England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Chester-le-Street August 7, 2013

Tremlett and Onions at crossroads

If life was fair and just both reserve quicks would get a chance to show they can cut it at Test level, but that is not the way professional sport works

Clint Eastwood almost certainly wasn't thinking about Graham Onions or Chris Tremlett when he growled "Deserve's got nothing to do with it," during the film Unforgiven, but the line works quite nicely all the same.

Onions and Tremlett deserve another chance in international cricket. Both are admirable characters, born with substantial gifts that, through years of hard work and honing, they developed to the point where they could be considered among the best in their country. Tremlett, at least, might have been on the threshold of something really quite special.

Then injury struck. Through no fault of their own, the careers which they had worked so hard to forge were jeopardised by serious injuries that required surgery. Both men have been forced not just to suffer the pain and uncertainty of the surgeon's knife but the months of rehabilitation and frustration that follow. Both have confessed to times when, struggling to even get out of bed, they feared that everything they have striven for was going to be denied them. They are no strangers to pain; physical or mental.

Yet both men revived their careers. Through remarkable feats of persistence, hard work, sacrifice and mental strength, both have returned to professional sport and performed with enough skill and success to warrant a recall to the international side.

Anyone can work hard in a full ground with the eyes of the world upon then; it takes a different level of determination to sustain hope and belief and the appetite for the fight when there is no-one around and you have to crawl on all fours in order to take yourself to the bathroom. Even if they never take the next step on their comeback journey, to have reached this point is an achievement of which they can be proud.

So both men deserve another chance.

But that's the rub. And that's where that Eastwood line comes in. Because life isn't fair or just or reasonable. It doesn't necessarily reward hard work and sacrifice and good intentions. It can coax and seduce and tantalise and still leave you empty handed. Professional sport can be a cruel business.

And the sad fact is that both Onions and Tremlett have much to do to prove they have what it take to return to enjoy a successful return to international cricket.

While Tremlett proved beyond reasonable doubt on the Ashes tour of 2010-11 and the few Tests he managed subsequently that he had the skills for Test cricket - the height, the pace, the accuracy and, often overlooked, the talent to move the ball in the air and off the pitch - he is not necessarily the same bowler now.

Certainly the evidence of his first few matches this season was that he had lost that crucial 3-4% that separate the excellent from the merely decent. While there is much talk of his 'potential' on Australian pitches, there is limited evidence to suggest he can replicate the bounce and pace he once managed. And potential remains the most over-used word in cricket. Tremlett is 32 within a month.

The statistics, as ever, are instructive and potentially misleading. Since Tremlett's latest comeback at the start of this season, for example, he has claimed 19 first-class wickets in seven matches at an average of 39.63. He has not always won selection in his county side.

But what that does not show is that he has bowled on some unusually flat wickets. It does not show, either, that he has, of late, found just a little extra menace to suggest he is, four months into the latest comeback, starting to get back to somewhere approaching his best.

And it does not show that he has recently enjoyed several net sessions against England's batsmen where he has troubled them significantly. He retains the confidence of the England bowling coach, David Saker and he might, just might, enjoy the coda his career deserves.

Onions figures are equally intriguing. Since the start of 2011, he has claimed 178 first-class wickets at the wonderfully impressive average of 22.17 apiece. It is even better than his pre-injury record of 230 first-class wickets at 30.10 apiece. If you believe the statistics, he might even be an improved bowler.

He is not as quick a bowler, though. He is sharp, he is persistent and he is probably the most accurate seamer in English cricket. He is almost never anything less than very good. But, like Chris Woakes, he might just lack the pace to make incisions on the flat wickets generally produced in Test cricket and, like Tremlett, injury might have robbed him of the vital fractions that caused the ball to bounce that much more and move that much later.

He would admit that, unlike Tremlett, he has played on some remarkably helpful wickets - the sort that will simply never occur in Test cricket - and his figures have to be interpreted in that context. He, too, is in his 30s - he will be 31 in September - and running out of time to resurrect an international career that has, like Tremlett, already included an Ashes victory. If he is overlooked on his home ground it is hard to see where he will return.

Both men have a better chance of playing than might be imagined. Both James Anderson and Stuart Broad appeared jaded by the end of the Old Trafford Test with Broad occasionally carrying the hint of a limp. They would not like it, but it is not impossible they could be rested for this Test.

Sadly, though Onions spoke to the media on Wednesday, the latest in a catalogue of controversies to erupt this season diverted attention from his inspiring comeback story. So, instead of much opportunity to talk about the journey from boyhood that has culminated in this chance to play a first Ashes Test at this relatively new venue, Onions was obliged to defend a side in which he has not played, against allegations which make little sense on a subject he knows little.

Over recent weeks, England have been falsely accused of spot-fixing, ball tampering, bat tampering and, despite the fact that no teams do so in international cricket, not 'walking' when edging the ball. Success, if seems, breeds the type of jealous smears that Pakistan have had to live with for decades.

If Tremlett or Onions play in Durham, surely even the hardest-hearted and cynical on-lookers will wish them well.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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