Simon Jones: 'It's not nice watching others trying to take my place'
Brian Viner interviews: Injury curtailed his involvement in the Ashes and prevented him from going on tour this autumn, but as a key member of the England cricket team, the Glamorgan bowler has strong feelings about events in Pakistan... even if he isn't getting up early to watch his team-mates
Friday 02 December 2005
For Simon Jones, recovering from an ankle operation, watching England on the back foot in Pakistan has been even more frustrating than for the rest of us.
With the England bowling attack repeatedly thwarted by the Pakistani batsmen, Jones is entitled to think that he could have made a difference, especially in the country that spawned the original masters of the dark arts of reverse-swing. Jones, of course, is England's premier reverse-swing specialist. He took 18 wickets in this summer's Ashes series, at an average of exactly 21, despite missing half of the fourth Test and all of the fifth.
It is little wonder that he has watched the coverage of events in Multan, Faisalabad and Lahore enveloped in gloom that has had little to do with England's stuttering performance, and everything to do with his detachment from the action.
Still, there have been some shafts of light to illuminate the gloom. "It was great seeing KP [Kevin Pietersen] getting 100 [in Faisalabad]. People jumped on the bandwagon very quickly when he didn't get runs in the warm-up games, but he's a good friend of mine, and I know how strong-willed he is. He wouldn't have let that bother him at all. You could say that maybe he shouldn't have got out on a ton [trying to hammer Shoaib Akhtar and spooning an easy catch to midwicket] but that's him. That's the way he plays."
Unlike some of us, this 26-year-old has not been getting up at the crack of dawn to follow England's progress. Four-thirty does not register on his watch, except at the tail-end of a very good night out. He doesn't have too much experience of 7.30am, either. "I value my sleep too much," he tells me. "But I've been watching the highlights whenever I can."
In the time-honoured fashion of the present international cricketer, he does not always have the highest regard for what former international cricketers, required by various media organisations to express an opinion, say about the team's performance. During the summer he was insulated from the media by the sheer strength of England's team spirit, but it's different sitting on his own like any old punter in front of the telly, and he was indignant on behalf of Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Ian Bell when they were all out sweeping in the first innings in Lahore, and duly criticised.
"Fletch [Duncan Fletcher] tries to get us to do the sweep. It's a great shot, and no one was saying anything negative about it in the Ashes when we were using it successfully against Warney [Shane Warne]. Our batters aren't mugs. They've made runs against the best bowlers in the world, so they shouldn't be taking stick just because of a couple of hiccups. They're too good a team to be losing but, you know, things happen."
I invite him to single out those ex-players whose analyses particularly annoy him, or particularly please him. "I think Ian Botham's quality, not just because he speaks highly of me, but because of his knowledge. I respect all those guys immensely for what they achieved as cricketers. But they know the pressures better than anyone. They should be realistic. We're not robots, and when they say harsh things it doesn't help. In South Africa [Geoff] Boycott said I shouldn't have been in the team, and it does play with your mind a little bit. You've got to stay strong, to remember that if you were good enough to be picked, you're good enough to be playing."
Jones take a sip from his styrofoam cup of coffee and looks out over Sophia Gardens, the verdant home of Glamorgan County Cricket Club. Fond as he is of Cardiff, he would rather be sipping Red Bull in Lahore, and without being immodest enough to suggest that he might have made a telling difference in this series, he agrees that England could have done with more bowling variety on Pakistan's lifeless wickets. Not that Andrew Flintoff, the other main exponent of reverse-swing, has been able to repeat in Faisalabad or Lahore the scintillating form that enabled him to rip through the Pakistani order (albeit to no avail) in Multan. "Everyone keeps telling me that it reverses round corners out there," says Jones, "but we've got high-class bowlers and they're finding it hard."
It was in Australia in the winter of 2001/2, as one of the first intake of young Englishmen (and Welshmen) to be put through their paces by the newly hired director of England's National Cricket Academy, Rod Marsh, that Jones first discovered that he could make a ball reverse-swing. And if there is such a thing as orthodox reverse swing, i.e. swinging it into a right-handed batsman, then he found he could also deliver the unorthodox version, swinging it away.
"That first year in the academy brought me out a lot as a cricketer, and as a person too," he says. "I'd never come across a guy with Rod Marsh's attitude, which I suppose was that typical Aussie attitude to play hard and believe in yourself. He also believes that there's only so much a coach can do for you, that you've got to find a lot of it yourself. Certainly as an ex-wicketkeeper there wasn't much technical stuff he could give me, but he got me much more aggressive. He worked closely with me in the net sessions, and he'd say to all of us that we should try to knock the guy's head off.
"That was a good way for the batter to learn as well. If you've had a few bumps and bruises it makes you sharper. It's a simple approach but it worked."
There have been times when the aggressive approach encouraged by Marsh has backfired. In March last year, in the second Test in Trinidad where Jones finished with his first five-wicket Test haul, he got terribly steamed up when Ramnaresh Sarwan hit him for a couple of fours and then had the audacity to smirk. So when he then trapped Sarwan lbw, "I just couldn't control myself. I got in his face and shouted 'C'mon on!' like we do here at Glamorgan.
"Luckily, Mark Butcher came over and pulled me away, or I could have got a match ban. As it was, the match referee, Mike Proctor, fined me half my match fees. Sarwan stuck up for me. He said I hadn't shouted anything racist, just 'C'mon on'. But Proctor still nailed me."
Fines cannot be laughed off quite so blithely by international cricketers as they can by footballers, but even so, it was not the financial hit that worried him, but the damage to his reputation. "Umpires start looking at you more closely when that sort of thing happens. It was Billy Bowden and Rudi Koertzen [officiating] out there, and when I pointed Matty Hayden to the dressing-room at Edgbaston this summer, Bowden was there again and did me for it. Yet Warney had been appealing to him all day and not a word was said. That kind of reputation can follow you round."
More significantly, the Ashes bolstered his other kind of reputation, as a quick, wicket-taking bowler, indeed in Fletcher's excellent book Ashes Regained, he cites the "coming of age" of Jones as one of the key factors in the series. The admiration is mutual. "Fletch is the best technical coach I've ever worked with. In Zimbabwe he changed my grip, and made me a different bowler. I used to hold it with the seam straight down, but he got me to tilt it slightly, and it made a massive difference. I work with Troy Cooley [England's bowling coach] more on my action, and I'm lucky in that he's also one of my best mates. He winds me up and that works well for me."
The third Test at Old Trafford was where Jones hit his considerable best, taking 6 for 53 in Australia's first innings. His solitary wicket in the second innings, however, is the one he chooses as the pick of the entire summer's crop, when Michael Clarke, on 39 and beginning to look dangerous, left a ball which reverse-swung late on to his off-stump. Had Jones stayed on fire and on the field throughout the final session of that incredible last day, then England would surely have bowled Australia out.
"But I got cramp, probably because I'd drunk too much Red Bull. I was so pumped up for that last session, but things go wrong for me ... it winds me up. Like at Trent Bridge, not being able to bowl in the second innings there was terrible. I had a couple of overs and then wasn't seen again in the series. I'd had five wickets in the first innings, and I wanted five in the second. Some people had labelled me a one-trick pony, but I wanted to show I could swing the ball conventionally as well."
The ankle spurs that truncated his series and ruled him out of the Pakistan series have now been successfully operated on, and Jones should be back in the reckoning for the India tour early next year. In the meantime, he has to spend three or four days every week doing rehabilitation work at the National Academy in Loughborough, or "Alcatraz" as he prefers it.
"It's tough, and I get restless, and it's not nice watching other people trying to take my place, but it happens. I'm used to it after my knee [the horrendous, career-threatening injury incurred in Brisbane on the first morning of the 2002 Ashes series, when, in trying to stop a boundary, he ruptured a cruciate ligament] but it doesn't get any easier to bear."
When he's not in Loughborough he divides his time between a flat in Cardiff belonging to a friend - a female friend? "No, a male friend, women are a dangerous species" - and his parents' home in Llanelli. His dad is the former England seam bowler Jeff Jones, not that any parental pressure was exerted on him to choose between football, his first love, and cricket.
Indeed, he had a trial for Leeds United when he was 14, having scored 123 goals the previous season for his local team, whose coach, if you can keep up with this confusing Venn diagram of different sports, was the former Wales fly-half Phil Bennett.
Leeds United rejected him for being too small, which seems hard to reconcile with the bull-necked man of 6ft 3in or so before me. A bull neck last seen having large quantities of beer poured down it during England's Ashes victory parade, in fact.
"Ah yes," he says. "That was unbelievable. I can't explain it. We were overcome by euphoria, really, and just kept on drinking. Fred [Flintoff] didn't go to bed at all. I only had half an hour, then we got on the bus and started drinking again and didn't stop for two weeks. We just had to get it out of our systems. The England rugby boys were lucky, their bus tour was 10 days later. Ours was the next day, and I'm sorry, I don't see how anyone could have expected us to turn up sober. I suppose it could have been better organised, but arriving in Trafalgar Square that day was the best feeling of my life."
It is a feeling, moreover, undiminished by the subsequent experience of losing in Pakistan, in which respect maybe Jones, for once, can count himself lucky to be injured. At any rate, when he turns up to next weekend's BBC Sports Personality of the Year show to receive the team award for which England's cricketers are still surely a shoo-in, he will be the only member of the Ashes-winning side who does not consider the prize just a teeny bit tarnished.
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