'I came to South Africa to challenge myself'

Despite a terrific county season, Graham Onions wasn't picked for the Ashes. Instead of moping, he chose to sharpen his skills with Dolphins

Firdose Moonda

November 27, 2013

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Graham Onions collected four wickets, Essex v England, 4th day, Chelmsford, July 3, 2013
Graham Onions hopes he can be match-fit if England need his services at any point during the Ashes © Getty Images
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One is a reserved Englishman who has not spent much time outside his native Newcastle. The other was a boisterous Bajan widely acknowledged as one of the best bowlers ever born. Believe it or not, Graham Onions and Malcolm Marshall have something in common.

Both made Durban their second home when they signed on as overseas professionals for teams based on South Africa's east coast. Marshall spent four seasons with Natal from 1992-93 to 1995-96, while Onions, in his maiden run with the Durban-based franchise, has revived the concept of the full-season foreign signing in a country where international talent has not had much of a look in recently.

South Africa's domestic season clashes with those in the subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, which leaves only West Indian or English cricketers available to play here. But the days of Ottis Gibson and Vasbert Drakes strutting their stuff here are long gone. The declining rand and a packed international calendar have meant overseas players come rarely and mostly for limited-overs tournaments.

Only Ian Harvey in the 2005-06 season, and Owais Shah in 2010-11, dabbled in the longer version, until Onions settled in. And he is here for the long haul. His wife and ten-month-old son have relocated for the summer, and while they set about making new friends and enjoying the warm climate, Onions got his first set of matches out of the way.

His visit began with the One Day Cup, in a format he wants to improve in. He had a moderate return of seven wickets in seven matches at an average of 29.28 as Dolphins finished in third place. Both the team and the bowler want to step it up for the first-class competition, which is Onions' speciality.

"I feel a lot more settled now and I am looking forward to this part of the summer," he said. "I came to South Africa to challenge myself and also to learn and develop my game. I am really determined to get better and I think I can keep on improving. It was an achievement for me to be contracted to the Dolphins and I want to do well for them."

Onions was approached with the idea of him spending a summer in South Africa by Dale Benkenstein, a Durban boy who plays for Durham and is now the batting consultant for Dolphins. "Lance [Klusener, the Dolphins coach] wanted someone to lead the attack and since Kingsmead is useful to seam bowlers, I thought Graham would do well here," Benkenstein said.

But he also invited Onions for another, more personal reason. "He is a quality bowler, who has been and still is on the verge of the England team and he has never been given a decent run. He wasn't picked for the Ashes side and the thought of sitting on the sidelines and not playing wouldn't have been nice for him. This was a good way to keep him fresh."

After finishing the County Championship as the leading wicket-taker with 70 scalps at 18.45, Onions was gutted to be left out of the Ashes touring party, but Benkenstein convinced him not to spend his winter moping. Instead, by using it to prepare, Onions could set himself up to be an automatic replacement, should the need for one arise.

"It was disappointing not to be part of the [Ashes] squad because back in England I've done well. I would love to be there, performing against our great rivals," Onions said. "But it was not to be. I'd rather be playing cricket here than carrying the drinks there. Maybe I can force myself back in."

Onions thinks it will be a "miracle if we use the same bowlers in all five Tests" and so he wants to make sure he's "not rusty" in case he is asked to fly over. But he also understands that might not happen because the England selectors seem to have sent a message that they don't think Onions would be suited to conditions in Australia.

"English conditions are perfect for him, where there are seaming wickets and the ball swings all day," Benkenstein said. "Here in South Africa or even in Australia, the wickets can get a bit flat if we're having a particularly hot period. But quality bowlers like him can adapt."

That may be what Onions is here to prove - that he can be successful on surfaces other than the ones at home, which he has already done, notably on England's last tour to South Africa, in 2009-10. Onions took eight wickets in three Tests and memorably denied the hosts victory with his batting, twice. "I have good memories of that tour, but obviously my career changed a lot after that."

 
 
"English conditions are perfect for him, where there are seaming wickets and the ball swings all day. Here in South Africa or even in Australia, the wickets can get a bit flat if we're having a particularly hot period" Dale Benkenstein, batting consultant for Dolphins
 

Onions was controversially left out of the XI for the final Test and it was 29 months before he would play another. Career-threatening injuries, rather than questionable selection, kept him out, and there was a stage when, in dealing with his back pain, Onions wondered if he would ever bowl again. "It was the toughest part of my career," he said. "I've now got screws in my back holding me together but they're doing it pretty nicely for now."

While he stays in one piece, he said it's his goal to play even just one more Test, and Benkenstein sees him achieving that and much more. "I think Graham is definitely good enough. He should have been there. If you'd asked any batsman on the county circuit who the best bowler was, they would have said Graham."

For now Benkenstein is hopeful South African batsmen will be saying the same. Onions and Dolphins had a poor start to the first-class competition, when the team was bowled out for 88. Onions had little to defend and went wicketless. Benkenstein thinks that will change soon as pressure mounts on Dolphins to end a seven-season title drought.

"Graham's job is to win matches for the Dolphins and he knows that. There's no doubt that he is trying," Benkenstein said. "He'll be the first to say he hasn't bowled as well as he could have. And he will want to change that. He has done it for Durham and he will do it here."

Benkenstein believes the main hurdle to performing well in South Africa - adjusting to the level of competition - is one Onions has just about overcome. "It's tough here because there are only six franchises, whereas on the county circuit there are many more, so you might not always be playing against a tough side."

Onions admitted the franchise system - created as a distillation of the 11 provincial affiliates - has resulted in a "very good standard and depth" of players. He also said the structure of South Africa's competitions aids their cricketers' development because it allows them to focus on one format at a time rather than play a mish-mash of first-class and List A cricket at the frequency they do on the county circuit.

"It's good to concentrate on one competition at a time," he said. "It also gives you time to work on things. If you're having a bad game, you have days in between to work on it. Of course, if you're in good form you want to keep playing, which is what we have in England but with this system you have time for fitness work as well."

The breathing room has given Onions the opportunity to play a mentoring role to some of Dolphins' younger crop, like Kyle Abbott and Craig Alexander, and learn from people he respects. He has spent time chatting with Klusener and another Durban resident, Shaun Pollock.

He has also allowed himself to become absorbed in living in another part of the world, which he hasn't done before. "It's an experience for him and his family," Benkenstein said. "Sometimes when people are offered to come to South Africa, they worry about things like crime. There's a fear of the unknown. But the longer you spend in Durban, the more you'll see it's a great place."

Onions, with the help of a strip of beach called the Golden Mile, has already realised that. "People seem to go at their own pace here. I like that because where I come from in northern England, it's pretty quiet. I'm really enjoying it. When I go for morning runs along the beach, I realise how lucky I am."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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