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After two years flirting with England's second team, Graham Onions could not even get into Durham's side at the end of the 2008 season. His team-mate Mark Davies had nosed ahead of him on to the England Lions tours of India and New Zealand. But working hard at home proved the catalyst for Onions's transformation.
"Not being part of the celebrations when Durham won their first title down at Canterbury really hurt," he says. "I got very frustrated and, after being in the England set-up a year earlier, not hearing from them hurt as well. I had to prove I could take my game to the next level, so I trained really hard over the winter. I had struggled in 2008 after a six-week lay-off with a heel injury, and it wasn't the first time a season had tailed off for me. I was determined it wouldn't happen again."
A year later, he had been a leading figure in Durham retaining the County Championship; taken his first 20 Test wickets during the summer, helping to regain the Ashes; usurped a central contract from colleague Steve Harmison; and toured South Africa with the Test and one-day squads, saving two Tests with some never-say-die batting from No. 11.
Onions burst from the 2009 traps with a series of long, accurate spells. By midsummer, he had taken 40 Championship wickets in five games, either side of his Test debut. It was at Taunton that he heard of his Test selection against West Indies; he celebrated with six for 31 as Somerset succumbed for 69. Returning from Test duty, he claimed seven for 38 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, where he would later dismiss Shane Watson and Mike Hussey with the first two balls of the second day of the Ashes Test. Onions played three matches against Australia before being omitted for the Oval decider. But his two-in-two prompted pop singer Lily Allen to profess her love for him. His Test debut at Lord's in early May had inauspicious beginnings. After a golden duck, he had his first ball pulled for four, and conceded 22 runs in his first four overs. But his fifth was a maiden, and in the sixth he had Lendl Simmons caught at first slip, Jerome Taylor by the wicketkeeper and Sulieman Benn at third slip. Denesh Ramdin was lbw in his seventh over, and last man Lionel Baker in his tenth. In a single spell, he had taken five for 38. England's demands meant there were to be only two more appearances for Durham, but his electrifying start had already propelled them towards their second successive title. His 45 Championship wickets came at 15.28.
GRAHAM ONIONS was born in Gateshead on September 9, 1982, and it was at the town's nearby leisure centre, rather than St Thomas More RC School in Blaydon, that he took the opportunity to try several sports. Given his natural whippiness, he shone at badminton - he was selected for England Under-15 - but it was at Gateshead Fell Cricket Club that his real talent began to emerge.
"I also used to play in the street at home," he says. "We had one neighbour who used to confiscate the tennis balls which went in his garden, but one Christmas he gave me about 30 back. There was a boy three doors along who used to get migraines, and if he couldn't come out I'd be devastated. I'd be back at his door two hours later to see if he was better."
There was no cricketing background in the family, but Onions, who has an elder sister, says of his parents, Richard and Maureen: "I owe everything to them for the support they have given me. I still live near them with my girlfriend, Emma, and we're a very close family. I'm very passionate about my roots, and I think the passion for the area within the Durham team is a major reason for their success." As he developed into a lean, 6ft 2in pace bowler, he was spotted by Durham coach Geoff Cook, and made his Second Eleven debut aged 18. He had the choice of a contract or a university sports science course, but he had already decided he wanted to be a professional cricketer.
Onions has become a fine length bowler - at the Loughborough academy he was told that 50-55% of Test wickets fall to balls pitching about six steps in front of the batsman - who dismissed seven of his 20 Test victims in the 2009 season lbw, but there have been a few hiccoughs.
"I used to be fourth seamer, and when I was brought on I would try too hard," he says. "I remember being thrown the ball at an important stage of a game at Scarborough, and Phil Jaques hit me for four successive fours. I was thinking 'I'm not sure I can do this.' But Dale Benkenstein was a huge influence as captain, and you have to learn from all those experiences. Otherwise I could not have done what I did in my first season of Test cricket. I often went for 15 to 20 runs in my first three overs, but always came back strongly."
Onions acknowledges a big debt to Ottis Gibson, with whom he shared the new ball for Durham in 2006 - a huge stride forward after his final three games of the previous season yielded one for 198 in 39 overs. "I worked hard with Ottis in his England role to develop an inswinger. My stock ball is slightly back of a length, hitting the seam, but I bowl the inswinger slightly fuller and it's a big wicket-taker, especially against tailenders. I share Ottis's belief that you have to test the batsman from the very first ball. As a fast bowler, you're going to bowl a limited amount of overs, so I treat every ball as though it's my last. If you take wickets early it gets you on a roll and gets the team going, so I'm a lot more focused than I used to be in my preparations." Gibson, in turn, described the man who became England's opening bowler in South Africa as "a very quick learner".
"Two wickets with the first two balls of the day in an Ashes Test was something I wouldn't even dream about," Onions says. "I can't claim to have bowled Mike Hussey first ball because I had spotted a weakness. When he played with us at Durham, he was the nicest man you could meet, but he also came in and changed the club. It's such a great honour and a challenge to play Test cricket against people like him. I don't feel I'm anywhere near the finished article and I have a massive desire to keep on improving."
No comfort zone, then, for the first bowler since Tony Lock and Jim Laker in 1956 to enjoy the rare double of helping his county to retain the Championship and his country to win the Ashes.
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