Versatile Onions returns to happy hunting ground
Four years ago, Edgbaston played host to one of the most gripping Test matches of all time, but this week few people are predicting a repeat of that Ashes classic. Filthy weather in Birmingham has hampered the preparation of the Test wicket, with the groundsman, Steve Rouse, telling Cricinfo to expect another slow and low surface. Besides, the ground's recent record in County Championship cricket is far from inspiring - 16 draws in 20 fixtures since 2007 tells a tale of barely relenting tedium.
But one man will need rather more convincing that there's little to get excited about this week. For Graham Onions, a fourth Test cap is on the cards, and with it, the chance to help England move into a commanding 2-0 lead with just the Headingley and Oval Tests to come. And if any man knows what it takes to beat the conditions in Birmingham, it is Onions, who followed up his career-best innings figures of 8 for 101 on this ground in 2007 with a match-winning haul of 7 for 38 back in June, as Durham moved to the top of the table by beating Warwickshire by a thumping ten wickets.
"The wicket generally is pretty good at Edgbaston," Onions told Cricinfo during a Vodafone Sixes event in Birmingham. "It's pretty flat, but on that day I felt in pretty good rhythm and was pretty pleased to get seven wickets. We knew it was a key game, because Edgbaston can be a bit of a fortress for Warwickshire, but the secret of Durham's success is a great bowling attack. Steve Harmison has done brilliantly, and we've all stuck together, with a blend of old and youth."
Harmison, as it happens, set Durham on the way to that recent victory with five wickets in the first innings, and with 42 wickets at 17.11, he is currently the leading wicket-taker in the championship, and the likeliest man to oust his Durham team-mate from the Test side. "He's phenomenal," Onions said. "He's a great bowler, and a great guy to have in the team. He's a guy the captain will throw the ball to and say make something happen. Of course it helps when you can bowl 90mph and you're six foot seven, but this year he's been outstanding, and I know for sure if Steve gets his opportunity he'll be fine."
However, with his hit-the-deck approach, Harmison may not be the ideal man for the moment, especially seeing as Andrew Flintoff has now seized the role of team enforcer. Instead, it seems likelier that Onions will continue in the more versatile role that he has made his own since claiming a remarkable five-wicket haul on debut against West Indies at Lord's in May. "Steve's a great friend of mine and I think very highly of him," he said, "but I'm the man in possession and I have to keep making sure I do the right things."
"The right things", as far as Onions are concerned, are an indomitable spirit, a fair degree of skill and a willingness to adapt to the team requirements. "I see myself as a workhorse character," he said. "I go out there when it's not always in my favour and I try to come out on top. Sometimes it doesn't work like that, especially when you play against world-class performers like [Ricky] Ponting and the rest of the Aussie team, but if you can bowl well when the conditions aren't in your favour, then you can hold your head up high. That's what I like to do."
That's what he may have to do in the coming week, especially now that Andrew Strauss has confirmed that he intends to spare Flintoff the donkey-work to preserve his energies and those of his ailing right knee. Onions therefore looks set for a lot of hard yakka in the middle overs of the innings, when the ball has gone soft and the batsmen are looking set for a long stay.
"I don't think I would ever have got the ball off Fred in that situation," said Onions, referring back to Flintoff's match-winning heroics on the final morning at Lord's. "He deserves all the plaudits because he did brilliantly, but it is a team effort as he said in almost every interview.
"If the pitch is slightly green and a bit damp, then I can try and nick people off, but if it is flat and the captain throws me the ball and says we need someone to bust a gut, I think I can do that," said Onions. "I bowl reasonably close to the stumps so I've a good habit of getting bowleds and lbws, but I'll do what whatever the team needs me to do. I'd like to think there's always a place in the team for somebody like that. I'll hold my hand up and do that job."
As a role to relish, it's a far cry from the heroics that Onions produced back in May, when he claimed four West Indies wickets in seven balls en route to a place on the Lord's honours boards, as he helped England wrap up their first victory at the ground since 2005. But leaving the personal glory aside, he insisted there was no question which was the finest memory of his Test career to date.
"I think that five-for was very special and has to go down as one of the highlights of my career," he said, "but beating Australia at Lord's was the biggest game I've ever played in, and to be a part of it was the best thing that's ever happened. I'd rather get no wickets and the team wins, because that's the type of guy I am, and that's the team mentality at the moment. Our success is because the team is more important."
Onions still isn't certain he'll get a game this week, and an untimely blow on the fingers while batting in the nets didn't help his preparations. But just to be involved in such a high-profile summer is enough to keep him content with his lot for a while yet. "With the number of good quality bowlers around, it's great I'm even involved in the squad," he said. "I'm keeping my feet on the ground for Thursday morning, or whenever the call comes. I've just got to be prepared, and I'm doing my preparations as if I am going to play."
And as he showed at Lord's last week with a diligent display that reaped three important first-innings wickets, Onions expects the rewards to come his way when he has the ball in his hand. "As a bowler, you always know you're in with a chance of getting the Australians out," he said, "because they go for their shots and are aggressive players.
"They've done that for a number of years, and they are not going to change that overnight. That's good for us. Sometimes you've got to hold your hand up and say you're going to go for a few runs, because that's the type of players they are and on good wickets, that's part and parcel of the game. But we're a very confident unit at the moment, and that win last week has given us a massive boost.
"Long may it continue," he added. "When you put that England cap on, number 644, it's very special. You've got to work hard for that cap and I feel I've earned that now. I've played three Tests so far and hopefully four this week. I'm loving it now, and I'm just enjoying my cricket, running in and letting my bowling take care of itself. I've worked hard and taken some hits along the way, but I've come back a stronger person, and this year has been something very special."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo