The Ashes 2013-14 December 20, 2013

Finn desperate to find an answer

After a 2013 where Steven Finn's stock fell considerably, he thinks he is finding his way back to becoming the fearsome fast bowler he has hinted at being

When Steven Finn became the youngest Englishman to claim 50 Test wickets - he was 22 years and 63 days old at the time - it appeared England had unearthed a fast bowler that would serve them for much of the next decade.

But that was 2011. Somewhere in the intervening years, Finn has lost his way to the point where he has not played a Test since July - the first match of the Ashes series in England - and has been overlooked for the role of third seamer by bowlers such as Chris Woakes, Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett.

There have been times on this tour when Finn has cut a disconsolate figure. Struggling for rhythm, pace and confidence, he has hardly pressed for selection and has done little more than carry drinks for his colleagues and act as a net bowler. It wasn't meant to be this way.

The oft-repeated explanation for Finn's troubles suggests they started once he was required to alter his action after his relatively frequent collisions with the stumps as he ran in to deliver the ball. Partially due to Finn's habit, the ICC changed the playing regulations in April so that any delivery bowled after the bowler had collided with the stumps would be called no-ball.

There is more than a grain of truth in such suggestions, too. But Finn was already struggling to hold down a place in the Test side, at least, as his economy rate - uncomfortably close to four an over - was deemed profligate by England's standards.

The end result has been that a man with a strike-rate (48.3) markedly better than James Anderson (59.3) or Stuart Broad (58.4) has been unable to find a place in the side. And despite - or some might say because of - the work of the ECB's bowling coaches, Kevin Shine and David Saker, Finn's form and confidence have continued to ebb. At times on this trip, he has looked unrecognisable from the fast bowler that he showed glimpses of becoming a couple of years ago.

"It's been very frustrating," Finn admitted as the players enjoyed a rare day off on Friday, entertained by their sponsors, Jaguar, racing sports cars around a test track. "It's quite obvious that the bowling hasn't quite gone as I would have liked it to. I've been working as hard as I possibly can and bowling as many overs as I possibly can in practice in the nets, trying to get it right. But it hasn't happened yet. I feel I'm moving in the right direction and I feel I'm getting there, but it hasn't been right up to this point and that's why I haven't played."

There is a theory that Finn was confused by conflicting advice from his coaches at England and his coaches at Middlesex. While England recommended experimenting with a short run-up, Middlesex favoured a longer one. And while England recommended an improved wrist and seam position, Middlesex favoured him running in and simply trying to hit a probing length.

"A lot of what I've heard about that is rubbish," Middlesex's director of cricket, Angus Fraser told ESPNcricinfo. "I've heard that we were trying to turn him into an outswing bowler. And I've heard people in the media suggest there is disagreement between us and England. It's just not true. The fact is that England are his employers and he spends about 46 weeks a year with them and about six weeks a year with us. We are all working for the common good and that is seeing Steven fulfil his outstanding potential.

"It is frustrating for everyone that he has not been going in the right direction, but these guys are not robots. Progression doesn't go in a straight line. But he still has an excellent physique and huge promise. It took James Anderson a while to fulfil his talent, too."

Fraser does admit that there have been moments when the England and Middlesex coaches have disagreed, but insists it was "no big issue".

"We suggest things," he explained. "We might say 'try this' and England might say something else. Yes, I felt he was better with a longer run-up, but in the end it is all up to him and there is a very good understanding between us and England."

Finn agrees. While he admits he has not suffered for a lack of advice, he insists the responsibility to "filter" such information much remain with him.

"One of the advantages of modern cricket structures is that you have lots of people who are able to give you good information and valid points," he said. "And, as a player, you are able to filter those points and do as you see fit with them. I'm very grateful for all the advice I get. Maybe I haven't filtered the info as well as I possibly could have done over the last 12 months, but it feels as if I'm in a better position to do so now than I have been before.

"I'm very grateful for all the advice I get. Maybe I haven't filtered the info as well as I possibly could have done over the last 12 months."

"I'm moving back towards my best. There are glimpses of it in spells in games or in the nets, but it hasn't been as consistent as I'd want it to be. That's synonymous with the changes I've made which everyone knows about in the last 12 months. And I don't feel as if I'm far away from being at my best if not better. I'm just keeping going with the hard work I've been doing to get there."

Fraser's theory is that Finn might have been overthinking things. While one of the worries of the England camp is that if Finn is unable to control the seam position then he could damage the ball and prevent James Anderson and Stuart Broad gaining swing, conventional or reverse. But Fraser thinks that, if Finn is taking wickets with such a good strike-rate, that is a price worth paying.

"The more he has been out of the side, the more the temptation is to tinker with things," he explained. "And when you bowl with someone as talented as Anderson, with that perfect seam position, it is all too easy to start reaching for perfection. But what Anderson does is unrealistic for most bowlers. All Steven really needs to do is go back to doing what he did was he was 21. The seam was like a windscreen wiper when I bowled, I didn't have much of a slower ball and my yorker was pretty ordinary, too. But I hit a pretty good length and Steven could be the same."

Finn agreed: "Yes, there is a chance that I've over-complicated things in the last 12 months. At the end of the day bowling is very simple and usually whatever comes naturally to you is the thing that serves you best. But I've a very simple goal that I'm working towards and hopefully it comes round sooner rather than later.

"My body has developed over the last 12 to 18 months and maybe I've grooved bad habits at times. But I'm working towards eradicating those. You get confidence from bowling well. You get confidence from the feeling off the end of your fingertips. I've had that in patches, but not on a consistent basis on this trip. It's just about working towards getting that on a consistent basis."

Such consistency has come too late for this Ashes series. But if Finn is able to return to somewhere near his best for the 2015 edition, England will surely be all the stronger for it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo