Bowler Matt Mason is hoping for a fresh start at the age of 34. George Dobell reports.
Amid the fevered search for an overseas player gripping New Road over the last week or two, there was one man who could have been forgiven for hoping the task was fruitless.
For the club’s inability to secure the services of a replacement for Steve Magoffin has led to a recall for Matt Mason. The 34-year-old seamer has endured a horrendous couple of years. Two shoulder operations and a succession of more minor ailments means that the home fixture with Northamptonshire, which starts on Thursday, will be his first Championship game of the season and only his third first-class game since September 2006.
It will be an emotional return for Mason. Popular with players and spectators, he admits there have been times in the last few months when it appeared his career was over. Indeed, only in the last couple of weeks has he felt he was returning to something approaching his best.
“It seems to have taken an eternity, doesn’t it?” Mason admits. “There have been some bad days along the way. There have been doubts and there have been frustrations, but I’m back now and I can hardly tell you how excited I am. A bit of me has been thinking: even if this is the only game I ever play, I’ve proved myself now.
"I’ve come back from two shoulder operations and so many set backs that I reckon a lot of people would have given up. I’m actually quite proud that I’ve made it back. It will be a special moment for me when I run on to the field.
“Sure, there has been the odd morning when I’ve woken up and thought ‘do I need to be looking at other [career] options now?’ My first-team chances just seemed to get further and further away as my body took so long to adjust to the rigours of bowling again.
“I did progress my coaching skills so I had a safety net. But I want to play cricket for a good couple of years yet. And I want to play for Worcestershire. I could never really entertain the idea that cricket wasn’t part of my future or that I could play anywhere else.
“I’m very grateful to ‘Bumpy’ [Steve Rhodes; the club’s director of cricket] and Mark [Newton; the club’s chief executive]. They’ve always backed me and I’ve always felt they rated me.
“I guess a lot of other clubs would have looked at a guy of my age, and with those long-term injuries, and just washed their hands of me. I fully intend to repay their faith.”
The delay has not been entirely due to physical injury. It is likely that there was a degree of apprehension that prevented Mason from allowing his body to perform as wholeheartedly as is necessary.
“I worked a fair bit with [ECB bowling coach] Kevin Shine,” Mason explains. “He picked up a few technical flaws which, he thought, were entirely mental.
“He thought I was protecting my shoulder. My body was adjusting and trying to find a way around using the shoulder. It took a while to train my brain to let my body know what it was capable of doing.
“I’m 100 per cent now. Maybe I’ve lost a bit of power in my throwing, but in terms of bowling I’m back to my old self. It’s only been the last couple of weeks. I’ve played about six one-day games [in the Second XI Trophy] in that time and built up a bit of rhythm. I’ve been finding the bounce and swing that makes me dangerous and realising that there’s no reaction in my shoulder. I’m pretty relaxed about it now.”
Mason’s return is timely. Not only did his team require another seamer, but he knew that time was running out. He is out of contract in September and knows that he needs to impress if he is to win another deal.
“It’s a huge game for me,” he agrees. “I guess it’s a huge couple of months for me. If I perform as I know I can, I’m confident I can sit down with the club at the end of the season and work something out. The ball is in my court.
“But whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy it. I’ve always played with a smile on my face, but this whole episode has just made me realise how much it means to me. I’ve been here nearly seven years now and I don’t even want to think about retirement yet. Worcestershire has been a massive part of my life and I’d love to repay their loyalty by helping them win promotion this season.”
If he is able to rediscover his former level of performance, Mason would be an asset to any team. His record for Worcestershire (223 first-class wickets at an average of 26) is very good, though a glance at his stats for this year (he hasn’t taken a Second XI Championship wicket all season) is not hugely encouraging.
“At his best he’s as good as an overseas [bowler],” Rhodes said. “I suppose you could say that, if he hadn’t been available, we would look a bit thin. But after a lot of heart-ache and a lot of hard work he’s built up his pace gradually and he’s ready to play.”
Mason’s return will not prevent Rhodes from continuing to look for an overseas player but it is proving desperately difficult. Munaf Patel, who has been named in the Indian Test squad, is the latest seamer to pull out when a deal seemed within reach, while West Indian pair Jerome Taylor and Daren Powell are also unavailable. Tim Southee and Kyle Mills were both advised to rest after the New Zealand tour.
Despite the setbacks, Worcestershire approach this Championship game against Northants within striking distance of the promotion places.
Were it not for the three-point penalty imposed for their slow over-rate they would currently lie third in the table. Victory could well place them in the top two.