is that, ever since Paul Collingwood was dropped, England have struggled to find enough reliable slip fielders.
There are other options. In his first few of seasons at Warwickshire, Jonathan Trott emerged as a slip catcher of the highest standards. Now, however, he is more reluctant to field in the position as it requires specialisation and, on a rare appearance there for Warwickshire in recent times, he dropped a couple. It is an area England will need to improve.
On the whole, though, this was an encouraging day for England. They have at least five fast bowlers in whom they can have confidence - six if Chris Tremlett, who might have the most natural attributes of the lot of them, fully recovers from his back injury - and will enter the most cluttered period of scheduling in their history safe in the knowledge that they can rotate, rest and replace without chronically compromising their strength.
That having been said, there was nothing here that should have threatened the positions of Broad or Anderson. While Onions, Steven Finn and Tim Bresnan were as consistent and parsimonious as their absent colleagues, perhaps they lacked just a bit of the skill. We will never know what Broad or Anderson might have coaxed out of this good batting surface, but it is rare than Anderson fails to find swing - though he gained little at Trent Bridge - and rare that Broad fails to find seam movement. They remain England's first choice.
Whether Finn remains first reserve is debatable. He was unfortunate here and not just because he suffered two dropped chances. He also played this game in the knowledge that, having been on the brink of the team for much of the last 18-months, he would need to make an impression to make a claim on permanency.
That pressure - and the pressure of England winning the toss and expecting an inexperienced attack to capitalise on a pitch that has been under covers - can have done him few favours. He is a fine, young bowler and full of promise for sure but, judged by the very highest standards, he perhaps does not utilise his height quite as much as he might and, on the whole, was just about out-bowled by Onions. Still, an attack of Finn, Tremlett, Onions and Monty Panesar might just be the third best attack in Test cricket.
England will have to bat outstanding well or remarkably badly to force an outright result now. While West Indies' total is probably still some way below par, the weather forecast is not promising for the latter stages of the game. It will take quite a performance - or quite some contrivance - to set-up a victory push.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo