Bold shots, bolder ambition for Finch
Aaron Finch can pinpoint the moment at which he felt comfortable at the top level of the game. It was the first ball he faced against England at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, a ball from Steve Finn that whirred down short of a length and invited aggression. Previously, Finch had worried about perception, and essayed tentative strokes instead of bold ones. This time he swivelled instinctively and connected grandly: 15,000 English jaws dropped as it sailed gloriously high over square leg for six.
In that instant, Finch showed the capacity to relax and play his game, not worrying about the consequences, or the expectations of those around him. He was no longer a tentative, fidgeting international novice but a fearless batsman with a rare eye, the kind who had led the Melbourne Renegades with distinction last summer, leaving other players to remark about his presence. "He has a great aura about him sometimes," said one. "Times when you'll be thinking 'this guy is the best player out here'."
That aura was well and truly established by the time Finch departed in Southampton, 156 runs to his name and an England bowling attack battered well and truly into submission. He has continued on his merry way since, and innings of 89 and 72 in the first two matches of the India limited-overs tour indicate a batsman at ease with his talent and his surroundings. Finch now speaks without the doubts that previously occupied his thoughts, and harbours genuine ambitions to add a baggy green cap to his T20 and ODI shirts. It all started with that one ball from Finn.
"I didn't go out with a plan to do that, it was just one of those innings where I saw the ball well, and felt like I made a really good decision," Finch told ESPNcricinfo. "I wanted to go out there and dominate as you do in T20 and get the side off to a good start, but it just unfolded pretty quickly and I couldn't really rein it in after a while, I just kept going. One thing I've focused on is sticking to my game and my plans, and it was nice to have the support of the coaches and the captain to play my natural game.
"There's times when it doesn't work and you look like an idiot, but I'm prepared to wear that on the chin, and I'm sure that if I keep doing the right things, that I'll have success. What was really pleasing was that I went back to my natural game and didn't worry about perception or how I thought other people wanted me to play, and just played."
Having fumbled around in the dark to find the light switch for his international career over more than two years, Finch knows all about how difficult it can be to find that kind of clarity and confidence. Long regarded as a prodigious talent, he fought to translate that into runs, first for Victoria and then Australia. His first-class record remains a source of puzzlement, as an average of 29.56 from 33 matches does scant justice to the batsman who set such a strident tone against India in Pune on Sunday. Finch is optimistic that he has now found the right note on which to flourish.
"That's been an issue for a while obviously and I'd be stupid if I wasn't aware of it, but I feel like I can play well at international level now," Finch said. "It's not a technical thing, just a mental thing with the four-day game. I feel as though I've made some good improvements in the last 12 months to be able to deal with that, and hopefully take that game to another level. To play Test cricket is my ultimate goal still, I definitely haven't lost that ambition. I feel as though I'm now in a really good space to do that."
Two factors have helped Finch to find the space he speaks of. The first is the arrival of Darren Lehmann as Australia's coach, imparting simple advice and engendering confidence that the 26-year-old Victorian is taking out with him to the middle. The endorsement of the T20 and stand-in ODI captain George Bailey has also added to Finch's sense of self-belief.
"Boof's just encouraged me to play my natural game and really supported me with that, which obviously gives you a lot of confidence going into a series," Finch said of Lehmann, absent in body from the India tour but not in influence. "Just not being bothered by things as well. I think at other times I've been a bit scared to get out, worried about the consequences instead of just batting, and that wears you down after a little while and plays on your mind. It was really refreshing and great to have the support that I've been picked for a reason, how I play and the runs I'd scored. So he's said continue doing that, continue to back yourself. If it comes off, it comes off and if it doesn't, better luck next time."
Another source of knowledge and poise has been the advice of Virender Sehwag and Mahela Jayawardene, two subcontinental maestros and IPL teammates. To watch Finch's combination of precision and aggression against R Ashwin in the two matches thus far was to witness their advice put into practice.
"Spending time with great players from the subcontinent is invaluable I think. I spent two years with Virender Sehwag and Mahela Jayawardene, and I spoke to them a lot about batting in India and they were fantastic. Mahela averages 50 in Test cricket over many years for a reason. Just the different ideas they have on batting over there is quite unusual to how we're brought up, on pretty good wickets generally. You can't buy that kind of experience, to spend two months with those guys just training and talking cricket, different techniques and game plans you need to adjust to how India play cricket."
Beyond the India ODIs lie Sheffield Shield matches and a home Ashes series. Before Southampton, Finch may have doubted his chances of being chosen for Victoria in the former and dismissed out of hand any chance whatsoever of being considered for the latter. But now his eyes are level, the merest glint emerging when he ponders what may be in store for him this summer. The vacant No. 6 berth has not escaped his attention, and should things go according to plan, Finn will not be the only Englishman craning his neck to watch a ball disappear into the crowd.
"That's the great thing about the upcoming Ashes and this India series - if guys score runs they're going to be in the team, and I don't think Boof's made any secret of that," Finch said. "He's going to pick guys in form, regardless of history and perception. They want players in form, and whoever that is, hopefully I come back and get a couple of big hundreds in the Shield, and who knows. It's not that far away I don't think. I feel as though my game is ready to play well in four-day cricket and would be ready if I did get a gig in the Test team."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here