The footage that makes Steven Finn believe
On February 24, 2010, England Lions played a one-day match against Pakistan A in Dubai. Not many people noticed. One cannot even imagine anyone who played or watched the game harking back to it: except for Steven Finn.
The game contained what he regards as his perfect delivery; a simple distillation of the virtues - bounce, pace and a sliver of away movement - that make him a bowler of rare potential. It is a clip he has since watched avidly.
To the casual observer, Finn recognises, it might not merit a second look. "It's just a front-on of me bowling at the big stadium in Dubai Sports City and getting Mohammad Hafeez caught at first slip."
To Finn himself, searching for the memory of when he was regarded as one of the finest young fast bowlers in the world, it is more than that. "It was just easy flowing - a bouncy, flowing run-up to the crease - there was a slight delay when I got to the crease and then everything moved. All my energy came through towards the batsman down the wicket and it just left him from off stump and he nicked it to first slip.
"So that's the image."
Finn would be the first to concede that it is not an image that England fans have been well acquainted with recently. Ordinarily, his lack of involvement in the calamity of an Ashes whitewash would have guaranteed him the chance of an England recall. Instead, his bowling had regressed by the end of the series to the point where he was deemed unselectable, culminating in the ignominy of being sent home early from that tour of Australia.
His first interview with the written media since that low point in his career is another small step in his recovery. "Standing at the back of my mark thinking 'where the hell is this going to go?' you lose all sensation of that feeling on the end of your fingertips," Finn admitted. "You lose it and you can't find it."
The Australian winter was not kind to England's other two beanpole quick bowlers. Chris Tremlett played the first Test, a ghost of the bowler who harassed Australia in 2010-11; and Boyd Rankin had so ignominious a debut, riddled by injury and nerves, that he admitted to entertaining the notion of abandoning cricket for good.
Yet neither tale was as dispiriting - or as important to the future of England cricket - as Finn's. Three years earlier he had taken 13 wickets in three Ashes Tests at the age of 21. His 2013/14 tour was almost wholly comprised of spirit-sapping net bowling. All the while his best form - or any semblance of it - only became more elusive.
"You can overthink things and get away from the things that make you a good bowler," Finn said. "That's what I did from the beginning of 2013 to the beginning of 2014. I was working on things or doing things that were detrimental to me becoming a better bowler.
"Every session it'd be: 'Do I turn more side on? Do I lengthen my delivery stride? Do I come a bit wider of the crease? Do I finish my action off more?
"There were lots of things that I was trying. It's not like I was over there just saying 'this is rubbish, I give up'. Until the day I left Australia, I went to the nets and tried to unlock it but it was like banging my head against a brick wall."
Admirably, Finn is not the sort to blame other people, and described his difficulties as "no-one else's fault but my own". He praised David Saker - a sensible career move - but admitted that he "probably needed technical help" during England's Ashes tour.
"Saker is very much a tactical sort of coach, and he tried his hardest to try and unlock the things that were going wrong in my action. But we weren't able to do it."
Tactical coaches are normally exactly what international players need. Not so Finn in Australia.
Finn can pinpoint the start of his problems. During the Test series against South Africa in 2012, he discovered a penchant for dislodging a bail with a bent back leg as he was running in to bowl, causing umpires to call a dead ball after he dismissed Graeme Smith.
Removing a bail in a delivery stride subsequently became a no-ball offence: the so-called 'Finn law'. He has been called for it "a few times" this county season.
"People have been doing that for years, so to have a law made up just for me when people like Shaun Pollock had done it for years did seem a bit strange," Finn said.
"It made me completely rethink how I approached the crease. I started bowling wide of the crease and had to change my run-up. I've now had to rethink how I approach the crease, coming straighter in.
"You can overthink things and get away from the things that make you a good bowler. That's what I did from the beginning of 2013 to the beginning of 2014. I was working on things that were detrimental to me becoming a better bowler."
Finn underwent significant remedial work on his action with Saker. But it is clear that the copious tinkering only resulted in a diminished Finn. He is adamant that the shortened run that he worked on, in co-ordination with Saker, "made everything forced". His natural gifts became submerged.
"A lot of what happened knocked on from that shortened run," he said. "I grew bad habits and got away from the way I had bowled when I was young. I was the one who made those decisions at a stage in my career where I had to make decisions. I made the wrong ones and it knocked me off track."
So low was Finn that, when he returned from Australia, he was reduced to bowling off a standing start, and then from three yards, in pursuit of rhythm.
"When we came back and compared footage there was such a stark contrast between 2010 and 2014." It took months of early mornings in the Lord's nets with Middlesex bowling coach Richard Johnson to revive his confidence.
"When you've not done it for so long it feels so alien," Finn said. "Jono was there behind me saying it looks really natural and looks really good. I was there going 'it doesn't feel natural, it feels terrible, it feels that I can't get the ball to go where I want it to go.'
As I practiced more, the muscles remember it and think 'ok, this is starting to feel more natural'. It probably took two months or six weeks of just doing that and walking through and feeling my arms moving more naturally before we went back any further than that."
"I'm very lucky that Jono knows me and my action very well so I can go to him any time and say 'what do you think?' Finn said. "It's probably a system that I've underused in the past. Now that I've actually been able to spend six months quality time with just Jono working with me it's helped me move in the right direction much quicker than I have done over the last few years."
"It was basically technical things that were stopping me getting the ball down the other end at a decent pace and in the right spot as regularly as I'd have liked to. It was about stripping it back to basics and getting back to what I did when I was 18, 19 and 20 years old which got me playing for England in the first place.
"It was really going back to those basics, looking at them, trying to copy them and spending hours and hours getting basics back into my body that I'd forgotten over the last 12-18 months."
Those qualities were worth remembering. Finn's qualities were so palpable that he was fast-tracked at every turn. He made his Middlesex debut at 16, making him the club's youngest player since 1949; and his first England Test, three weeks after that ball to Hafeez, was delivered at the age of 20.
A year later, he became the youngest ever Englishman to 50 Test wickets. He was hailed as one of the finest young fast bowlers in the world, part of a new crop who it was hoped would breath new fire into fast bowling in Test cricket.
Few would have anticipated the problems that befell him since them. "It would disappoint me and frustrate me greatly if my best years were when I was 20, 21 and 22," Finn said.
Squad call-ups without actually playing did not help. He has found being selected in the England squad, and then released, often midway into a Championship game, a "spinning cycle" not conducive to his bowling rhythm.
And he did not appreciate the media's glare in Australia: "The amount of people commenting on the game that don't know what's going on behind closed doors frustrated me and made me angry at the time."
Yet there is now the definite sense that Finn is back on track. He has taken 40 Division One wickets at an average of 28 apiece so far this season, and both Nick Compton and Marcus Trescothick spoke glowingly of him after Somerset's draw with Middlesex at Uxbridge. By his own estimation, he is now "85%" back to his best.
"I'm starting to get back to bowling naturally and how it was when I was younger. It feels that I can run up and bowl again, whereas for 12 months previously it didn't feel that I could do that."
For all his difficulties, Finn is a 25-year-old with 90 Test and 377 first-class wickets to his name and capable of generating 90mph pace from his hulking 6ft 7in frame.
In the opinion of Johnson - and no one knows his bowling better - Finn has "got nowhere near his full potential so far" and these days he has gained the ability to move the ball both ways.
The sight of Finn trudging forlornly around Australia was dispiriting to all enthusiasts of hostile quick bowling. But he is adamant it will not be his last involvement with England.
"I think that I'd be ready if I was to get the call to play in a one-day international or a Test match," he said.
Should he be recalled, Finn's preparations might start by rewatching a trusty old clip - a clip that, if things go well, might one day take a surprising place in cricket history.
"All we ever do is go back to that one clip and say this is you now, this is you at your best - do they marry up?" Johnson said.
"I've watched it a few times - you can probably tell," Finn laughed. His smile is back. England can draw strength from that.