Liam Plunkett: 'I prided myself on breaking partnerships and taking wickets'

After bowing out on a high in the World Cup final, Liam Plunkett looks back on a rollercoaster career

Liam Plunkett acknowledges the applause of the crowd after finishing with figures of 3 for 42, England v New Zealand, World Cup 2019, Lord's, July 14, 2019

Liam Plunkett acknowledges the applause of the crowd after finishing with figures of 3/42  •  Getty Images

Twelve months on from helping England's men to lift a maiden World Cup, Liam Plunkett talks about being unceremoniously dropped, his development as a bowler, the USA connection and his plans for a career after cricket.
It's the anniversary of your finest hour, the 2019 World Cup final. But it's clear now that that match was also your last in England colours
I've come to terms with it. I knew it was over when I missed the South Africa series last winter. But the initial disappointment ebbed away, and I've been able to reflect on the journey that I've had, playing in the World Cup final, and winning in such a special way in the Super Over. I took vital wickets, I broke key partnerships. I feel like I was a useful asset in that World Cup squad.
All the same, you must have been aggrieved at the manner in which England moved on from you?
Of course you'd be disappointed with the way it was dealt with, you just want someone to reach out and say "This is the way we want to go". But they've made it clear they want to go down the young route, so I'm not going to sit in the corner and be that guy who's bitter and sour about the situation. Anyone who comes in, I want them to do well. Good on them, I hope they get the fifties and five-fors. To me it feels so long ago now. It is what it is.
In the four years leading up to the World Cup, you were the most prolific fast bowler in the world during the middle overs. How did you hit upon that key role?
When I came back into the England Test squad in 2014, they just wanted me to bowl quick. They said you're different, you're not a left-armer who can land it on a 1p, or a Jack Brooks, who can bowl as well at the back as he had with the new ball. You bowl rapid, sometimes round the wicket, use the cross seam.
I was happy with my action. My pace was consistent, but I didn't seem to be in England's white-ball plans. The following winter in Sharjah [November 2015], I said to Eoin Morgan, I'm not sure what I'm doing here, maybe I should retire and focus on red-ball.
He was like, don't make any stupid decisions. Then I played the next T20, my first for nine years, and I got three-for against Pakistan in Dubai, and I bowled rapid. That was the start for me. Morgs and Trevor [Bayliss] saw me and thought "we need to use Liam in that middle period".
Your partnership with Adil Rashid was one of the key aspects of England's rebirth as a one-day team
Me and Rash thrived in those middle overs. With Morgan's aggression with his fielding positions, and the backing he gave me, and the clarity I had for smashing the pitch, I grew into that role.
And as I got more confident, I started picking up new skills. I didn't get picked for the tour of South Africa [in 2016] and I sat down with Trevor and asked why not. He said I didn't have enough variation.
So I went away and worked on different balls. In terms of the cross-seam, I can hold it in the tips of my fingers, in the middle of my fingers and way back in my hand, and that's going to come out at three different paces.
I don't bowl the back-of-the-handers, but I could bowl the legcutter and offcutter. So I got some more tools in my shed and when I got back in I was still consistent, I could still bowl a 90mph bouncer, but I had more subtlety, and I felt I made those middle overs my own.
I said to Eoin Morgan, I'm not sure what I'm doing here, maybe I should retire and focus on red-ball. He was like, don't make any stupid decisions.
Plunkett on a crucial conversation in Sharjah in 2015
How quickly did you realise you were part of a potentially world-beating team?
I remember a Lions tour against South Africa in 2015, with J-Roy, Stokesy, Woody, and some others. We got 380-400 against South Africa A, absolutely pummelling it, and a year later, a lot of us were back playing the one-day stuff. So it was a combination of that and Morgan's vision, and the coach's vision, and taking the Brendon McCullum route of being aggressive, and playing cricket with a positive intent. It all just came together. Everyone backed each other, everyone got along, and it went from strength to strength.
It started with us getting 400 against New Zealand at Edgbaston, and though it didn't happen overnight, over the course of a year or so, we were getting noticed, and when it came all together, it was a perfect storm. No one ever got complacent or lazy. We just kept pushing each other. We had some days when it didn't go right. I went for 90 against India [at Cuttack], and we lost to Scotland, but we were never going to hold back. We had to be aggressive and if it's not your day, so be it.
There was a lot of talk ahead of the World Cup about your pace being down. How did you cope with that extra pressure?
Sure, at first I was bowling quicker than I was at the end, but my pace has always been mixed. Sometimes I try to bowl a ball at 90mph and it comes out at 84, and that's just down to my action. But I use that to my benefit, because if you're bowling very, very quick and suddenly it comes out at 83 with no change of action, that's sort of helped me.
People said my pace was down but I still got wickets in the build-up against Ireland and Pakistan, and someone recently showed me a clip where I bowled the third or fourth-quickest ball at the World Cup, at 94mph, so I knew my pace was still there.
I had the odd day I ran up and bowled quick, the odd day I didn't, but most of the time I did my thing, ran up and mixed my pace up.
Would I have liked to bowl 90mph all the time? Absolutely. But would I have got the same wickets when there are two other bowlers bowling 90mph? Maybe not, because having different options helps the team. But I never doubted myself. I knew I had the variations and the skills to help take wickets for England.
Notably, you missed each of England's three defeats in the group stage, and came back into the side for the make-or-break game against India at Edgbaston. What do you remember of that contest?
We'd had a meeting before that crucial India game. We sat in the room with a sports psychologist, who asked us how we were feeling. And one of my opinions was, "Of course I'm upset, I feel I should be playing, but if I wasn't upset I shouldn't be in the squad. It doesn't mean I don't want you to get a hundred or you to get the wickets, it's just because I'm not playing, and you should feel like that if you're not playing."
Others had different opinions, saying they were feeling the pressure of being No.1 in the world, but it was a great chat to have.
Three wickets in that match, and three more in the final. Did you feel an extra sense of pride after seemingly putting England on course for glory?
I bowled well, but without being arrogant I'd done that a lot for England over the four years. It wasn't something new that I'd picked up three wickets, and a crucial batter or two.
It's something I prided myself on, breaking partnerships and taking wickets. So for me it was like half the job's done. Let's sit down and be excited about watching our batsman show what they can do.
I never felt as though we'd won the game and I'd put in the matchwinning performance. I felt I'd done my job, nothing more.
What did the team make of the target of 242?
It was a medium score, but we knew New Zealand are a fighting team who go about their game with workmanship. They've got their superstars, obviously, but they are a bit like us as a team, when they get behind each other they do well.
It's the final, it's the pressure, you know if you lose a few wickets early it's going to scare you a bit, that's the nature of the beast. But we we'd played all round the world, and in English conditions in county cricket. We knew this type of wicket, we knew we could adapt to this, that's what we were thinking.
What does a bowler go through in those circumstances, knowing they may have a crucial role to play with the bat?
Apart from those first few overs, I felt fairly relaxed. I was enjoying watching the game and it was only towards the end I thought "Oh shit, I should get my pads on here". I'm actually playing this game, I need to go for a bat.
I know my strengths and weaknesses as a batsman. I'll look to get a single, but if the ball is there I know I can hit it out of the ground, so that was my thing. If I can get off strike I'll give Stokesy the strike, but otherwise I'm smacking it to the boundary
Ideally I'd have liked to hit two more boundaries, but the way the game went I wouldn't have changed it. But after taking three-for in the first innings, it was at the back of my mind, "Imagine if I can smack four sixes here and win us the game."
But looking back on the last four years with England, I felt like every single person wanted you to do well, whether they were 12th or 13th man. Everyone wanted the same thing, pushed each other, encouraged each other, everyone was one team.
It's remarkable to think that you played in two World Cups, 12 years apart. How did the 2019 experience compare to 2007?
I was so fresh-faced, I was just happy being involved really. I didn't say too much, I just cracked on, did what I did, and enjoyed the experience of sitting next to someone like Freddie [Flintoff].
The squad was an amazing place. We'd just beaten New Zealand and Australia in the VB Series, but I felt personally I was bowling as well as I ever had. I was swinging the ball and winning games for England. But then we got beaten by New Zealand in the World Cup opener and the whole pedalo incident happened, and that put a dampener on things.
You were such a different bowler around that time. You bowled Adam Gilchrist with an inswinging yorker that doesn't seem to be in your armoury any more
I watched that yorker again not long ago. I picked up some big wickets in that series. Ponting, Clarke, Gilchrist again. I felt like "I've landed here", to be playing cricket, opening the bowling for England with the white ball.
And it's amazing to think that I was swinging the ball and now that's something I don't do, my action has completely changed. I went the other way, down a different avenue
I was always fighting with taking the ball away from the right hander, but I remember talking to Shaun Pollock, one of my role models, who said, "Mate, sometimes bringing the ball back at a batsman is the most difficult thing to face. If a new batsman comes in and you're attacking the stumps, he can't leave it, so you can look for the lbws and bowleds."
So that put me at ease and I embraced that role. If it's not swinging it doesn't matter. If you feel like your wrist is the wrong side and you're angling it in, just work with it, get used to the feeling. He made me feel it's okay not to be able to swing it away.
You were one of a generation of England quicks - James Anderson among them - whose actions were remodelled by the biomechanical analysts at Loughborough. How much did that affect your development?
When I was first picked under Duncan Fletcher in 2005, I was so young. I just wasn't thinking about where I was in my career. It was just "Oh wow, I'm playing cricket for England", just as it had been "Oh wow, I'm playing cricket for Durham academy … second team, first team … England". In those days, I didn't think about the action side of things, I just ran up and bowled, it felt a natural thing for me.
But there'd always been people wanting to tinker with my action. When I went to the U19 World Cup in 2004, Troy Cooley and some of them guys wanted to change my action, which I'd always thought in the back of my head was more a West Indian style. They were like, you've got to become more like Brett Lee. You're going to get injured, everyone has to bowl like this, with my right arm coming back to my shoulder. And that completely knackered me.
I had to go to Loughborough day in, day out, for three or four months, to bowl and bowl with this new action, and I arrived at the U19 World Cup, I was bowling 75mph swingers. It was only when I got back to Durham that Geoff Cook [director of cricket] said, "What's going on here then, you're not bowling like that!"
So I went back to my old action, but I found that when you move something by a centimetre it feels like a metre, so correcting my arm's arc felt like an eternity.
I was going to bed before a match, and all I could think about was about how embarrassing it's going to be to play for England
On the pressures of bowling with an unfamiliar action
There were times in your early Test career when you were visibly struggling with the action you'd had imposed on you…
It's hard looking back on that period when my form dipped. I remember playing in that Test match against West Indies at Old Trafford [in 2007], way back when Peter Moores was in charge. I got dropped for the next Test and I now know why, because I wasn't good enough at that point.
It got to the point that I was going to bed before a match, and all I could think about was about how embarrassing it's going to be to play for England. The people around you are all saying you're lucky to play for England, and I totally agree, but I'm also like, "I'm about to embarrass myself with six wides in a row."
All you're thinking about is your action, bowling down the leg side, watching it going for four. It's not a great place to be. I'd be thinking about my wrist, and my front arm, and suddenly you're bowling against yourself, not the batsman. And even on the days when it does go well, if you try and repeat that the day after, you're not sure how you did it.
You played just two one-off ODIs in the next seven years. Did you feel like you'd been forgotten?
It was obviously the right call for me to go back to county cricket, but that just put me under even more pressure, because I was a youngster who'd just been playing for England and I had been getting wickets.
I ended up in a spiral where I was going out a bit too much, and just coasting along really. I'd always been a hard trainer, and I still had a work ethic, but it never felt as though I was doing anything specific with my training, I was just relying on my talent and my fitness. It came to a point where I wasn't performing.
So I moved to Yorkshire, and Jason Gillespie saw that my fitness was at its peak, and he just told me to bowl quick, That ignited my fire really, and from there I got better and better. A simple focus on bowling quick pushed me in the right way, and that's when my Test recall came.
I wasn't thinking about England when I moved to Yorkshire. I would have said it was my ambition, of course, but how much I believed it, I'm not sure.
Do you think that the challenge of processing all that information helped you become a better player?
When you think about it, Jimmy [Anderson] is still going after having his action changed, too - he's one of the best bowlers ever in red-ball cricket, and I am where I am. After going through that period of learning and figuring ourselves out, yeah, it actually could have helped us in the long run.
In every walk of life, if you're not learning you're staying still and people overtake you. I want to continue on this path, because when you've played cricket for so long, you have the foundation stuff, you're so highly qualified that you can pass on your knowledge to other people.
That's why you go out and get your coaching badges, I'd like to help people out playing cricket, going forward, I'd like to give something back. I feel I could be some sort of an asset for a team, wherever it is.
So is that how you've been spending your time in lockdown?
Yeah, I'm currently studying for a career as a strength-and-conditioning coach. It pretty much started after the World Cup when I was still involved with England. I went back to Wimbledon where I was living with Morne Morkel, and a couple of weeks later, I started looking into the Training Room, and then got approached to work with them.
The course I'm doing is one that I can do in my own time, so there's no pressure if there are certain days in the season when you couldn't do stuff. But while I'm studying I'm learning, and it's helping my body. Putting all that into practice could actually prolong my career.
So you are still committed to playing even though your England days are done?
My aim for the next three years is to play for Surrey. I'll keep doing that for as long as I know I can turn up and help win games. As soon as I can't do that, I'll stop playing.
But the next step is definitely something I have to start thinking about. I'm 35, and my main focus is still cricket, but while I'm playing I'd be stupid not to use the resources and try to go down different avenues. When I have time, especially in the last few months, I just get my head down in my books and learn something new.
Have you always been the studious type?
It's something I should have done a lot more of when I was younger, but I just wanted to play cricket. The thing I'd advise any professional sportsman is, "Why not get your teeth into something?" Because you actually have so much more spare time than you think.
You think you are busy all the time, but you're really not. You finish practice at 1pm, so you've all that time to kill. Why not use an hour or two of your day to educate yourself? You'd be stupid not to, because there are only so many people fortunate enough to get roles in TV when their careers come to a halt. You have to put the work in to have an opportunity after cricket.
What about the American connection? What's behind the rumours that you might play for USA?
My wife is American, we've been together 13 and a half years, and we've been going back and forth between the UK and Philadelphia. It's a lifestyle we are used to, so if an opportunity came at the right time, I'd love to get involved in American cricket, but playing for America probably isn't realistic.
I want to play for Surrey for three years, or however long, then after that it's a three-year qualification, so who knows where American cricket will be by then. They might have a great team and I can't get in, or I might not be good enough and won't want to play anymore.
If I get my qualifications and an opportunity comes up to work in the States, I might take it, but I might also take an opportunity in South Africa, or Australia, or West Indies, if the right job comes up.
Me and the missus are on the same page, I'm not just saying I want to go to America and that's it. I want to do whatever feels right at the time for me and my wife.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket