‘I didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair’: Ashes hero Graham Onions, 38, reflects on painful decision to retire after suffering a freak spinal injury
- The 38-year-old is ready to reflect on his career and talk about what comes next
- The seamer was part of the England side that beat Australia in the 2009 Ashes
- Ex-Durham and Lancashire bowler took 723 wickets in 192 first-class matches
Graham Onions is now at ease with the emotional conflict of forced retirement. It has taken a while for the 38-year-old to feel ready to reflect on his career and talk about what comes next.
Weeks glided by as Onions fretted about his future and came to terms with not being able to play cricket again. A freak spinal injury on the morning of Lancashire’s first match of last season brought an end to his career before a ball had been bowled.
‘People kept saying, “You must have reminisced and thought of all the great times”,’ Onions tells Sportsmail.
Graham Onions is now a tease with the emotional conflict of his forced retirement
Best batsman he bowled to: Mike Hussey
Best bowler he faced: Dale Steyn
Best team-mate: Andrew Flintoff
Favourite fielding position: Fine leg
Favourite wicket: Jacques Kallis 3rd Test, Cape Town, Jan 2010
Favourite innings: 0 not out off 11 balls in the same match — earning a draw in a heroic last stand with Graeme Swann.
‘Honestly, for up to a month I just thought about the future and it did get scary — I got worried. I wasn’t ready to retire, I was desperate to keep on playing for as long as possible. When that’s taken away from you, it’s really tough.
‘My mind was telling me that I wanted to carry on but my body was telling me it’s just broke. Ultimately, my spine has broken. I was thinking, “Could I potentially play again?” but obviously there’s no chance. I’ve got a young family — I’ve got to look after them. The last thing I want to do is push myself to the absolute limits and end up in a wheelchair, that’s no good for anybody.
‘But I’m now in a frame of mind where I’m a lot more positive. I have some coaching work with the Lancashire academy lads in November s o I’m looking forward rather than looking back.’
Graham Onions (above) with his wife Emma and children Esme and Oliver
As Onions takes a breath to delicately dissect the timeline of August 1, trauma is etched on his face when talking about that fateful first morning of Lancashire’ s match against Worcestershire.
‘We played four warm-up games before Worcester at Leicestershire’s ground and I bowled in all four — I felt really good and was in good shape,’ he recalls.
‘I remember it vividly. I went down to pick up a ball and really hurt my back. It was heart-breaking, I knew straight away it was serious.
The 38-year-old is ready to reflect on his career and talk about what comes next
‘Dane Vilas (Lancashire’s South African captain) was just coming out to do the toss. I went to the physio with quite a lot of discomfort. I then went to Dane and said, “I can’t play, I’m in too much pain.” I couldn’t bend forward or laterally, I couldn’t move any way at all.
‘When the back specialist later said, “We don’t think you should play any more for the sake of your long-term spinal health”, I straight away thought, “What am I going to do?” I’d made a pact to myself because I love the game so much — and in a strange way enjoyed the torture you put your body through — to push myself to the absolute limits.’
Despite having cricket cruelly taken away, the ex-Durham and Lancashire bowler is able to look back on a career that saw him play nine Tests for England and take 723 wickets in 192 first-class matches.
The Gateshead-born bowler back at the club where he first started playing as a youngster
But it’s the third Ashes Test in 2009 at Edgbaston that leaves Onions with a wide-eyed grin. It was the Test in which captain Andrew Strauss gave the Gateshead-born bowler the first over of the day ahead of stalwarts James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff.
He says: ‘It was only my third Test for England so I was still thinking I needed to prove that I was good enough.
‘When Strauss said to me that morning, “You’re going to be the man opening the bowling” it was almost like a wave of pressure off my shoulders, like, “This guy believes in me”. To get Shane Watson first ball of the day, then Mike Hussey with one that nibbled back a little bit and then bowl a short ball to get Ponting out was amazing. I remember Anderson said, “Ricky Ponting never ever gets bounced out and you’ve just done it”.’
The seam-bowler was part of the England side that beat Australia in the 2009 Ashes
Such performances in 2009 saw Onions also play three Tests on England’s tour of South Africa and he was named by Wisden as one its five cricketers of the year.
It was all looking good but then went south — quickly. The paceman spent all of 2010 and most of 2011 recovering from a stress fracture to his back.
Despite recovering and then registering bowling performances among the best in the country, including 73 first-class wickets at an average of 18 in 2013, Onions wasn’t able to regain his England place. The frustration of playing second fiddle to Anderson and Stuart Broad began to wear him down.
‘I had so many conversations with loved ones and family where I’ve gone, “Why didn’t I play more, why didn’t I get picked?”’ he explains.
The ex-Durham and Lancashire bowler took 723 wickets in 192 first-class matches
‘I was constantly told, “You’re not getting picked, go to your county and take some wickets”. And I did that all the time and I proved I could bounce back.
‘I did think, “Am I doing something wrong, what’s the problem?” But, equally, Jimmy and Broady are unbelievable bowlers who will go down as greats and they kept me out of the team. I’m OK with that now, I can be happy.’
In his short but entertaining England career, a chat with one of his heroes after the 2009-10 South Africa series gave Onions the realisation that he really could compete at the highest level.
‘I was just getting on the coach and Jacques Kallis said to me, “You’ve had an unbelievable series, you haven’t got the wickets you deserved but you’re doing brilliantly in your international career”.
‘That meant the absolute world to me, I will never forget it. It made me think I could compete against the best.’ Many cricketers who played with or against Onions would whole-heartedly agree with that.
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