For most of the winter, James Tredwell has been a faintly jocular figure. Prematurely balding, slight of stature, diffident, utterly unobtrusive, he was the forgotten man of England's stuttering World Cup campaign.
Newcomers to the scene could have been forgiven for thinking that the man perpetually in a green bib, carrying drinks, was a lesser member of England's back-room staff. Maybe, since there seems to be a functionary for everything else, he had indeed been appointed as official drinks carrier.
Nobody is laughing now. Two nights ago, Tredwell saved England in the World Cup. If he were never to play again he would always have Chennai, 17 March 2011: four wickets in a match the side had to win, or be eliminated. Called up to play almost as an act of desperation – there really was nowhere else to turn – he had appeared in three previous one-day internationals and taken precisely zero wickets. Nothing suggested that his off-spin, weaned on the pitches of Kent, would play more than a peripheral, pedestrian role. Detecting signs of movement in Tredwell's bowling would sometimes require the assistance of optical devices as yet not invented.
His planned entrance was delayed. Andrew Strauss, England's captain, had been intending to introduce him to the attack earlier. But he changed his mind. Chris Gayle, the swashbuckling Jamaican, was laying waste to England's bowlers and Strauss turned instead to the fast bowler, Chris Tremlett. It was a question of trust.
When Gayle climbed into Tremlett, it really was time for Tredwell. It was Tredwell or bust and nobody could have though that. Pitching him against Gayle in this rampant mood was the fly and the elephant. When Gayle swatted him for four over mid-wicket it was possible to fear the worst. He was scoring at two runs a ball. What kind of contest was this where the coolest dude on planet cricket, the pinch hitter from Jamaica, was being served up pies by a chap who has the air and appearance of an auditor's clerk?
Tredwell, 29, pitched one up which moved off the straight a fraction. Gayle played forward, missed the ball and was struck on the pad. He was out lbw and the West Indies' gallop was stopped.
"It was a huge relief to get Gayle," said Tredwell yesterday as England left Chennai, the scene of their last ditch 18-run win against the West Indies, to spend a few days in Delhi where they will await their fate in the tournament. "He could have quite easily kept going there and it could have been finished in 30 overs so to have got him out was a massive wicket for us.
"I just tried to attack it as a no-lose situation. If I got him out then it's happy days, if he smacked me round the ground then that's what he was doing anyway. We decided to defend the straight boundaries and hopefully make him play across the line which he did once. Maybe that made him play a bit straighter and he got hit on the pad."
Two more wickets followed quickly. But he was not finished yet. When a young buccaneer called Andre Russell, a former footballer and sprinter in only his second match, was again threatening to take the game away from England in true Caribbean style, Tredwell was brought back and persuaded him across his off stumps to be lbw.
Tredwell has been following England's one-day squad around for a year or so now. They kept faith with him despite a low-key season in 2010. He is the sort of cricketer who is good to have around because he trains well and takes his non-playing duties seriously. He suffers by comparison with the side's ebullient premier off-spinner, Graeme Swann.
Nothing that Tredwell had shown in his three previous matches, all spaced well apart, suggested he could match Swann's charisma or skill. He is simply a quieter man. Maybe he embodies the continuing dearth of slow bowling resources in England but it is not his fault that he is the second best for the one-day arena.
If being on the road for so long affects all cricketers at some point, it must be harder for these fringe players, forever waiting for a game, never sure what they can do to get one and still trying to be part of the team. Tredwell's wife Beth, sister of his Kent colleague Geraint Jones's wife, is expecting their first child in June. Tredwell was summoned eventually not because of anything he did but what those in the team had failed to do.
England, fitful throughout the competition, had lost matches to Ireland and Bangladesh that they should have won. Lose against the West Indies and they were definitely going home early for the fifth consecutive World Cup. They introduced three players – Tredwell, Tremlett and Luke Wright – who had not previously appeared in the competition. It was not a move based on some far-sighted strategy.
But Tredwell's freshness, eagerness and lack of cricket undoubtedly helped. Gayle is magnificent to watch in full flow but there is a swagger about him. When he saw the little chap from Kent, it is not difficult to assume what he thought.
"I think not taking a wicket in my previous games did increase the pressure, certainly on myself," said Tredwell. "I thought that might never come having played a few games and probably not done as well as I would have liked.
"I have tried to use my time here, not necessarily my frustrations, but my time, to improve as a cricketer and hopefully when the chance does come I can perform and hopefully that stood me in really good stead.
"That frustration does come in that you're not playing but equally there's people in front of you that have performed consistently as well. So you have to take it on the chin and I try to do everything I can to try to help the lads out in the middle. That's as important as playing sometimes."
England must await the result of the matches between South Africa and Bangladesh today and perhaps between India and West Indies tomorrow. If Bangladesh and West Indies win, England could still be eliminated on net run rate. But that is unlikely now and it is the pale, unassuming figure of Tredwell who has made it so. Having waited so long he does not deserve his World Cup to finish as soon as it started.Reuse content