@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read
Josh Tongue ended his first day as a Test cricketer wicketless but it was easy to see why England have long viewed him as an international prospect, writes Yas Rana from Lord’s.
Just last year Josh Tongue was pondering retirement and considering what his career options were away from cricket. Of all of the injury-plagued seamers in England, his luck with fitness has been as rotten as any. If you rewind back to 2017, Tongue, still a teenager, quickly established a reputation for himself as a bowler of serious potential. A near ever-present in the Worcestershire side that won Division Two, Tongue backed up his breakthrough campaign with an excellent follow-up season in the top tier.
At 20, he had nearly 100 County Championship wickets across both divisions at an average around 25 and had already earned spots on a pair of England Lions tours. What followed was grim. Successive injuries restricted Tongue to 17 first-class appearances in four and a half years.
It is remarkable that despite that run, he finds himself in England whites for the first Test of the summer so soon. ‘Fairytale’ is an overused word in sport but his story and the speed of his elevation to national honours after regaining fitness is stirring.
On the first morning at Lord’s with overcast conditions and up against an inexperienced Ireland side with more than one eye on their upcoming World Cup Qualifier, the opportunity was there for Tongue to add the perfect final chapter to that comeback story. It wasn’t quite to be; he ended the innings as the only wicketless member of the England attack as Ireland were bowled out for 172.
He should emerge from his first experience in Test cricket with credit in the bank, though. He bowled with good pace and you could see exactly why England wanted him on that Lions tour to Sri Lanka earlier this year with so few county games under his belt. English cricket has an almost comical tendency to overhype the speeds of seamers. In 2020 and 2021, English cricket was fixated by Craig Overton’s supposed ‘extra yard’ of pace, only for his England return to show that despite improvements to his game, his speed was practically identical to what it was in his previous stints with the national team.
Tongue touched 90mph on multiple occasions and that is significant. England will be without Jofra Archer all summer, and perhaps Olly Stone too. Brydon Carse is also on the sidelines while Jamie Overton is currently playing as a specialist batter for Surrey; Saqib Mahmood, who impressed in the Caribbean last year, is in a more nascent phase of his recovery. There are very few bowlers in England capable of hitting 90mph and with Mark Wood highly unlikely to play all five Ashes Test, Tongue has presented himself as a viable option if England feel it necessary to field one bowler a Test capable of hitting those speeds at all times.
Stokes’ use of Tongue was also instructive. Tongue bowled an unbroken seven-over spell in the second session, where the directive was to hammer the ball hard into the pitch at pace. Tongue was unfortunate not to pick up at least a wicket. A couple of deliveries that could easily have landed in the hands of a fielder instead ballooned into space, but to his credit, he managed to sustain his pace throughout the spell. In the context of the game, it was a totally unnecessary ploy. The ball was still nibbling about and Stuart Broad and Matt Potts were finding success pitching the ball up. It was essentially a seven-over public audition for a very specific role for a bowler who England clearly want to know more about.
The comparison with Potts is interesting. Potts has dominated Division Two for two years now and enjoyed a very decent first summer as an England player. But in a similar way to how Ben Foakes’ omission from the Multan Test shed light into England’s ultimate regard for him, the fact that England didn’t see Potts as an essential component of their attack to take 20 wickets on the flat, lifeless decks of Pakistan probably says something about how they view him at this stage of his career. Potts is very good at what he does, but he is another not particularly quick or particularly tall English seamer who is dangerous with the moving ball. His route into the first team is more as an Anderson-Broad-Robinson replacement, than as a Wood deputy. Tongue provides back-up to a position where there is currently no back-up.
Tongue is definitely raw; in his first spell, he offered up the odd four-ball and while he is sharp, he is some way off Wood at full pelt. On a wicketless day, he showed why he was worth the test drive and why England have been so eager to keep him in their plans whenever he’s been fit.