Nightmares & dreams: Joel Paris is just getting started

Not long after he played for Australia, the WA left-armer was almost forced to quit the game. With those highs and lows long behind him, he has reemerged a new bowler, but with the same burning ambition

Towards the end of April, as the Perth sun was still warming the backs of the city's two million inhabitants, one of its residents answered a phone call from national men's cricket selector Tony Dodemaide.

Joel Paris was around a month removed from celebrating a second straight Sheffield Shield title with Western Australia. The left-arm paceman was enjoying some post-season downtime with his wife and two young daughters, having foregone a tour of New Zealand with Australia A due to a lingering back issue. The problem had kept him out of round 10 of the Shield, and he had needed painkilling injections to take his part in the final. It was also the deciding factor in him turning down a County Championship deal with Kent.

"They were really keen to have me over for the first part of the year," Paris tells cricket.com.au. "But having been sore going into the Shield final, I just wanted to focus on those four or five days. 

"And I felt like if I was able to get through that, I'd probably need a break anyway."

Paris was right. The rest and recuperation had proved the ideal balm. His sore back was healing quickly. Then Dodemaide called.

"He asked where I was at, how the body was feeling," Paris says. "I told him it was in a much better place than what it was at the end of the season; I'd recovered a lot quicker than what I expected to, and I was pretty keen to get up and going quickly."

Which, one presumes, was exactly what Dodemaide wanted to hear, given the upshot of the conversation was this: Paris was – and remains – officially on standby for the Ashes.

"I'm just ticking along quietly here in Perth, getting myself into a position where, if there's the unfortunate case of a couple of injuries to the Test guys, I can throw my hand up and say I'm ready to go if needed," he says.

"I've still got really strong ambitions to play Test cricket."

* * *

Paris can vividly recall what he defines as his "rock-bottom moment". Its genesis winds all the way back to October 2014, before he had made his first-class debut, before the essential balance of cricket and family had entered his life. He was not yet 22, and had positioned himself in the fast lane to the top.

As is their way, Western Australia had made that summer's one-day cup competition decider. Paris had been a breakout star of the tournament, taking 13 wickets in five matches, and was set to appear in his maiden final.

In it, he shared the new ball with Jason Behrendorff, a fellow left-armer with whom he also shared a dream fast-bowling asset: like Wasim Akram and Mitchell Starc before them, the two West Australian lefties bowled a wicked inswinger to the right-hander. 

For Paris, the final went cruelly off script. Ten balls into his spell, after conceding only a single, he tore his right quad. It knocked him out of cricket for a year. The repercussions were much longer lasting. 

When he did return for the 2015-16 campaign, Paris again turned heads. Benefiting from the expertise of bowling coach Adam Griffith and words of wisdom handed down from teammates Michael Hogan and Nathan Coulter-Nile, he took another 10 wickets in the one-day competition, but it was his maiden Shield campaign that really stood out: 35 wickets at 19.57 in six matches, striking every 36.42 deliveries.

Two of those Shield matches (14 wickets, including a second-innings 6-23 v Tasmania) and his one-day campaign were enough for selectors to hand him a pair of ODI caps that January. Debuting in place of an injured Mitchell Starc, Paris was spanked around the WACA by Rohit Sharma. In Brisbane, he took his first international wicket – Shikhar Dhawan – but overall, it was a chastening introduction to the highest level.

To Shikhar Dhawan, from Paris with Love

And then, seemingly as quickly as he had appeared, he was shuffled back into the domestic fold. In WA's penultimate match of the season, he took another seven wickets. Yet his quad issue flared up again, then became a recurring issue when it simply refused to cooperate. At the time, Paris had no idea that Shield match would be his last for more than 18 months. 

"I would tick off every little part of rehab amazingly well, and then I'd get to the last bit of high-intensity bowling, and it would just go 'bang' again," he recalls.

"We tried all different forms of rehab. We turned every book and piece of medical information upside down to try and work out how to get me back on the park."

