'I bounce back strong'
Chris Tremlett is sitting in the clubhouse at Hursley Park, the club a few miles outside Winchester in southern England where he first took up the game, having folded his 6ft 8in frame into a low chair like an action man forced to accommodate himself in the furniture of a doll's house. It is a crisp, clear morning in rural Hampshire and Tremlett has just been to see his parents, who still live in the village where he grew up. Having been forced out of England action for the second Test series running, then undergoing surgery on a recurring back problem, he has recently begun the early stages of rehabilitation but he seems relaxed about the challenges of returning to fitness, finding form and regaining his place in the international side.
Despite being a fast bowler of such imposing physical proportions, Tremlett was once characterised as too diffident a sort to thrive for England. His re-emergence during last winter's Ashes proved he had the menace to match his measurements, but alongside providing a convenient hat-stand for people's assumptions, Tremlett's height and build have in his case exacerbated the stresses and strains that bowlers' bodies must withstand. Faced, at 30, with another injury layoff that will hand further opportunities to the likes of Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn, he could be forgiven for bemoaning his bad luck.
Rather than despondency, though, Tremlett's take on the situation is a positive one. This may be a PR-friendly line, typical of the modern Team England philosophy of in-it-togetherness that would please a coalition minister, but there is not a flicker of internal contradiction as he discusses the crop of bowlers that Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have at their disposal.
"There's natural competition there and I think it's very healthy," he says. "There are five or six guys knocking on the door. Finny's bowled brilliantly for the last year or so and he hasn't been able to get in the Test side, apart from one game at Lord's last summer. So if guys are bowling well and they get the opportunity, then you've got to stick your hand up and say 'The guy deserves his place.' It is sort of like a natural rotation policy with fast bowlers, because there are going to be injuries."
Enforced absence is difficult for any bowler but Tremlett accepts that some rotation among the attack is likely to be inevitable, as England look to build a squad strong enough to succeed in all conditions, and that with the right management it could help prolong his career.
"It's tough work, especially if you're a big guy - someone like Broady, sometimes I feel for him because he plays all forms of the game, he bowls a lot of overs, probably more than anyone else. For me, I guess you get a natural rest sometimes when you do get the odd niggle here and there. My main focus has been four-day cricket and Test cricket, so it has given me natural breaks from bowling in between. Unfortunately I got injured, but hopefully, long term, if I can keep myself in the set-up and make sure my workload's looked after, then I'll be able to play for a few years to come."
The injury - a bulging disc in his spine - that removed him from England's plans in the UAE, flared up last summer. Having been England's leading wicket-taker against Sri Lanka, following on from his searing whites return during the Ashes, Tremlett lost his place in the side to Bresnan as England went on to crush India 4-0 and become the No. 1-ranked Test team. Such are England's current resources that Tremlett's awkward angles and splice-threatening lift were ably compensated for; but with Bresnan suffering an elbow problem of his own, Tremlett won a recall for the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai.
England suffered a chastening defeat - with Tremlett going wicketless in a Test innings for the first time in his career - but the damage to his body was worse than that inflicted on his pride. Rather than rest and recovery, which had been the strategy before, an operation was required, meaning another spell on the sidelines for a man who once came with his own emergency supply of bubble wrap.
"I don't think I'm back to square one," he says of his latest setback. "It's naturally frustrating. Obviously I've had injuries in the past, which in some regard mentally has actually helped me at this stage of my career because I know what it's like. I know I do bounce back strong and I do work very hard when I'm coming back from an injury. I've had a good couple of years, I've got myself back in the England fold, so it is frustrating.
"I'm not trying to get too down about it, just trying to concentrate on training hard, getting back playing for Surrey, and not think too much about playing for England at the moment. That's the long-term goal, to get back as soon as I can, but if you want it too much and push it too hard - and I come back too quickly - that's when the injury could reoccur. It'll just be nice to get some overs under my belt for Surrey, then we'll think about England and hopefully I can find the form I had last year.
"It's just finding that consistency and I back myself when I'm fit to find that consistency pretty quickly. If I'm fit and strong and playing cricket regularly and bowling overs then I back myself to be as good as anyone."
For all the suggestions that Tremlett is, as Shane Warne put it before the 2010-11 Ashes, a bit "soft", there is a quiet determination about him as he discusses his recovery. He is enthusiastic about returning to Surrey, where his consistent displays in 2010 triggered an England call up more than three years after his previous appearance, and refers fondly to the "family feeling" at The Oval.
Although he will miss the first few weeks of the season as Surrey reacquaint themselves with Division One of the Championship, Tremlett could form a contrasting new-ball partnership with one-time England swing bowler Jon Lewis. Modestly, he defers to Lewis as the senior man but he will admit to being "next in line" in terms of experience. With team-mates Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker also jostling for the attention of the England selectors, Tremlett's comfortable approach to competition may have to extend to his county surroundings as well.
"Surrey is a very exciting place to be at the moment," he says. "We've brought in a lot of young players and they are finally starting to perform to their potential. A lot of guys stepped up last year, winning that trophy [CB40] and getting promoted. So everything's in place, the youngsters are there, we've got a mix of experience as well - I think Jacques Rudolph we've just signed, Jon Lewis, Zander de Bruyn, Mark Ramprakash, so we have got some experience as well."
Tremlett is back at Hursley Park to help promote NatWest's campaign to find the best-supported local cricket club and on the wall is a picture of the fresh-faced teenage version smiling into the camera - proof, if any were needed, that no Dorian Gray-style bargain has been struck to offset the depredations of this fast bowler's existence. There are also some of his youth honours on show - not quite the urn, but a couple of engraved shields and a ball mounted on a mini-plinth - and Tremlett acknowledges the value of county players retaining their links to club cricket wherever they can.
"I started playing here when I was 11-12 years old. I grew up down the road, unfortunately since moving to Surrey I don't come down as much," he says. "But it's nice to come back and see a few pictures on the walls, that they still remember me and there's a couple of trophies from performances I did 10, 15 years ago. It's nice to remember your roots and how you grew up."
While the rigours of his trade have left their marks on Tremlett, the bowler as a young man was more of a batsman. He describes his favourite Hursley Park memories as coming in to "slog a few sixes over the short boundary", although he concedes that while batting may have led to a career less dogged by injury, in the end the choice was a straightforward one.
"Back then, I was quite tall, and I just tried to give it a bit of a whack, use my height and strength. I'd come in at four or five and just try and up the ante at the end. I used to bowl as well but I was probably a batting allrounder, and then, as I grew up, I turned it around. Probably from 16-17, my dad was pretty honest with me and said, 'If you want to make it, you're going to have to work more on your bowling.'"
England should be glad that he did - even if his body frequently isn't.
Chris Tremlett supports NatWest's Biggest Little Cricket Club campaign, a nationwide search to find the most loved NatWest CricketForce club. For more information and to vote for your club visit www.natwest.com/cricket before 23rd March 2012.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo