|Venue: Lord’s Dates: 1-4 June|
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In the end, all it required was a little Botox. And for Josh Tongue, 15 months of pain, of sleepless nights, of being unable to pick up a cup of tea, fizzled away.
There had been a pair of failed shoulder operations and another, involving the removal of a rib, loomed.
There had been specialist after specialist and then, finally, the specialist. The one that suggested a cosmetic injection might relieve the nerve pressure in Tongue’s shoulder and enable him to charge in, ball in hand once more.
And now on the eve of England’s Test summer, Tongue is hours away from being awarded cap number 711.
It has been a whirlwind week for Tongue, which started when he answered a dawn call from a New Zealand number he did not recognise. According to Phil Weston, Tongue’s agent, hearing Brendon McCullum on the other end of the phone “took his breath away”. He could not believe it. But it was real.
And after just two training sessions, McCullum determined Tongue to be Test ready, naming him in the starting XI to face Ireland in a one-off Test match that begins on Thursday at Lord’s.
Tongue’s tale of resilience
It might have been so very different. Several times in the past 18 months Tongue seriously considered walking away from the game he loves. For 434 nights between June 2021 and August 2022, Tongue was a bystander. Day-to-day tasks had become a struggle, particularly in the winter. The cold exacerbated his issues, those being a numbness in his arm and regular pins and needles.
“Josh was at a very, very low ebb,” explains Weston. “I remember sitting with him in a coffee shop in early 2022. We were talking about what was next outside of cricket. It looked like a very real scenario. He was very, very upset.”
Conversations were even held with the Professional Cricketers’ Association, which provides invaluable support.
But then, finally, came some relief. Tongue had already made the decision to fight on. According to Weston, he “wanted to find out how far he could go”. Before he went under the knife though, a third shoulder specialist – David Murray – made the left-field Botox suggestion. Tongue went with it and within two months was back bowling.
His return came in a 50-over match against Essex. Tongue bowled eight overs, took 2-41 and never looked back. Although he made just five Worcestershire appearances in 2022, he was part of the Lions squad over the winter, taking eight wickets in a match against Sri Lanka A.
“To watch his shoulders go back and his chest go out after that, worked wonders for him,” explains Worcestershire head coach Alan Richardson. “I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through what he had to go through. He had to dig really deep. It’s the love of the game that he has. He’s a real inspiration for the guys.”
Tongue has since had a second Botox injection, but in the name of prevention rather than cure. It should see him through the summer, but thereafter they may become regular.
‘There was a lot to work with’
“He was one of the ones that you could always earmark for good things,” explains Gavin Haynes, father of Worcestershire middle-order batter Jack, but, more pertinently, the head of the county’s Emerging Player Programme during Tongue’s pre-Academy days.
“He always played up in the age groups. We tried to manage it so that he played in the right games for him, at least one if not two age groups up sometimes.”
Indeed, Tongue played for Worcestershire’s under-10s aged just six.
“We just worked on trying to get a good basic strong action,” said Haynes. “There was a lot there to work with. It doesn’t always work out for people but for him you could see he got the potential to go a long way from a very early age.”
‘An unerring ability to be pretty accurate’
Tongue’s foundation is pace. There is something about an Ashes series that makes an extra couple of clicks even more desirable. The likes of Brydon Carse and Jamie Overton would, but for injury, have come into contention to face Australia. And it is perhaps Tongue’s extra zip that has seen him leapfrog Sam Cook and Craig Overton, two of the County Championship’s outstanding seamers in recent years.
“At its best it’s quite ‘easy pace’, and by that, I mean he doesn’t have to try too hard to get it when he gets in really good shapes,” explains Richardson, who took 644 professional wickets during his career.
“He manages to bowl very quickly without having to try that hard. He doesn’t have to absolutely charge in. Naturally, he’d have been a bit Ollie Robinson-esque in terms of quite a short delivery stride, and that’s just lengthened a little as he has developed.”
Indeed, it was a metatarsal injury in 2018 that forced Tongue into a rethink: “He used to be a bit of a toe-striker but now he’s a bit more flat. That’s created slightly different shapes for him, and he’s had to work quite hard technically. He does quite a bit of alignment work and that helped him develop more pace.”
But speed alone does not earn 162 first-class wickets at a smidge over 26 each, nor an England debut.
“He has an unerring ability to be pretty accurate even if he’s not feeling great or if, technically, he’s not in such a good spot,” Richardson continues. “He bowls from slightly past the perpendicular – a bit Ben Stokes like – so it always looks to a batter like it is coming in. But at his best, Josh gets it to stand up, swing away and attack both edges. When he does that, and does that well, he’s an absolute handful.”
‘He can go to a different level’
Aged 24 Tongue was almost forced to retire; aged 25 he will be an international cricketer.
“There is massive headroom in Josh’s cricket,” said Weston. “He is easing himself back from a long lay-off and I think his bowling can go to a different level to where it is now.”
For the time being though it has taken Tongue to Lord’s, where his parents will be present – after some initial wavering.
“Phil was supposed to be doing some work with me on Thursday,” says Haynes of Tongue senior. “But he’s had to cry off now. I’ve had to get another coach in. I knew what he’s like, he’d be saying ‘I can’t let Gav down’ so I rang him straight away to say, ‘you’re going to Lord’s!'”
Tongue junior had never even been to the Home of Cricket before Monday. Now he must get to grips with its infamous slope as a Test cricketer.