Fast, but not so furious
Two simple things mark Steven Finn out as one of the most exciting fast-bowling prospects in the world: height and pace. But while Finn became the youngest Englishman, to reach 50 Test wickets in 2011 (aged 22) and has displayed such controlled hostility in limited-overs cricket this year as to become England's leading short-form strike weapon, he is well aware that the start of the four-Test series against India could see his back-bending exploits once again limited to reaching down and picking up the drinks.
This recognition - and acceptance - tells you something about the man. Finn may be a terrifying prospect on the pitch, with his ability to touch 90mph while trampolining the ball at batsmen from a vantage point of over 6ft 7in, but he is an affable, even sweet-natured, presence off it. One day he may possess a glowering demeanour to match Curtly Ambrose or Allan Donald but for now he fiddles distractedly with the winding mechanism of his watch while talking about his much-discussed dead-ball problem, and offers a playful apology when absently knocking a dictaphone on the table in front of him.
Finn even smiles shyly to himself when it is suggested that his recent form must have pushed him close to rivalling James Anderson and Stuart Broad in England's fast-bowling hierarchy. Despite a troubled 2012 for England in Tests, Broad is the leading wicket-taker in the world this year, with Anderson not far behind, and Finn is quick to affirm his junior status.
"I don't think I'm in that place yet, and I'd love to be," he says. "I'm working towards being on a par with them but I still see myself as being way behind them in the pecking order. Those two have been exceptional for England and consistent for a long time now, certainly ever since I've been around the team.
"They are the new-ball pairing and they've done exceptionally well. I look up to them and can relate to experiences that they've had in their careers. I can learn off them and if one day I was as good as either of them I'd be very happy."
Would he like to lead the attack? "Obviously I fancy that, but it is a question of what my role in the Test team would be now, and I have to be realistic about that. I'm not going to be the opening bowler if I do play, and that means a different role. In the one-day and T20 teams I've loved opening. I love doing that and have done it throughout my career at Middlesex, and in the long run I see myself as a new-ball bowler for England, but you have to earn those stripes and I'm still off doing that."
Having returned to the England team with ten wickets in two Tests against South Africa, the particular demands of playing on the subcontinent may cause the ground to shift under Finn's feet. The inclusion of a second spinner, either Samit Patel or Monty Panesar, or the possibility of England falling back on Tim Bresnan's doughty lower-order batting and scuffed-ball reverse swing could lead to Finn being squeezed out again, for the fifth time since his 2010 debut in Bangladesh under Alastair Cook, the man now installed as England's official Test captain.
"I've been on the end of that chop quite a few times over the last two years and it is just one of those things," he says. "You desperately want to be out there and you don't hold any grudges when you're fighting for a few spots. It is just the way team sport works and you have to accept that you're not always going to play. If you're the person to miss out then it is how you deal with that which makes you a better cricketer."
Like a regular week in Westminster, spin might be expected to be the primary battleground during the series, with Graeme Swann going head to head with India's R Ashwin. Finn is probably just displaying a single-minded focus on his craft, then, as he lists the qualities that the bowlers will bring to England's quest for a first Test-series win in India since 1984-85.
"You need a little bit of the X-factor, which we have. We've got the best swing bowler in the world in James Anderson, we've got one of the best allrounders in the world in Stuart Broad, and we've got Tim Bresnan," Finn says. "We've also got others who bring different skills to the party. We've got that as a team and a bowling unit, and I think it is going to take all of our collective skill to beat India, and I think we can do it."
Finn does not mention what his own X-factor is but it is not too difficult to work out. A career strike rate of 46.0 in Tests is the best of any of his current team-mates - some way ahead of Anderson (58.6) and Broad (61.6) - and beaten only by the freakish Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn among active bowlers. Although Finn's wicket-taking in Tests has often been punctuated by waywardness, his impressive displays in ODI and T20I cricket this year have been marked by control as well as penetration.
That threat is partly down to adopting a tight, wicket-to-wicket line, which has given rise to one of Finn's other most notable feature: his capacity to clip the stumps at the non-striker's end during his delivery stride. With umpires now regularly calling this as a dead ball, Finn has experienced the disappointment of missing out on a wicket - when Graeme Smith edged to slip but survived in the Headingley Test during the summer - and the unexpected bonus of being saved runs by his bad habit.
"Obviously it is an issue that needs to be addressed," he says. "It's a very minimal thing, not like I wipe the stumps out of the ground. It's a matter of centimetres, not even that. It's a very fine, intricate thing. When you run in 30 metres and clip the stump by a couple of millimetres - it's just about getting a little bit wider. I don't mean to do it."
Finn puts the problem down to a tendency to slow down and weave slightly on approach to the crease. Ominously, for opponents, he suggests that accelerating more smoothly through the crease may help correct the problem - as well as add on half a yard of pace.
Missing out on a wicket through a moment of klutz in the heat of Ahmedabad or Kolkata would bring added frustration, however, and while India have lost the services of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman since England last played them, Virat Kohli now comes with a health warning to bowlers in all forms of the game. Gautam Gambhir, meanwhile, has issued a staunch defence of his opening partnership with Virender Sehwag, and there is also the small matter of Sachin Tendulkar - he of 51 Test hundreds. After last year's 4-0 Test humbling in England, only partially atoned for by India's clean sweep in the return ODI series, the local crowds are likely to turn up ready to teach Phil Spector a thing or two about the wall of sound.
"The way they targeted us in that one-day series as a revenge series, every billboard you saw around India was 'Revenge, we are coming to get you'," Finn recalls. "It wasn't intimidating for us as a team. It didn't affect our performance. They just played better cricket than us in that series in conditions they are more familiar with.
"The first session of the first game is where you can set the tone for the series, whether it be with bat or ball. It is not the be all and end all, because you have to play exceptional cricket. If you get be on top early that will hold a massive part of who owns those early bragging rights. It will be an interesting series because I think it will go to and fro."
There are collective and individual points for Cook's England to prove in India, and while a subcontinental slog is not most fast bowlers' idea of a good time, there is a gimlet glint in Finn's eye when he considers the challenge ahead. The niceties may not last for long.
"I am really excited about getting there and fighting my way into the Test side and becoming an important member of that team. Whether I can do that on this tour, after Christmas or in three years' time, that is my long-term ambition. We're also looking forward to trying to break records because England haven't won there for 27 years, so as a young team with a new young captain it will be exciting to go there and try to break records and prove people wrong. People are writing us off already but write us off at your peril. We have been written off before and we have come back and proved them wrong."
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Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo