At the end of 2022, after a 15-month spell out with a shoulder problem, serious consideration was given to calling time on a promising fast bowling career and cashing in on a Level 2 coaching badge. Now, as one of seven England fast bowlers on multi-year deals, a safety he admits he “dreamed of”, his stock and confidence are as high as ever.
Tongue has also undergone a change of counties, moving from New Road to Trent Bridge, although recognition of his Nottinghamshire team-mates will have to wait. On Thursday, he flew to the UAE as part of a Lions training camp aimed at preparing for the challenge of a grueling five-Test tour of India coming in the new year.
Even that trip to the UAE will be short and sweet; Tongue was included in the ODI and T20i squads for the tour of the West Indies in December. He will travel straight to the Caribbean to join an England squad desperate to put an end to their dismal 2023 World Cup campaign.
“Last year was a bit of a rollercoaster,” Tongue said. “Before that, I was on the verge of retirement because of a shoulder injury and then I was selected for the Lions tour of Sri Lanka, I was very happy about that. And that summer, I played the Ireland Test and then I got into the Ashes team and then while playing that game at Lord’s, it was A special moment – it was a bit surreal, and I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.
“I didn’t start the season well for Worcestershire (11th Division Two at 41.45 in four matches before being called up for the first Test), so being selected for the Ireland Test was a bit of a surprise because there had been a couple of injuries, once I got into that environment with Baz [Brendon McCullum] Stuckey was a very chill environment, and being around Jimmy (Anderson) and (Stuart) Broad was great.”
“A lot happened in that match!” He reversed. “For me personally, I was walking into the Long Room about to play the national anthem. I told all my family and friends I would never forget that moment, in the Long Room. It was electric in there. It just didn’t happen.” It helps that the oil demonstrators come right away – and I was like, ‘I just want to play now.’
“Even in the Ireland Test, I think there were about 28,000 spectators and that is the biggest crowd I have ever played in front of and I knew when I was told I was playing in the Ashes that this was going to be full – 35,000 spectators.” . Just awesome.
“Even batting at the end with Jimmy – I never thought I’d be hitting Jimmy Anderson at the other end until a couple of months before – the crowd was amazing. I tried to have a bit of fun (hit the tongue 19 times) 26), tried to move around the crease, but it was Throw it in at the end.”
Following Broad’s retirement, a more permanent bowling venue opened up, and Tongue’s strong first impressions of the format, consistently sending the ball down into the 80s, stand him in good stead. It also helps that McCollum and Stokes have created an environment that he feels brings out the best in him.
“I think my speed will help me in sub-continental conditions, I can make the ball turn as well, and my keeper tactic, which Stokes obviously loves, will benefit the team.
“I know that being in this Test team, it really takes the pressure off of you. Stuckey and Baz were very good about telling me how to play cricket – ‘You’re here for a reason, you’re good enough to be here,’ ‘Have fun, calm down, don’t put too much pressure On yourself – and obviously it’s going to be a lot different in India. “I’ve never been to India before, it will be very exciting if I get selected.”
It’s pretty much certain that the tongue-in-cheek will be in India, with the Lions also touring the country in parallel with the main squad. His experience in Sri Lanka earlier this year stands him in good stead when it comes to fast bowler duties in the subcontinent. He will look to adjust these items over the next two weeks.
“I usually bowl from middle off, so I mix up the angles, and even go around the wicket to the right-hander, and try to reverse the ball back. Obviously it’s a little difficult to get the LBs (previous leg) around the wicket, but [it’s about] Make sure the length is fuller to get it. I think it’s a bit unpredictable too, hitters don’t like that; Just mix up the corners, even the cross stitches. Just something different.”
He also has limited skills to hone: “The death stuff – slow balls etc., towards the back end, I play in the powerplay as well and in the middle, so I’m used to that. One of my main areas of improvement is at the end of the innings.”
The aim, ultimately, is to show selectors that he can be an option for all formats. Tongue’s career so far has been largely skewed towards the red ball, with him making 50 first-class appearances as against 15 List A matches and 15 T20 matches.
He impressed in the 2023 Men’s Hundred Championship, taking seven wickets at 17.85 for the Manchester Originals under England’s white-ball skipper Jos Buttler, who will be more ready than ever to bring in fresh blood for the upcoming World Cup cycle, including the Trophy. World T20 next summer. He is likely to pick up the tongue for his first international cap before the end of the year, and there is every chance 2024 will be as memorable as 2023.
“I have played more red ball than white ball, but I see myself as a three-form player, and I want to get better in white-ball cricket. Hopefully I can showcase that in the West Indies.”
Vithushan Ihantaraja is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo