When Richard Gleeson was named in England's enlarged training squad ahead of the truncated 2020 season, it was hailed as a triumph for late developers. Gleeson, 33, did not make his first-class debut until the age of 27, having held down a series of unlikely jobs - manual labour in a boiler factory, landscape gardening and cleaning maggots in a fishing tackle shop among them.
He was not too far away from an international debut in the ODI series against Ireland, staying with England's 14-man squad as a reserve when other, younger seamers were sent back to their counties, and was soon in action with Lancashire, belying a stiff back to take match figures of 3 for 52 against Durham in the Bob Willis Trophy.
A week later, he travelled with the squad to Trent Bridge for their second game of the season. He had been feeling "stiff and sore" ever since returning to training, but thought nothing of it. "I'd had tightness, but it loosened off with a bit of work and a few painkillers - nothing out of the ordinary," he recalled, speaking to ESPNcricinfo during Lancashire's draw with Glamorgan in the County Championship.
But on the morning of the Nottinghamshire fixture, it became apparent that something had gone seriously wrong. "I turned up, tried to bowl a ball and just couldn't. It was absolute agony - like being stabbed repeatedly. It was horrendous. I tried twice and couldn't do it so went straight off for a scan."
The diagnosis was that Gleeson had suffered a stress fracture, on the right side of his L5 vertebra. "I was told to do nothing. They literally told me to sit on my hands." He was even discouraged from picking up his two young children. "Then in December, it was two 10-minute walks a day.
"You've got a few things going through your mind because you just don't know what's going to happen. We never really broached any surgery, but I've got a pars defect [stress related injury to the vertebra] on the other side. If it hadn't healed, I would have had almost nothing holding my back together - just a bit of cartilage. There were definitely times when I thought: have I played my last game?"
"I don't think age is an issue at the moment with the England white-ball teams - they're so good and so successful that they will pick the best teams and the best players regardless"
That fear was heightened by the fact that stress fractures are relatively unusual among older fast bowlers - though Gleeson's late start as a professional means he has bowled fewer overs in his career than most 33-year-olds. He has been told by Lancashire's medical staff that the lengthy break between his return from the England Lions' tour of Australia and the resumption of training - caused by the UK's initial Covid-19 lockdown - may well have been a contributing factor.
"I keep saying to the head of medical here that I must have a young man's body if I get stress fractures, because they're usually related to young bowlers. We had such a long period off and they said that it decalcifies the bones, so you need longer to build back up. Dave Willey and I both got stress fractures in our 30s - it was one of those years with Covid."
One particularly low moment came in Cyprus, where Gleeson was honeymooning with his wife Laura. "It was one of the very few countries we could travel to at the time. I'd just gone to the bar to get a couple of drinks and it was the day of the retention period opening in the Hundred. For some reason, I checked my emails while I was waiting."
He opened the new message at the top of his inbox to discover he had been released from his £60,000 contract with the Northern Superchargers. "There's no good way to do it, but in my opinion, that's probably not the best one," he said. He was picked up by the Manchester Originals as a £24,000 pick in February's re-draft: "If I play against them [the Superchargers] then I'll give it a little bit extra."
Gleeson retains hope of an international debut after his experiences within the England set-up. He is tall enough to find good bounce from a length despite bowling closer to 80mph (129kph) than 90mph (145kph), and has an impressive record in all three phases of a T20 innings, particularly in the Blast.
"I don't think age is an issue at the moment with the England white-ball teams," he said. "They're so good and so successful that they will pick the best teams and the best players regardless. I got the impression that if someone can show that they can either take early wickets or nail down the job of bowling at the death then there is an opportunity there. If you're bowling well, you can get picked - I'll tell myself that, anyway."
But in the short term, having made a single appearance for Lancashire over the past 20 months, his focus is on getting back onto the pitch. "I've had the all-clear to start building back up since February but Sam [Byrne], our head physio, made it quite clear early on that going for a white-ball focus to start with will mean I have slightly longer and a lower volume of overs when I do come back. There's a big chunk of white-ball cricket starting with the Blast, and we'll look at how things go later in the season.
"I had my first bowl in the nets at a batter the day before yesterday, and I was pretty much off the full run today [Friday]. I'm getting there - I'll get a bit of time on my feet playing some red-ball second-team cricket soon. I've still not played a Roses T20 game at Old Trafford yet. It'll be surreal to have crowds back and that's one that would be nice to be a part of."