Monday, 15 July 2013

Line, length and Steven Finn

Consistency is a not a word often associated with Steven Finn. In a team that prides itself on line, length and that horrible term, "bowling dry," Finn's performance at Trent Bridge stood out for all the wrong reasons. Repeatedly bowling short and wide will never be seen as tactical ingenuity. On a slow, dry wicket such as the one at Trent Bridge it was borderline irresponsible.

Australia have Shane Watson and Peter Siddle as their first-change seamers. Siddle takes wickets as well as being economical, the very role that England want Finn to play. Watson bowled 19 overs in the game, 13 of which were maidens. Watson offers Michael Clarke the control that can ebb away as the opening bowlers tire; Siddle will run in day and night, bowling wicket to wicket with pace and the occasional awkward bounce. They offer the best of both worlds, a chance to attack and defend at either end.

After Anderson's outstanding 13 over slog on the morning of the final day, which reaped 29 runs and 3 wickets, Alastair Cook turned to Finn. Finn needed to play the Watson role, to act as the container. Instead he instinctively bowled too short. Brad Haddin, sensing weakness, took him for back to back boundaries. His two overs went for 24 runs, just 6 less than Anderson conceded in his mammoth spell . Cook's lack of faith in Finn was evident. He was given shorter and shorter bowling spells, disappearing completely as Australia edged closer to victory.

Finn's natural length appears to be shorter than the usual. At the start of his career his pace often made up for his problems with length. His height allowed for extra bounce, which on the pitches in Australia reaped rewards. But then when facing Mike Hussey, his instinct to rough up the batsmen resulted in him again dropping too short and wide. His speeds now have dropped; as his confidence has dwindled, so has his pace.

There have always been little quirks in Finn's bowling that he has struggled to conquer. His run-up has been tinkered to avoid crashing into the stumps; his release changed slightly to stop him falling at the crease. It could be a case of over-coaching. Anderson's action suffered drastically when too many coaches were involved. In Finn's case the only real change has been his run-up. Shortened, it allowed him more ferocity on release. However, the control again went haywire. Lengthening the run-up erased the stump knocking issue but again, the control disappeared.

Finn's main problem is his consistency. Or more importantly, his lack of it. Throughout his short England career he has never been short of wickets, but the wickets have come more from luck than skill. This is no bad thing; how many times does a bowler send down a jaffa of a delivery with no luck, only for a rank long-hop to snare a wicket? It's when the wickets dry up that Finn's problems begin. He loses his radar. He wants to be aggressive, but in some situations, aggression isn't everything. At Trent Bridge, Finn needed to take a step back and look at the situation. Was going short, on a wicket with barely any pace in it, with an old ball, the best plan of action? The short answer is no. But still Finn continued.

In Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan, England have two bowlers who embody the economical bowling ethos. In Finn, they have someone who Australia have targeted. Ashton Agar, the number 11 whose debut with the bat surpassed everyone's expectations, played Finn with ease and authority. Finn, and England, have to decide what his role is.

Working around Finn's pace should be central to England's future plans. At the start of his career (and during the last test match, if the Sky speedometer is to be believed) he was touching 90mph. He obviously has the pace, so why can't the control be worked on too? Finn shouldn't bowl slower, because it doesn't suit him. His run-up will never be the most elegant sight in cricket, but keeping it at the length it is now has erased the stump kicking problem. What Finn needs, for want of a better phrase, is a quiet lesson about line and length. These problems are more a question of brain first, bowl second.

Finn is often given a free pass from critique because of his age. At Trent Bridge, the technical flaws in his game were exposed. It might seem unfair to drop him for the test on his own ground, but Onions, with his consistency and ability to get the ball to seam, would surely be more threatening. Economical but threatening; that is what Finn needs to become. Right now, he costs England more than he rewards them.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

That first ball

First ball, first blow. That's how the cliche goes. 2005, Steve Harmison smashed Justin Langer on the arm with the first delivery of the series; 2006, he sent one swinging to second slip. In 2009, Mitchell Johnson celebrated by bowling a wide, half-decent delivery, thus securing his place in Barmy Army fokelore.

It is remarkable how much emphasis is placed on one minuscule part of the match. The anticipation for that first ball is unbearable. Even when England are favourites, there’s still that ‘what if’ in the back of one’s mind, years of Australian dominance and Shane bloody Warne eternally haunting the English psyche. The first ball becomes symbolic of your hopes and dreams. What can we learn from it? The crowd yelling their support. The bowler striding to his mark, maybe a low-five from a teammate, words of encouragement from the captain. The batsman scratches at his mark. Adjusts his helmet, lowers his gaze. The noise stops and then builds again like a crescendo. This is it, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.

Nine times out of ten, it will sail harmlessly through to the keeper. The batsman will readjust, the bowler will turn and walk back, and it has begun. Yet so much importance is ascribed to one single delivery. From that first ball, one can work out how the entire series will pan out. Harmison’s delivery at Brisbane is immortalised in record books, Youtube videos and the nightmares of those who were watching. An undercooked bowler pinging the delivery straight to his teammate at second slip, the Australian crowd sensing weakness and emitting a chorus of cheers as Harmison and Flintoff looked abashed and Langer and Hayden stood smirking.

It wasn't the first ball at Trent Bridge that dictated the flow of the match; the first five of Australia's overs emphasised the way the game would fluctuate, the balance tipping from one team to another. Australia wasted the new ball at first, just as England would waste batting partnerships and promising starts. The first over of the series was wayward, wide, unplayable for the wrong reasons. England's batting was remarkable, again for the wrong reasons.

Poor shots, chasing wide deliveries that were barely deserving of a stroke - it was hardly the start either team wanted. England fought back with the ball, if it can be called a fight back. Their poor batting performance was not wholly down to some unplayable bowling. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow looked the calmest of the England batsmen and they were the two who got the best deliveries of the day. Two inswinging yorkers accounted for them, the few balls that Australia bowled on the stumps. The rest were not undone by clever bowling, just their own impatience. Whether they wanted to assert their authority, or put the hoodoo of opening Ashes games behind them, England's performance could be best summed up by Matt Prior, trying to smash a ball from Siddle, one away from a five-wicket haul, over the ropes and instead finding the waiting fielder.

Statistically, the first ball of an Ashes series means nothing. For those watching, however, it can dictate the series result, the performance of their team; everything.