Which brings us back to rock bottom. He can just about pinpoint the date.

"It was late January, 2017, and I was sitting in JL's (WA head coach Justin Langer) office," he says. "He said, 'Well, I think you're at a crossroads. You can either spend the next three months doing the same rehab again, or you can try and find another avenue to get yourself back on the park'."

The prospect of returning to rehab for more of the same felt a little bit like insanity to a completely disillusioned Paris. Yet he didn't want to consider the alternative. He had only just turned 24.

His teammate Matt Kelly, a long-time close friend of Paris's, remembers it as a fraught period. 

"When you go through a traumatic injury like that, it's hard to know where your next step is," Kelly says. "To go from representing Australia and being at the peak of his game, to looking down the barrel of potentially not playing much cricket in the future, that's a really scary moment."

In the confines of that small WACA office, Paris and Langer floated some ideas but they were effectively going around in circles. Then they were offered a potentially lifeline in the form of some creative medical thinking.

"We spoke for a little bit and then Nick Jones, our physio at the time who is now with the Aussie team, came up with an idea around taking a bit of the tendon out," Paris says.  

"At that stage they couldn't find any medical journals around the world where it had been done. But the theory behind it was there, so we just needed to find a surgeon who was gutsy enough, I guess, to have a crack."

Image Id: 7F7C5E359A1A497B8C045A09CF0A0C20 Image Caption: Paris celebrates a Shield title with Justin Langer, five years after his 'crossroads' moment // Getty

Paris was all in. He had played just 36 senior matches for WA and Perth, and was enduring a 12-month absence from cricket for a second time. The crossroads Langer spoke of were actually, in his eyes, a one-way highway. Jones sounded out Perth-based orthopaedic surgeon Dr Peter Annear. 

"He said, 'Well, I've done a couple of similar things on some hamstring tendons – if you want me to have a crack, I'm happy to have a crack'," Paris remembers.

"So in late March, I went in and had about 15 centimetres of the tendon taken out. It was a relatively big surgery because the tendon was located quite deep in the thigh, so he had to hack through a fair bit of stuff to get to it. 

"I guess no-one really knew where that was going to leave me."

Paris spent the next few months diligently working through his rehab. On October 16, 2017, he took one wicket and made 17 not out in a state U23s match against Tasmania. In more than five-and-a-half years since, his once chronic quad problem has given him just two very minor issues. 

"It was the lowest point in my career, because the fear of the unknown was really difficult," he reflects. "But it was also something that really kept me excited; there was a lot of motivation there to get back to playing professional cricket."

* * *

Kelly also remembers the scene five years later. When the WA players were scattered around the WACA Ground outfield, barely taking in the words of a presentation that declared their state Shield winners for the first time in more than two decades.

"He was standing there, a couple of tears in his eyes," he says. "Very emotional.

"After not playing a lot of cricket for a number of years, all that sacrifice and hard work that he'd put in, to get that reward and be involved in a winning title … it was just nice to go and put an arm around him and say, 'This is what it's all about'."

Image Id: 5074AF2B2273455BAEEF8097E2C4D6D8 Image Caption: Close mates Kelly and Paris after the 2022 Shield triumph // Getty

His good fortune was long overdue. Prior to the consecutive Shield finals, Paris's record in deciders made quite remarkable reading, in that there was no real record to speak of; from a possible 10 finals for WA and Perth Scorchers since 2013, his involvement totalled the 10 balls he delivered against NSW in October 2014.

For while the quad issue was the most debilitating, in the seasons after its resolution, he began waging battles on various fronts: foot, shin and back among them. It left him in the strange position of being part of the WACA's success, but somewhat detached from it as well. 

"It is tough – it's really tough," he says. "Certainly more in the one-day stuff, I feel like I've played a decent role in that format over the years.

"I've actually spoken a few times to Brad Sheppard, who's now retired from (AFL side) West Coast Eagles. He tore his hamstring off the bone and missed the grand final back in 2018, and he spoke about that being really difficult.

"You have this, he calls it 'selfless jealousy', where you're so happy for your teammates and the organisation, but there is that section of you that is envious of what they have been able to experience. 

"Playing in championships and winning titles and flags is why you play team sports. So to have missed so many has been difficult at times.

"I was going to play the one-day final this year, but the back just still wasn't in a good enough place where we felt like I could play and not risk the Shield final. That was a tough decision."

It is not difficult to imagine how that feeling of being on the periphery of success might have been amplified for Paris in 2021, when he and the Scorchers parted ways. He had played just 10 matches in the previous four Big Bash seasons, taking six wickets and conceding 9.44 runs per over. Shield glory was still a season away. He had just missed another one-day final. It was a challenging moment, being forced to step outside what he routinely calls his 'WACA family' for the first time in his career.

"It was tough from the sense that the franchise had been really successful and I hadn't played in a (final) yet," he says. "There was still a part of me that really wanted to be involved in one."

Paris headed to the Hobart Hurricanes for a couple of seasons and is currently a free agent, with a number of BBL clubs understood to be interested in his services. 

Yet his shift away from the west for the Big Bash also coincided with a shift in his first-class fortunes at the WACA. While he sought a fresh start in his bid to better understand himself as a T20 bowler, it was those years of toil that were about to finally repay him as a first-class bowler.

* * *

He has been a professional cricketer for more than a decade now, but on occasion, Paris concedes, the Baggy Green dream of his childhood still makes its way into his sleeping mind.

"I do every now and then have the dream of playing in a Test match," he says. "It's still really driving me to continue to get better."

Right now it is as close to being realised as it has ever been. Which isn't to say Paris is deluding himself. He is well aware he isn't quite one stepped-on ball away from a Test debut. But being twice called upon for Australia A in the past nine months, and now a standby player for the Ashes, it certainly isn't nothing. And who's to know? If, for example, Starc sustained an injury somewhere amid Australia's jam-packed northern summer and the selectors wanted a left-arm option, perhaps he would be their man. 

"Mitch has got a few k's on me," Paris smiles. "A couple more weapons in his bag."

Like Starc however, he has been busy adding arrows to his quiver. Around the country, he has a small coterie of fast bowlers with whom he likes to talk shop. They exchange ideas and learnings, get into the nitty gritty of load-ups and wrist positions. Among them are Scott Boland and Michael Neser, two bowlers his senior who have been Shield standouts for virtually Paris's entire career.

Paris is one of the country's more proficient swing bowlers but in the past 18 months he has developed the much-discussed wobble-seam ball. In that time he has also channelled his focus towards Shield cricket, playing 14 matches – as many as he managed in the four seasons prior.

April 2022: Paris gives WA bonus points advantage with superb spell

"It's probably the one delivery I used the most throughout the (2022-23) season," he says. "There was a period probably 12, 18 months ago where, I guess I'd played enough first-class cricket where top-quality batters were starting to work out what I was doing. 

"I'd had a period there where I was successful, particularly against the right-handers, just from swinging the ball back in. But you get to a stage where guys do their homework a lot more, so I needed to figure out a way to be effective when the ball was swinging, but also when it wasn't."

Paris started coming around the wicket more often to right-handers, looking to land the ball in an area of uncertainty, often with a wobble seam. If it then deviated off the surface, it didn't particularly matter which way. 

The addition to his skill-set did exactly as was intended; it made Paris a more difficult, less predictable proposition no matter the stage of the innings, or the condition of the ball.

And that, combined with more time spent on the field, has resulted in his best extended period of first-class cricket; across WA's back-to-back Shield triumphs, Paris has been their equal top wicket-taker (with Lance Morris), claiming 51 wickets at 18.94. 

"We know that when the ball's in his hand, something's going to happen," Kelly says. "Whether it's him taking wickets, or providing a platform for someone or the other end to take wickets as well."

It might have gone the other way. After being jettisoned from the state's T20 set-up in 2021, at which point he had just 20 first-class matches to his name alongside a lengthy injury history, Paris could well have found himself on the outer altogether. He had played fewer than half of WA's Shield fixtures in the preceding three seasons, and only five of 19 one-dayers. Yet the WACA stood by their man. Here they are, two years on, vindicated. And here is Paris, a two-time Shield winner on standby for the Ashes. 

"That's a testament to all the hard work and sacrifice he's put in," says Kelly. "And also, the support he's had from the WACA, and the belief they had in him, which just shows how important he is to our group."

Now Paris feels he has finally established how to best maintain his body, while also extracting as much as he can from of it. Part of that, he says, is mental – letting go of the need to push himself to breaking point in a bid to play every game. And that realisation has come with maturity and life balance; he and his wife Kodi are the proud parents of two young daughters, Emmie and Gracie.

"Kodi's got a background in elite sport (netball), and I feel like talking to her has been really beneficial for me and my headspace," he says. "And the last two or three years, my kids … they've completely changed my perspective on cricket and life. 

"They've been really important to me, and they've kept me mentally fresh … it's been great to give 100 per cent to cricket while I'm there, and when I come home, I'm Dad, and I don't burn myself out by overthinking (cricket) at home.

"I think playing seven or eight (first-class) games, including hopefully the Shield final, is where I see my game at the moment. It's that balance between just playing more for the sake of playing more or … trying to be a bit more effective in the games that you do play.

"If I can go into games as fresh as possible, that gives me the best opportunity. In between Shield games, I don't do a hell of a lot. I try and give myself as big a rest as I can and have a light bowl or a tune-up the day before the game, and then hit the ground running on day one.

"It's a really nice place to be in, where you can just focus on what the task is – trying to take wickets and work batters out – and not have to spend your energy on thinking about where your body is at."

* * *

Paris has another recurring dream that is also, at its heart, aspirational. In this one, he is cruising around his own property in the Margaret River region of south-west WA. One hand rests on the steering wheel of his four-wheeler, and the other is holding a glass of wine.

"I don't know whether that's a look into my future," he laughs. "I hope it is."

For while the cricket dreams still burn bright, he is also a practical man. He is currently working his way through a teaching degree, majoring in health and physical education, which he sees as a flexible line of work should he and Kodi indeed opt to take their family south once his playing days are over.

"The fresh air is just different down there," he says. "I spend a lot of time there, Kodi's got some family there, and for me, that's my happy place.

"So that's Plan A."

Before he retreats from the city however, before he ceases to become one of those two million city dwellers and eases into the slower pace of a new life, there is work to be done. He wants to become a true leader in the WA bowling group, to influence others in the way senior figures influenced him. 

"He's someone who, when he talks, people listen," says Kelly. "He provides a lot of direction for us as a group."

And at 30, Paris remains young enough if good enough for higher honours. Starc and Josh Hazlewood, Boland, Neser and Sean Abbott are all his senior. All of them have shown the years in front of him can be productive for a fast bowler.

"I feel like I'm really coming into a special period of my career," he says. "I'm hoping that I'll continue to develop and improve over the next three or four years, and play my part for WA. 

"If there's an opportunity higher than that, then I'll try and grab it with both hands."

2023 Qantas Ashes Tour of the UK

First Test: Friday June 16-Tuesday June 20, Edgbaston

Second Test: Wednesday June 28-Sunday July 2, Lord’s

Third Test: Thursday July 6-Monday July 10, Headingley

Fourth Test: Wednesday July 19-Sunday July 23, Old Trafford

Fifth Test: Thursday July 27-Monday 31, The Oval

Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis (wk), Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Todd Murphy, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, David Warner

England squad: Ben Stokes (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Harry Brook, Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Ollie Pope, Matthew Potts, Ollie Robinson, Joe Root, Josh Tongue, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood