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“Fast bowling is something that is born within someone”: Steven Finn on the Ashes, dealing with disappointment and bowling quick

Since Steven Finn made his Test match bow against Bangladesh in 2010, 36 Englishmen have been handed their debuts in cricket’s toughest format. A debutant just seven months after Jonathan Trott made his international entrance and more than two years before Joe Root arrived on the scene, it is easy to think of the giant Middlesex man as something of a veteran.

In reality, the misconception could scarcely be further from the truth. At 28, Finn should be reaching his peak, with the knee problem that ruled him out of the Ashes series and upcoming New Zealand tour on course now behind him.

The injury flared up ten days after touching down in Australia, with Finn forced to fly home after tearing the cartilage in his left knee. To a degree, the blow was the latest dose of Australian misfortune to befall a hugely naturally gifted athlete, having faced the ignominy of being deemed ‘unselectable’ when England were whitewashed back in 2013. He was the only member of the squad not to feature at all.

For Finn though, water has long-since passed underneath that particular bridge.

“Apart from Stuart Broad and James Anderson who are two exceptional players, there’s not really anyone who has done it consistently over the last ten years for England,” he says – by no means critically – but as a reminder of the rarity of their enduring talents.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating when you don’t go out there and do well in every game and everyone has frustrations when that happens. But part of being a sportsman is the fact that you do have to deal with ups and downs.

“You’re always striving to get better and I was striving and trying so hard that I got myself into a corner where I couldn’t work it out.” Finn talks candidly about his struggles on what became a watershed tour for English cricket. Yet understandably, it is clear that four years on, recalling the experience has become tiresome.

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“I had to go back to the drawing board and just work on what I was good at. I think I lost sight of what I do well in that small period. Everyone has a spell like that during their career where they struggle a little bit and they’re judged on it.

“In my opinion, you should be judged on how you come back from it and I think I’ve come back from it pretty well.”

Since Finn’s debut, only eight men worldwide have taken more than one hundred Test wickets at a better strike rate, while Simon Jones is the only Englishman to have bettered Finn’s record this century.

As he talks of redemption and recovery from his most difficult period, conversation turns to Edgbaston. After Australia dominated England at Lord’s in the summer of 2015, England turned to Finn to replace Mark Wood in Birmingham. He dismissed Steve Smith and Michael Clarke twice in the match, taking 6-79 in the second innings.

“My highlight has probably been the Edgbaston Ashes test, to be honest,” he says.

“I think when you’re a kid, you think about making a difference in a series like that and you dream of winning games for England. I think that’s the sign of a true good player – someone who puts his hand up when the team wins and helps to win those games. I think that’s what makes it my proudest moment in an England shirt – coming into the side, taking those wickets and helping out along with the other bowlers.”

Smith made just fifteen runs in the match – a far cry from the Bradman-like returns plundered by the Australian skipper this winter.

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Of Finn’s 125 Test wickets, only Hashim Amla and Bangladesh’s Imrul Kayes appear on his list of scalps more regularly than Smith. However, talking about his idiosyncratic domination of the series, Finn is full of praise for the eccentric setup of Australia’s run-machine.

“He gets into strange positions and hits the ball in funny places. He’s a little bit difficult to get used to. You have to have different plans to him and I think as the series went on, the guys’ plans developed but he was just in such good form. Sometimes you have to take your hat off to someone who does something special like that – just as Alastair Cook did in the 2010-11 Ashes. He’s developed his game to a stage where he’s making it very hard for people to bowl at him.”

With Finn’s influence this winter restricted to waking up for the evening session from the comfort of his London home, he admits that the ruthlessness of Smith’s side was a crucial difference between the sides.

“I felt like we had opportunities in each match to take the initiative and put the pressure on Australia, but we didn’t quite take those opportunities. Eventually, I think that’s what the series came down to – the fact that when Australia had their foot on our throat they rammed that advantage home, and when we had chances we didn’t. It’s as simple as that really, I think.”

Of course, in the days since James Anderson edged Josh Hazlewood behind to bring the series to a fitting conclusion, the English inquest has focused on the brutal efficiency of the Australian bowling attack which, as Finn confesses, ultimately suffocated England’s resistance. Fast, nasty, intimidating and terrifyingly accurate; it was a combination that England simply couldn’t match – neither this time around nor in 2013.

And in Finn’s absence, there was a cruel irony to it all. Fit and firing, he is everything that England were crying out for here, possessing the rare ability to send the ball down at 90 miles an hour from a gigantic frame.

Of the three-dozen players to have made their Test debuts since Finn received his maiden cap in Chittagong eight years ago, only one – Mark Wood – could be classed as an outright fast bowler without debate.

Yet, as we talk about the makings of the genuine speedster that England lacked Down Under, Finn is adamant that he and Wood are not alone in flying the flag in county cricket. It is, he believes, an untaught skill – developed on instinct rather than mechanics.

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“If you look at most fast bowlers in the world, no two fast bowlers bowl the same because it’s a natural thing to do,” he muses. “You can’t coach a technique to bowl fast, in my opinion. You can make someone’s body as robust as possible to then let them flourish with their own natural attributes.

“But I think that fast bowling is something that is born within someone rather than something you can coach.

“We do have people who bowl quick in this country. It’s not just Mark Wood and myself. There are others out there who do. It’s just about nurturing that and making sure they’re not run into the ground, so they come back and don’t bowl as quickly as they can do.”

Indeed, Sussex’s George Garton and Lancashire’s Saqib Mahmood were both clocked at over 90mph playing limited-overs cricket last year.

Finn does, however, stress that the current playing schedule makes running in at full pelt on a consistent basis almost impossible.

“I think the fact that we play twelve months a year every year until we break down with injury doesn’t help. I think that the nature of the amount of cricket that we play makes it hard for people to bowl fast all the time.

“I think the wickets in this country are too slow. By playing on slow wickets, which the County Championship toss rule encourages, ultimately, you’re not going to produce people who bowl fast because no matter who you are in the world, if you’re stuck bowling on a slow turner or a wicket that offers the fast bowlers nothing, then it’s impossible to develop anyone.

“We need to make an effort to play on faster wickets and on wickets that do bounce and that carry through to the keeper more than at ankle height, which we play on about twice a year out of 14 games.

“That’s part of the bigger problem, which is that we don’t play on wickets which are conducive to fast bowling.

“I do think that the ECB and the people running the game do try their best to look after fast bowlers and help them through it. It’s just a very hard thing to do.”

He cites Australia’s rapid triumvirate as a case in point. Since 2012, Mitchell Starc has undergone surgery on his right ankle twice, missed four months with a stress fracture of the back, missed an entire IPL season with a knee problem, while a broken metatarsal kept him out for seven months. Pat Cummins had to wait 1946 days between his first and second Test appearances because of his own injury issues.

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In spite of his concerns, Finn remains opposed to changes to the County Championship proposed by several county boards. The restructuring would see the two divisions become three mini-leagues of six, with both sides playing ten fixtures without the prospect of promotion or relegation.

“To be honest, I’m not in favour,” he says. “I’m still very traditional in the sense that you need to earn the right to win the first division of the County Championship. Promotion and relegation in my lifetime has been the way that you do that and earn that. You’re rewarded for consistent performances over a number of years to be in a position to win the Championship.

“On the other hand, it would mean playing less cricket. But I do believe that if people managed their bowlers within the current setup, every county has enough bowlers who can play. If people are managed better, then I don’t see a need for a reduction in games.”

He is equally critical of the notion that English coaches have played a role in stifling the raw pace of young quick bowlers in recent years. Quite simply, he says: “It would be completely and utterly foolish.

“Coaches only give advice because they think it’s the right thing to do and ultimately, it’s up to the player to decide whether they think that advice will work for them or not. We’re the only people who are inside our own minds and inside our bodies and know how it works.

“If you rely on other people too much and spend too much time listening to other people, that can be a downfall – one which I’ve fallen into before.

“It’s up to the player to decipher the information that he’s given. I’m not a big believer in saying that it’s the coach’s fault for people losing pace. It’s the player’s responsibility to ensure that they don’t let themselves get into that position.”

Having been there himself, Finn is all too aware of the risks of filling the mind with the theories of too many people, no matter how well-intentioned the advice.

“When you’re younger, you have a naivety about running up to bowl and you just do that,” he explains pensively.

“You just run up and let go of the ball. But as you get more experienced and more world-wise about when you can do it and when your body will let you do it, I suppose you do change as a bowler.

“Having said that, apart from the little period where I struggled in 2013, I’ve always tried to stay true to who I am, which is someone who bowls quick and gets best players in the world out. It’s as simple as that really.”

As the ECB look to the future and cast the net wide in search of express pace, they could do far worse than to call on Finn. As he enters his 14th season on the circuit, he is a man in his prime, having experienced all the highs and lows that come with professional sport.

“I’ve managed to play 130 games of cricket for my country,” he reminds me as our chat comes to an end.

“I’ve got 260 international wickets and people know I can get the best players in the world out. When I was 15, if you’d told me I was going to do that, I’d have bitten your hand off. I’m so proud to have played for my country and I’ll keep on striving to do so in the future.”

 

Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Nick Friend
Seeing off 500 entries along the way, Nick was the runner-up in the David Welch Student Sportswriter Competition for 2018, culminating in a night a the SJA Awards dinner alongside the very best in the industry. He has spent most of his twenty-three years involved in sport in one way or another. He graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages, having spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. The 23-year-old gained much of his experience in journalism as sport editor of the University’s student newspaper, Palatinate. During his two years in the role, he sourced and ran a host of high-profile exclusive interviews, three of which rank among the most-read pieces in the website’s history. He won the university’s Hunter Davies Prize for Journalism in 2015. Since leaving Durham, he has written for the iPaper, while contributing weekly to Sport500 – a website focused on creating concise sport opinion content. When not writing, Nick can often be heard bemoaning the fortunes of Queens Park Rangers. Beyond the Rs, he is an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, while in more delusional times, had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. He counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessary knowledge of all three.
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