12th man determined to take centre stage

Chris Tremlett has been the unlucky one in the Ashes series. But with his county playing a Lord's final today, and Simon Jones struggling to be fit for the final Test next week, the Hampshire fast bowler faces the greatest week of his career. He talked to Angus Fraser
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But the circumstances surrounding the possible debut of Chris Tremlett in Thursday's crucial fifth Test at The Oval are somewhat different to those of his predecessors. Tremlett has been named in each of this summer's Ashes squads and he is the favourite to replace Simon Jones should the fast bowler fail to overcome the ankle injury he sustained during the fourth Test at Trent Bridge.

On the previous four occasions Australia have played a Test in south London the fate of the Ashes has been known. England's credibility as worthy challengers had been ripped apart, and the Test was being used as a stage on which to gain a morale-boosting victory, or unearth a bright young star. Australia's relaxed state of mind, along with England's desperation to finish on a positive note, are the principal reasons why the home side's record at the venue - England have won two and drawn one of the last four Ashes Tests here - is as good as it is.

Yet this summer The Oval will be hosting a contest that is being described by some as the biggest sporting event to take place in England since the 1966 World Cup final. There is a certain amount of hype in this portrayal of Thursday's Test, but with England 2-1 up, and on the verge of reclaiming the Ashes for the first time in 18 years, it is fair to say that it is quite an important match.

"It is a massive game but I am trying not to think about it too much," Tremlett told me when I caught up with him during Hampshire's Championship match against Warwickshire this week. "If Simon doesn't come through I have a chance of playing, but I have a big week ahead of me before the Test, probably the biggest in my career so far. There is quite a bit of pressure on me to bowl well in this game so that I can impress the selectors. I can then go into Saturday's Cheltenham and Gloucester final and The Oval feeling confident that I am bowling well.

"I'd like to think I've had a pretty good year so far, even though my form has dropped off a little in the last few weeks. I am also trying to overcome a little injury myself. But the knee is feeling OK, and I just want to feel as good as I can going into next week."

Tremlett's misgivings about his form became visible during the match against Warwickshire, where he took 3 for 142 and conceded almost six runs an over. Hampshire gained a comfortable victory over today's opponents, and moved back on top of the County Championship, but these are not the bowling figures that tend to win selectors over.

Before the advent of a summer of seven Tests and 13 one-day internationals a Lord's final was seen as a stage on which a talented young thruster could force his way into one of England's winter tour parties. How times have changed. England's selectors will be using it as a means of analysing Tremlett's suitability for the fifth Test.

Should the fast bowler prove his fitness and bowl well, he stands every chance of being named in England's squad tomorrow morning. Yet if he struggles to cope with the occasion, and fails to bowl with the necessary control the selectors may spend much of this evening in deep conversation attempting to come up with an alternative.

That Tremlett is concerned about his form would seem strange to those who watched him bowl during the first half of the summer. In April, May and June he was among the leading wicket-takers in the country, and this led to his inclusion in England's one-day side.

Yet, ironically, it has been his continued involvement with the England Test team that has caused his form to dip. Tremlett has been in each of England's 12-man squads during the four Ashes Tests. He has learnt a great deal and been made to feel welcome at every match, but on each occasion he has been left out and sent off to play for Hampshire.

"Being 12th man has been difficult," he admitted. "On each occasion you build yourself up to play. People stress to you that it could happen - Glenn McGrath's injury at Edgbaston could just as easily have happened to one of our players - and you spend the night before the Test preparing as though you are going to play. But then when the coin goes up half an hour before the start of the game, it's over and off you go to play for your county.

"Driving down the motorway listening to the radio it is hard to stop thinking about what might have happened if I'd played. You then arrive at a county ground, where there is a completely different atmosphere, and you go straight into the game. It takes a little while to get into the game and I have copped a bit of light-hearted stick from the Hampshire boys, who keep telling me that there is a game going on here and I am not at Lord's, Edgbaston, Old Trafford or Trent Bridge. I'm not using it as an excuse, but it has disrupted my season a little bit. Emotionally, it has been hard."

Tremlett has a strong cricketing pedigree. Maurice Tremlett, his grandfather, played three Test matches for England in the late Forties, and his father, Tim, took over 700 wickets for Hampshire. Tim is Hampshire's director of cricket, and the man Chris turns to most for advice, but it is understandable that a 23-year-old is initially finding it difficult to cope with the roller-coaster ride of being on the fringes of the England team.

He is also a huge man. With his boots on, he towers over me, and I am 6ft 6in tall. And it is this height, along with the steep bounce he is capable of extracting from a pitch that has caught the eye of England's selectors. Bounce is the commodity that unsettles batsmen most, hence the reason why nearly all the best fast bowlers in the world are tall men.

Glenn McGrath, the Australian fast bowler, is his hero and Tremlett was fortunate enough to spend some time with him a couple of summers ago when they were both recovering from injury.

"I was recovering from a hip injury and he was in England trying to get over his ankle problem," Tremlett explained. "Paddy [Patrick Farhart], the Hampshire physiotherapist, works for New South Wales during the winter and Glenn was seeing him.

"I tried to pick his mind about what he did with his wrist, the ball and the way he went about things. I learnt from him. He told me the best thing to do was to keep things very simple - pitch the ball in the right area and sooner or later batsmen will get themselves out.

"He is a bowler I can relate to. He is tall - he bowls at between 80 and 85 mph. All I have to do is work on my skill and my accuracy. There is no reason why I can't become like him I have just got to work hard to become that good. I played against him in a one-day game earlier in the year but it would be great to play against him in a Test match."

But before then there is the small matter of a Lord's final, and Tremlett wants to come through this game successfully before he starts thinking about The Oval.

"Playing in a final and winning something for Hampshire is something I have been looking forward to," he says. "Hampshire haven't won much in the last few years but we are in the First Division of both competitions and the club is on the up. A lot of this is down to Shane Warne, who has made a great difference to the club.

"He has helped me and he has also changed the way we play our cricket. Before, everybody used to look at us as happy Hampshire, the sort of team you could have a drink in the bar with and then walk all over. In the past this was probably true, but it has changed. We are now a team to be reckoned with. We fight hard. We try and win games and when the big occasion comes we back ourselves to rise to it."

This may be the first domestic final Tremlett has played in, but it is not the first he has attended. As a six-year-old he watched Hampshire defeat Derbyshire in the 1988 Benson & Hedges Cup final, and three years later he sat at Lord's and cheered his county to success in the 1991 NatWest Trophy final.

"My dad didn't play in either game," he said. "I travelled up with my mum and in the second one I remember sitting next to Gary Lineker in the stands. I got his autograph but I never wanted to be a footballer. I always wanted to play cricket and when dad used to play at the old Hampshire ground I'd be in the nets, or making a nuisance of myself at the back of the players' wives tent. I'd be hitting a tennis ball with my brother or playing with any other kids that were knocking about.

"I used to sit there thinking this is what I wanted to do when I grow up, and because of it I didn't work as hard at school as I should have done. It has gone OK so far and, hopefully, it will continue in the future."