Revitalised Plunkett faces acid test
Yorkshire have handed a rejuvenated Liam Plunkett to England with a heartfelt message. Please keep it simple. He is the fastest bowler in England this season: let him show it. He needs to attack: let him do that, too. And please, no messing with his technique or his mind.
The days when England bowling coaches could barely look at a quick bowler without wanting to dismantle an action have long gone. David Saker, the current incumbent, prefers to concentrate on tactical approaches rather than intricate analysis of actions - and his problems trying to solve the quandary of Steven Finn in Australia should only have hardened him in that view.
That conservative approach should leave Yorkshire and Plunkett confident that England will leave well alone. Their appeal has common sense behind it. Memories of Plunkett at the lowest point of his career are of a bowler beset by technical doubts, anxiously re-enacting his delivery position as he walked back to his mark: wrist cocked, arm pushed through, thoughts troubled. It virtually forced him into premature retirement.
As his career went off the rails, so too did his personal life as he suffered two convictions for drink driving - the second of which, reduced to 30 months on appeal - will leave him off the road until early next year.
Plunkett's gratitude to the faith shown by Yorkshire's caches runs deep. Martyn Moxon, who had seen his potential close hand when director of cricket at Durham, brought him to Yorkshire when the message from some Durham coaches, Alan Walker foremost among them, was that his best days were behind him. Jason Gillespie, a former Australia fast bowler, then arrived at Headingley and the uncluttered philosophy that Plunkett needed was established.
"The coaching staff have given me a simple clear vision, which is to run in and bowl fast," Plunkett told Yorkshire's website after learning of his selection while returning from a golf day for Tim Bresnan's benefit year.
"I'm not over complicating things. I'm just concentrating on generating as much pace as possible and being as aggressive as I can be in the middle. It is working and is really benefiting my game. I hope that I can reproduce that for England this summer.
"I have to thank the coaches and the players at Yorkshire for having faith in me as a cricketer. Before joining Yorkshire, I was going nowhere and coming to Headingley gave me a new lease of life. I have benefited from a change of scenery and from a coaching team that has put faith in my ability. They gave me the confidence to believe in my ability and to go out and perform. I owe it to them for this return to the Test team."
Plunkett is the England bowler expected to rough up Sri Lanka, to bowl at 90mph and make things happen. He will leak runs, just as Finn did, and England's seeming willingness to accept that fact suggests a slight shift of emphasis from the attritional seam bowling championed under the previous coach, Andy Flower. There again, Flower had Graeme Swann as an attacking force.
Making things happen at Lord's is not always easy. Plunkett has painful personal experience of that. Three of the nine Tests of his youth have been at Lord's and brought him five wickets at 82 runs each. Eight years ago, Sri Lanka saved a draw by scoring 537 for 9 in their fourth innings with the ninth-wicket pair Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Kulusekara putting on a century stand.
Seven years on from his last Test, Plunkett - and the England selectors - will draw sustenance from his hostile bowling at Lord's in Yorkshire's Championship match against Middlesex. As he cranked it up beyond 90mph, it was then that England's enthusiasm for recalling him took shape. Nothing has been easy for Plunkett at Lord's though: Middlesex made their highest successful run chase in the fourth innings - 472 for 3 with Chris Rogers striking a double hundred and Plunkett unrewarded as, oddly, he bowled only bowling 13 of the 101 overs. He says he likes Lord's, but Lord's has not often returned the favour.
Only two years have passed since Plunkett was relegated to Durham's 2nd XI. Control had deserted him and so had his pace. But the decline had set in much earlier. David Graveney, the former chairman of selectors, was a great fan and on one occasion late in his term of office looked around the Chester-le-Street press box for support for his conviction that Plunkett remained an unfulfilled talent. The next ball flew miles down the leg side for four wides. Graveney left the box to light-hearted derision.
"We thought Liam still had something to offer otherwise we wouldn't have signed him," Moxon said. "But his re-emergence has been quicker than anyone would have expected. It just shows that when someone with natural ability is confident and relaxed in his game, that is when you get the best out of them. It's a lesson for everyone that they try to create that state of mind.
"Our message to Liam from day one has been to run in and bowl fast. Once he starts thinking about technique and line and length he puts it there. And once he just puts it there he loses pace and rhythm and flow. There are many bowlers whose actions might not be technically perfect but who succeed because they feel strong and natural.
"That spell at Lord's attracted a lot of attention, but he has maintained that hostility all summer. It was no flash in the pan. He did well last year, but this year he has really unsettled batsmen."
The endless gymnasium weights sessions that during his lowest periods seemed to bring him comfort, to take his mind away from his problems, now have a purpose, supplying the strength that this season has made him the fastest bowler in England.
"Liam will benefit from the encouragement of being able to run in, bowl fast and hit the track hard and be really positive with the bat in hand as well," Gillespie told The Daily Telegraph. "I've told Liam he's not going to get it right and land the ball on a shoebox every time you bowl. You're going to have an off one and batters are allowed to play good shots and they're allowed to score runs - that's what the game is all about.
"I think the key if Liam plays is how he's used. If he's used as a line-and-length bowler who doesn't go for too many runs then you're not going to get the best out of him. If they tell him to run in, bowl fast and back him 100 per cent then that's the best way to go."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo