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England Lions in UAE – Josh Tongue seeks another taste of the action after summer to savour

From the verge of retirement to holding a prized central contract – it has been a whirlwind 12 months for Josh Tongue.

At the back-end of 2022, following a 15-month spell on the sidelines with a shoulder issue, calling time on a promising fast-bowling career and utilising a Level 2 coaching badge was given serious consideration. Now, as one of seven England fast bowlers on multi-year deals, a level of security he admits to having “dreamt about”, his stock and confidence are as high as ever.

Much has happened in a short period of time for a player who turned 26 on Wednesday. A botox injection in his neck proved a revelation when it came to calming the nerves afflicting his shoulder, allowing him to tour Sri Lanka with England Lions at the start of 2023. A red-ball debut for the representative side went well, taking 5 for 34 and 3 for 77, with managing director Rob Key – who presented his cap – impressed enough to push his case down the line.

Tongue also underwent a change of counties, moving from New Road to Trent Bridge, though getting acquainted with his Nottinghamshire team-mates will have to wait. On Thursday, he flew to the United Arab Emirates as part of a Lions training camp aimed at gearing up for the challenge of a gruelling five-Test tour of India to come in the New Year.

Even that trip to the UAE will be short and sweet; Tongue has been included in both ODI and T20i squads for the West Indies tour in December. He will travel straight to the Caribbean to join up with an England squad desperate to draw a line under their dismal 2023 World Cup campaign.

“The last year has been a bit of a rollercoaster,” Tongue said. “Before that, nearly retiring because of my shoulder injury and then being picked for that Lions tour of Sri Lanka, I was over the moon about that. And this summer, playing the Ireland Test and then being in the squad for the Ashes and then playing that game at Lord’s, it was a special moment – a bit surreal, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.

“I didn’t start the season well for Worcestershire (11 Division Two wickets at 41.45 in four matches leading up to his maiden Test call-up), so being selected for that Ireland Test was a bit of a surprise because there were a couple of injuries. Once I got into that environment with Baz [Brendon McCullum] and Stokesy it was such a chilled environment, and being around Jimmy (Anderson) and (Stuart) Broad was just amazing.”

For obvious reasons, the Lord’s Test against Australia stands alone as a highlight. The occasion in itself would have been memorable enough, but with England 1-0 down after losing at Edgbaston and with Just Stop Oil protesters storming the pitch after the first over of the match, the events of the final day took it to another level, with Jonny Bairstow’s contentious run-out followed by Ben Stokes’ remarkable 155. Tongue took 5 for 151 in the match, and his dismissal in the second innings – losing his leg stump attempting to slog – confirmed Australia’s 43-run win to go 2-0 up.

“A lot did happen in that match!” he reflected. “For me personally, just walking through the Long Room about to do the national anthem. I have said to all my family and friends I am never going to forget that moment, in the Long Room. It’s just electric in there. It didn’t help that the Oil protestors came on straight away – and I was just like ‘urgh, I just want to get playing now’.

“Even in the Ireland Test, I think there was like 28,000 in and that is the biggest crowd I have ever played in front of and I knew when I got told I was playing in the Ashes match that this is going to be full – 35,000. Just amazing.

“Even batting towards the end with Jimmy – I never thought I’d be batting with Jimmy Anderson at the other end even a couple of months before that – the crowd was amazing. I tried to have a bit of fun (Tongue struck 19 off 26), tried to move round the crease and, erm, got bowled at the end.”

Following Broad’s retirement, a more permanent seam bowling spot has opened up, and Tongue’s strong first impressions in the format, consistently sending the ball down in the high eighties puts him in a good spot. It helps, too, that McCullum and Stokes have created an environment he feels brings out the best in him.

“I think my pace will help in subcontinental conditions and I can get the ball to reverse as well and my bouncer tactic, which Stokes obviously likes, will benefit the team.

“I know being in that Test squad, the pressure is really taken off you. Stokesy and Baz were so good in terms of telling me how to play my cricket – ‘you are here for a reason, you are good enough to be here, have fun, chill out, don’t put too much pressure on yourself’ – and obviously it is going to be a lot different over in India. I have never been to India before, it will be very exciting if I am selected.”

It is pretty much guaranteed that Tongue will be in India, with the Lions also touring the country parallel to the main squad. The experience in Sri Lanka earlier this year has him in good stead when it comes to a fast bowler’s duties on the subcontinent. He will look to fine-tune those elements over the next fortnight.

“I normally bowl from mid-crease, so mixing up the angles, even coming round the wicket to the right-hander, trying to reverse the ball back in. Obviously it is a bit harder getting LBs (leg before) from round the wicket, but [it’s about] making sure that length is fuller to get that. I think just being a bit unpredictable as well, batters don’t like that; just mix up angles, even cross-seamers. Just something different.”

He also has limited-overs skills to hone: “Death stuff – yorkers, slower balls etc, towards the back end, I bowl in the powerplay as well and in the middle, so I am used to that. One of my main areas of getting better is the back-end of the innings.”

The aim, ultimately, is to show the selectors he can be an option for all formats. Tongue’s career to date has largely been skewed towards the red ball, with 50 first-class appearances set against 15 List A and 15 T20 matches.

He impressed in 2023’s Men’s Hundred, taking seven wickets at 17.85 for Manchester Originals under England’s white-ball captain Jos Buttler, who will be more willing than ever for fresh blood for the next World Cup cycle, including next summer’s T20 World Cup. Tongue is likely to pick up his first white-ball cap before the year comes to an end, and there is every chance 2024 will be as memorable as 2023.

“I have played a lot more red-ball than white-ball, but I do see myself as an all-three-format bowler, and I want to get better at my white-ball cricket. Hopefully, I can showcase that in the West Indies.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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