Plunkett ready for second coming
As widely anticipated, a lanky Durham paceman was today named in England's Test squad for this winter's tour of South Africa. The only surprise was the identity of the player concerned. While Geoff Miller, the national selector, spelt out the reasons for Steve Harmison's omission in uncharacteristically strident language, it was Harmison's team-mate and understudy, Liam Plunkett, who was welcomed back into the fold after a two-and-a-half year hiatus.
"I wasn't really expecting the call, so it was a big surprise to get picked," said Plunkett, who is currently on holiday in Philadelphia. "In previous seasons I thought about playing for England a lot, but this year I put it out of my mind and tried to concentrate on playing for Durham. Towards the back end [of the season] I felt as good as I've felt before."
The statistics of Plunkett's summer back up that assertion. Despite being limited to just 12 Championship fixtures by the surfeit of pace-bowling talent that the champions can currently boast, he nevertheless helped himself to 60 first-class wickets at 23.35, by some distance the best figures of his seven-season career. What is more, that tally that placed him fourth among fast bowlers in the national standings, behind none other than Graham Onions (69) and Harmison (63).
Plunkett claimed his maiden ten-wicket haul against Worcestershire in July, and then, having taken on the role of county spearhead when Harmison and Onions were both swiped by England for the closing stages of the Ashes, responded with nine in the match to crush Nottinghamshire by an innings and 52 runs at Chester-le-Street, a result that gift-wrapped the title with two rounds to spare.
"I was bowling plenty of overs, and I like it when I get that," said Plunkett. "When Harmy and Graham went to play for England, obviously the pressure was on me to bowl, and I got a chance to bowl 25 overs, day in, day out. The more I bowl the better I am, so playing the last few months and getting the chance to be the dominant bowler in the team was obviously a great opportunity, and I was happy to take that."
The upshot is an opportunity to resume an international career that was put into stasis back in the summer of 2007. With his height and ability to swing the ball late, not to mention a batting ability that earned him a half-century on his maiden ODI tour to Pakistan, Plunkett was singled out for great things by Duncan Fletcher and taken to the Caribbean World Cup. But his consistency suffered, not least because of Fletcher's reluctance to release his bowlers for county duty, and following a delinquent performance against West Indies at Old Trafford in June 2007, he was returned whence he came.
But now he is back, and at the age of 24, he's still got plenty time on his side to prove that Fletcher's early faith was not misplaced - as indeed does Fletcher's other pick of the post-Ashes era, Sajid Mahmood, who has been recalled to the ODI squad for South Africa.
"I think I've grown up a lot as a cricketer," said Plunkett. "I know my game a lot more, and how to get batsmen out a lot more. I'm still young now, but when I was 19-20, I played for England and that was obviously a massive step. I appreciated my time there, and I know what it's all about now, but I've taken a step back from that, and put in the hard yards in county cricket last year. I feel more experienced and I know what I'm doing a lot more now."
Much of what Plunkett has been doing has involved less thought and more deeds, as he spent the year grooving a naturally upright action, and worrying less about the end result of his labours. "When I stop thinking about swinging the ball it I do better," he said. "When I'm thinking about swing that's when I bowl too full. I worked hard in the winter with the Lions tour [to New Zealand] and I just came back to England and played as much county cricket as I could."
Swing, while a handy weapon, is not something that England lack in their squad for South Africa, with James Anderson, Ryan Sidebottom and Onions all capable of movement through the air. Plunkett knows he could well be asked to hit the deck harder than his colleagues and utilise his natural bounce to unsettle opponents in the manner akin to Harmison in his pomp. It's not a prospect that fazes him.
"It's all about adapting to different conditions," said Plunkett. "Obviously at Durham this year it moved around a little bit, but then you go down south where the pitches are not the same, so you've got to vary your plans according to the pitch, and to the batsman. But I'm not looking to fill Harmison's boots, I'm a different cricketer to what he is, and I'll be different in my own ways. We'll just go from there.
Plunkett added that he had not heard from Harmison since his call-up, but nevertheless credited him for passing on the lessons learned from his experience of the international spotlight. "Harmy has helped my development," he said. "When things go wrong for him it's obviously in the media a lot, and when things went wrong for me I went and spoke to him, and he just helped to get things back on track. He's been a big help, he's been there, he's had the problems and been through them."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo