Olly Stone has only five international caps. All were picked up between October 2018 and July 2019, with just four international wickets to show for them. Yet, it could be argued he has already had a profound effect on English cricket.
For it was partly his battles with injury - stress fractures of the back, and serious anterior cruciate ligament damage - that prompted the England and Wales Cricket Board to pull the cord on an initiative that has been in the pipeline for years: pace bowling contracts.
Essentially, these are “central contracts” for quick bowlers on the periphery of England squads. A way of monitoring their progress and giving the ECB greater autonomy over their development, allowing them to manage workload in- and out-out-season in conjunction with their respective counties. A means to provide 90-plus types extra preservation for their back-breaking craft - literally in the case of Stone and countless others.
The Warwickshire quick along with Saqib Mahmood (Lancashire) and Craig Overton (Somerset) were the first recipients of these deals awarded at the start of 2020. Not only did they offer assurance of higher considerations down the line, along with extra pay, but also peace of mind.
Thus, when Stone picked up a side strain in the opening Bob Willis Trophy match against Northamptonshire, the misery of another trauma was not as debilitating as it might have been. He bowled briskly in the first innings for four for 39 but could only send down three overs in the second. Rather than rush any recovery, he took his time, returning for the T20 Blast with the Birmingham Bears. England physios checked in every step of the way.
Like the rest of the world, a pre-pandemic world carried the promise of a fruitful 2020. England coach Chris Silverwood planned to take Stone, Jofra Archer and Mark Wood to the T20 World Cup in Australia later in the year, and to the Ashes that followed. A “fire with fire” approach England have always dreamt of adopting Down Under but have rarely had the personnel to follow through with. Until now.
Barring any hitches, this should play out in 2021 - though India will host the ICC tournament in October - and it’s hard not to think the delay works well for Stone. Silverwood made a note of lauding how the 27-year-old is more robust, and it looks like he will be rewarded with a second Test cap on Friday.
He is mooted to replace Mark Wood, whose sharper spells at Galle helped round out an attack that saw the spinners adopt primary roles. Dom Bess and Jack Leach combined for 14 of the 20 wickets, with Stuart Broad and Sam Curran sharing five. A run out - via the finger tips of Leach - completed the haul. Wood’s 27 overs fulfilling a holding role to keep Sri Lanka’s batsmen honest during the seven-wicket win.
Speaking on Wednesday, Stone revealed he had no indication he was in line to add to his single red ball cap picked up in the 2019 summer against Ireland, taking three for 29 in his only innings in the field. The strongest indication so far is that he was doing this media engagement in the first place.
But he was heartened by the words of his coach, who spoke of needing to get Stones game-time this winter, including out in India next month where England continue their sub-continent tour with a four-match series.
“I’d love to play every game,” said Stone. “But that’s not possible. I’d love to get my opportunity. I’ve had a taste of it against Ireland. I’d love to play as many games as I can. If it’s here then great, if it’s India great. If it’s next summer then, that’s a bit frustrating as I’d love to play before. But it’s great being here with everyone and learning. I’ve got to remember I’m pretty young in my international career. If I can learn on the way, then great.”
From his early days at Northamptonshire, coaches and teammates who tipped him for big things did so primarily because of his knack of improving day-to-day. That carried over when he moved from Wantage Road to Edgbaston, along with a spurt of speed. It was at that ground, during 2017 Finals Day, that Stone peaked at 93.8mph, a delivery which he says remains the fastest he produced in a match.
That steady progress has been noticed in the nets and during the intra-squad match last week with seven overs for 18 runs showcasing the speed and control required to be effective out here. There is also reverse swing, something England have had “a mess around with”, using older balls in sessions to hone the skill. That, too, requires as much pace as it does consistency, the latter being something Stone believes feels he is building on.
“I feel like accuracy has improved. Obviously it’s great bowling the high end speeds but if you can’t control it and hit the areas you need to, 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, finding ways of getting something out of the deck to get the breakthrough.”
There have been longer waits between caps than the 18 months it will be if Stone gets the nod on Friday. But to him it will have certainly felt a lot longer. The Ireland debut was supposed to be a springboard to that summer’s Ashes but inflammation of his back injury scuppered any hopes of featuring in the series.
A fast bowling camp in November 2019 ramped up his expectations, though nothing immediately came of it. Archer and Wood were the preferred speedsters for Tests against South Africa, and again for the postponed Sri Lanka tour in March. Even with a truncated 2020 season, Stones’ 38 first-class matches across almost nine years as a professional speak of a career more stop than start. One which, as has been the case with Wood, required as much emotional as physical support.
“It has been hard. I guess you’ve seen with what Woody has said at times, you do question whether it is the right thing. Guess you’ve just got to get people around who help support you. Family, girlfriend and friends like that have been vital. And also doing a bit of work away from cricket to try to take your mind off it and not have that pressure of it being just cricket, cricket, cricket. That has really helped.”
That outside work includes stints on BBC Radio Norfolk, a prominent part of the regional station’s “Talking Cricket” programme. He’s quick to say he has no ambitions to follow in the footsteps of north Norfolk’s finest, Alan Partridge: “I don’t think I’ve got his witty banter about me”.
But he does hold similar ambitions to bounce back. Specifically against a Sri Lanka line-up containing the same faces he shook up with some hostile bowling during an ODI tour in 2018. Niroshan Dickwella, Stone’s first international wicket, received a brutal delivery that he could only glove through to Jos Buttler.
Bumpers were a tactic England did not need to call upon in the first Test, but might try this time around. Stuart Broad is likely to sit out for James Anderson and supplementing the pitch-up ways of the country’s leading wicket-taker with something shorter will be necessary.
“I’ll give it my best go,” said Stone with a smile suggesting he’ll be more than happy to oblige. After being consistently talked up as one for the future, that future may begin, again, at the end of this week.