The Shire Brigade: James Tomlinson

The Shire Brigade: James Tomlinson

Next in our series on the true marvels of county cricket, Scott Oliver speaks to Hampshire seamer James Tomlinson.

Name: James Andrew Tomlinson
Clubs: Hampshire
Best of times: Taking the last wicket against Kent in 2010, three minutes before the close, which effectively kept Hampshire up
Worst of times: Any of his five ankle operations
In his own words: “It must be difficult for people who think they should play white-ball cricket. But I never really thought about leaving. I’m quite stubborn, and quite loyal, and I want to play for Hampshire”

Whether you can be self-effacing while sporting a massive, award-winning hipster beard – a beard that literally effaces the face, at the same time as drawing attention to that effacement – is perhaps a question best asked of the nation’s philosophers, yet there can be few more disarmingly unassuming characters on the county circuit than Hampshire’s stalwart left-arm seamer, James Tomlinson.

His peripatetic cricketing education started with trips with his elder brothers from Andover to the old Northlands Road ground to watch the likes of Wasim Akram, as well as “walking out on the square to look at Kevan James’ footholes. I’m a bit of a wicket-watcher, a badger.”

Overlooked for the county’s academy, he went from 16-year-old net bowler to second XI tearaway, then headed off to Cardiff UCCE where “Steve Watkin taught me how to hold the ball,” ultimately helping him pick up Sangakkara as a maiden first-class scalp (“a long-hop”). Other influences included second XI coach Tony Middleton, Dimi Mascarenhas, Dominic Cork (“the funniest bloke I played cricket with by a mile, absolutely bonkers”), Andre Adams, John Stephenson, Jason Laney and Bruce Reid (“he told me I wasn’t quick, wasn’t going to get it to bounce, and did nothing with it”).

After leaving Cardiff in 2003, ‘Tommo’ played just seven first-class games in four years (about the same workload as many graduates, in fact): “I must have only played about 10 games under Shane Warne, but – and this sounds clichéd – I learnt more about cricket in those games than at any other point in my career. But if I’m honest, I’m not sure he thought I was very good…”

Tomlinson: with beard
Tomlinson: with beard

His breakthrough came in 2008, when he was Hampshire’s Player of the Year and the leading wicket-taker in the country, with 67 scalps at 24.76, including a career-best of 8-46. It was a classic case of triumph out of adversity. “I felt it was going to be my last year in the game. Things weren’t looking very positive, contract-wise. My gut feeling wasn’t great. I was told a month before the season that I had a serious ankle problem. Me and the physio took the decision that I’d have cortisone injections and just go for it, as it was my last year. When I look back, I was in pain for every single day of every single game. Injury management’s a funny one: if I hadn’t taken that decision and hadn’t had that year, I wouldn’t be playing now.”

He struggled to match that performance over the next three years, picking up 91 Division One wickets at 37.25. The following three years, in the second tier, went rather better: 143 wickets at 25.36. His explanation? “The honest answer is the difference between the leagues. It’s as simple as that. I think I’m an accurate, hard-working, quite skilful left-arm bowler, with enough pace. What you get in Division Two are good stats. What you get in Division One are alright stats.”

He’s also honest about his red-ball typecasting, and free of entirely reasonable frustrations at being in the ‘wrong’ half of a club whose four-day struggles have coincided with homegrown T20 excellence: “I can’t field, and I can hardly bat, so to get into a one-day side is very hard for me. But it is incredibly difficult watching Lord’s finals and T20 Finals Day when you’re not playing. So, to do something positive, I did radio with Kevan James at Radio Solent for all our Finals Days.”

Aged 33, and again in the final year of his contract, Tommo’s red-ball participation is now threatened by Reece Topley’s arrival; not that a guy who has played through regular pain for the thrill and privilege of representing the county of his birth is unduly perturbed. “We need bowlers to survive in the first division. I’m just going to do what I do and see what happens.”

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