Olly Stone has admitted there have been times when he wondered whether pursuing a career as a fast bowler was “the right thing to do”.
Stone has endured horrendous luck with injuries over the last few years. But, in the interludes between cruciate ligament damage, stress fractures and side strains, he has shown the attributes of an international-quality bowler.
Now, as England look to refresh their seam attack ahead of the second Test in Galle, there appears to be a good chance of Stone winning a long-awaited recall to the side. He admits there were times when it seemed a distant dream.
“It has been hard,” Stone said after England finished training in Galle on Wednesday. “It has been frustrating. There’s been times when you question if it’s the right thing to do.
“But of course it is. I love playing cricket. I love playing cricket for England. I’d love to play every game but that’s not possible. I’ve had a taste of playing and hopefully there’s many more years of that to come.”
Stone’s life changed on June 3, 2016. Leaping to celebrate the dismissal of Moeen Ali in a T20 game, he landed awkwardly and damaged his cruciate ligament. He wasn’t able to play at all for a year and managed just one first-class game in 2017.
Even then, though, he impressed in the few opportunities he was able to take. He was clocked at over 93mph/150kph on T20 Finals Day at the end of 2017 and, while he played just seven County Championship matches in 2018, he claimed 43 wickets at a cost of just 12.20 apiece.
That form won him an international debut in Sri Lanka – he bounced out Niroshan Dickwella with his seventh delivery as an England player, a ball that reared towards the batsman’s throat – and a place in the Test squad for the tour of the Caribbean.
But, within days of arriving in Barbados, he experienced back pain that was soon diagnosed as a stress fracture. And while he returned for long enough to win a Test debut in July 2019 – he impressed again in claiming 3 for 29 against Ireland – that stress fracture reoccurred almost immediately afterwards and ruled him out of the Ashes. He has managed just one first-class match since. And, during it, he sustained a side strain while batting.
“It isn’t ideal,” he said. “It’s going to happen as a fast bowler but you try to minimise it.
“I guess you’ve seen with what Mark Wood has said at times: you do question whether it is the right thing. I guess you’ve just got to get people around who help support you. My family, girlfriend and friends have been vital.
“Me and Woody are quite close. We do chat about things and see how each other’s bodies are. It’s definitely easier talking about it because people have been through the same things.
“It was nice to be called up to the squad for that Ashes series but, again, very frustrating to have that taken away from me because of injury. Hopefully, now those are all in the past and I can build on that one Test cap and give a lot to the team going forward.”
His bowling coach at Warwickshire, Graeme Welch, reasons there was a silver lining to these injuries. While he had been hugely impressed by Stone, he also concluded he could be fitter. The Stone that has emerged in recent months is significantly leaner – he has lost more than 6kg – than he once was. As a result, Welch believes, he will retain his action for longer and put himself at less risk of further injury.
“Getting fitter and stronger has allowed me to run in for longer,” Stone said. “I feel like my accuracy has improved, too.
“Obviously it’s great bowling the high end speeds. But if you can’t control it, the game can get away from you. So I feel like I’m more accurate. And also in terms of skills, when these pitches get flatter, [I’ve been] finding ways of getting something out of the deck to get the breakthrough.”
Stone has also spent time preparing for life once his playing career ends. To that end, he has returned to Norfolk, where he grew up, and enjoyed some commentary stints on local radio. And if that sounds a little Alan Partridge, he insists he is not, at this stage, primarily a presenter.
“I’d like to move forward with that and hopefully something can come of it,” he said. “But down the line. Not too soon.
“It has helped. You can get yourself into a mental hole, I guess. [The commentary] has helped take the pressure off the cricket side. You think it is the be-all and end-all, but when you have something else to take your mind off it, it can help you relax.”
Stone is, understandably, desperate to play in Galle. But you would think that his skills will be put to best use later in the year when England begin their Ashes campaign in Australia towards the end of the year. The thought of him, Wood and Jofra Archer in combination is, for an England side that has all too often been on the wrong end of such pace attacks, a mouth-watering prospect.
“It’s great to have a group of us fast bowlers now that are building together,” he said. “Hopefully one day we can all feature and show people what it’s all about. And hopefully, over the next year, we can keep learning and honing those skills so when we do get to Australia, we’re ready to go to win the Ashes.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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