July 15, 2013

Finn must fly

Some say he is 24, with time on his side. Others say his Test career is going sideways

Try telling Steven Finn that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. As England celebrated their victory over Australia at Trent Bridge he will have felt if not alone then certainly detached. Finn's relief at victory was probably greater than anybody's - had England lost, he might have been a Fred Tate for the 21st century - but even that will have been overshadowed by the insecurity that surrounds his Test career and his apparently recurring Ashes nightmare.

The final day at Trent Bridge was almost humiliating for Finn. Alastair Cook only trusted him to bowl two of the 39.5 overs, and they disappeared for 25 to get Australia back into a game that they had apparently lost. Then he dropped Brad Haddin at deep backward square leg, a difficult chance but one he would have taken to the grave had England been beaten.

Finn had allowed Australia back into the match once already, with a poor spell to Phillip Hughes and Ashton Agar on Thursday. He went from taking the new ball in the first innings to not getting a bowl until the 29th over of the second. Even allowing for the context - Stuart Broad's first-innings injury and Graeme Swann's early use in the second innings - it felt like a significant demotion. For a bowler there are few things as hurtful as realising his captain does not trust him. The match wasn't an unmitigated disaster - Finn bowled a superb five-over spell on Saturday evening - but it wasn't far off, and his place in the team will be England's main point of discussion ahead of Lord's.

There are two ways of looking at Finn: he is either 24, with time on his side, or he has been a Test cricketer for three years - Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann, established stars, only began their Test careers seven and 14 months before Finn - and is going sideways. The sense that he has not progressed is most acute in an Ashes series, for Finn is enduring the same problems as on the 2010-11 tour of Australia, when he was dropped for the fourth Test despite being the leading wicket-taker in the series. The reason was simple: he was a walking four-ball. The problem has re-occurred two and a half years later. Finn has been set aside for potential greatness for a few years; his development is taking a frustratingly long time.

In the age of media training, sportsmen are not encouraged to be lavish with the truth, yet Finn recently suggested that he had not developed as he had hoped. His overall career record is fine - 90 Test wickets at 29.40, a lower average than any of his team-mates - yet a more relevant statistic is his economy rate of 3.65. This compares unfavourably to James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett, who are all between 2.90 and 3.10, although Graham Onions concedes runs at a similar rate to Finn.

That does not fit the ethos of a side obsessed with bowling dry. The peculiar thing is that, on paper, Finn is David Saker's driest dream: he could have been invented by boffins trying to create a parsimonious fast bowler, and when he first arrived as an international player, he cited Glenn McGrath as the bowler he wanted to be.

Increasingly Steve Harmison seems a more relevant point of comparison. Both make the little girl with the little curl seem like the model of equilibrium. Finn's outwardly secure exterior suggested he was a different animal to Harmison, yet increasingly he seems to suffer damaging lapses in confidence. His two overs on the final day against Australia were those of a man whose head had gone. Yet at other times he has been unplayable, most notably during a wonderful spell against South Africa at Lord's a year ago. He has excelled at times in one-day cricket, although he was dropped from the England side during the Champions Trophy.

The most encouraging thing for Finn is that, generally speaking, he is good at the things you can't teach and not so good at those you can

Much of Finn's success in one-day cricket has come from a drive-inviting length, whereas in Tests he frequently bowls too short. McGrath is an obvious reference point for a tall fast bowler, but in some ways Finn is more reminiscent of Jason Gillespie. At his best, Gillespie bowled a much fuller length than almost all new-ball bowlers, allowing the snarling seam movement to do the rest. This is something Finn does not do nearly enough at Test level. It is not possible for Finn to simply change his default setting; Finn needs to train his brain over time.

In the short term it might be beneficial to replace Finn with Bresnan, merciful even, yet it's hard to know how that would impact his confidence in the medium-term, especially as it would be the second time he had been dropped in the middle of an Ashes series. After that spell against South Africa at Lord's it seemed that Finn had left Bresnan in his slipstream forever, and that he would always play when England were picking three seamers. After a decent series against India, he was poor in New Zealand and has not recovered.

Finn shortened his run-up during that tour, which has been cited as the main problem by many; equally significant if not more so, however, is Finn's relative lack of tactical awareness. England, particularly Saker and Anderson, are big on understanding the game and reacting to circumstances. This is one of Finn's weakest points, and was demonstrated again during Agar's innings on Friday.

The most encouraging thing for Finn is that, generally speaking, he is good at the things you can't teach and not so good at those you can. There is no need to panic yet. In Anderson he had a perfect role model. The two are incomparable as bowlers, yet their early careers had a similar arc: a burst of success followed by some lost years as they attempt to understand their game and their action.

Anderson went through some extremely dark times, far darker than Finn is going through at the moment. At Finn's age, Anderson had not been a regular in the team for over three years and had 46 Test wickets at 38.39; at Trent Bridge yesterday he went from extremely good to truly great. Anderson may have been born with a degree of greatness in him, but ultimately he had to achieve it. There is no reason why Finn should not do the same.