The return of Steven Finn
The Ashes 2015. 3rd Test. Edgbaston, Birmingham. Grey skies, strong wind blowing, high possibility of rain. The series tied 1-1. Michael Clarke wins the toss, chooses to bat. Risky decision. Australia is unchanged. England, expected to make one change, make two.
As decided a week earlier, Jonny Bairstow replaces Gary Ballance. It’s the second that is surprising. Mark Wood’s ankle needs rest. They pick Steven Finn. It’s his first Test in two years. This is also a risky decision, handing him a comeback in a match of such importance. After all it’s just been 18 months since he was deemed ‘unselectable’ by the team management.
He’s good, but he’s erratic. When Finn gets it right, he wins England matches. When Finn doesn’t get it right, he wins the opposition matches. It was the kind of selection that the England of old would never have taken. But English cricket is moving forward. They are not afraid to take gambles anymore. They pick Finn, they trust him to deliver. He does.
Australia lost the first match in Cardiff. Steve Smith made a pair of 33’s in Cardiff. Australia won the second match at Lords. Smith made a total of 273 runs at Lords. This has been Australia’s story since the past year and a half. They win when Smith scores, they don’t when he doesn’t.
Seven overs into the Australian innings, Finn is called on to bowl. Smith is facing. Finn is bowling full outside off, he’s not swinging it much. Smith drives him through the covers for a boundary fifth ball. The sixth is the same as the first five, but it swings. It swings just enough to take Smith’s edge. It swings just enough to take Australia’s spirit. Finn is mobbed by his teammates. There is a sense of relief, on seeing the back of Smith, of Finn getting a confidence booster.
There is a massive difference between Steven Finn of 2013 and Steven Finn of 2015. He has a longer run-up, much like the one he had when he made his debut. Extensive coaching, scientific analysis, lack of confidence in his game, David Saker and Andy Flower were all equally responsible for the mess he was in 2013.
Saker and Flower are no longer there. Their replacements, Ottis Gibson and Trevor Bayliss don’t believe in extensive coaching and scientific analysis. Finn was caged in 2013. Finn is free in 2015.
Finn doesn’t knock down the stumps at the non-strikers end while bowling these days. He did earlier. He did it to such an extent that the ICC amended their rules to classify it as a no ball. People called it the ‘Steven Finn no ball’. He uses the crease well now, sometimes bowling close to the stumps, sometimes bowling wide of them, but never knocking them down.
In 2013, Finn was not quick, Finn didn’t have a smooth run up, Finn was too bothered about technique, Finn was not himself. In 2015, Finn is quick, Finn has a smooth run-up, Finn is not too bothered with technique, Finn bowls naturally. In 2015, Finn is himself.
Out in the middle, Clarke replaces Smith. Finn bowls five balls to Clarke. The first four are full and straight. Clarke defends. Finn is on the money. He doesn’t give anything away. The fifth one gets Clarke. This one too is full and straight at the stumps. But this time, Clarke misses. The bails go flying. Finn has his second victim. Australia are struggling at 34-3.
Finn can get more wickets here. He can run through Australia here. Nothing of the sort happens. For the rest of the innings, Finn bowls decently but he never maintains any pressure on the batsmen. He concedes a boundary in six of his next seven overs. He doesn’t take another wicket. James Anderson runs through Australia. He takes wickets, a lot of them. Australia fold up for a measly 136.
In response, England make 281. A lead of 145. It’s a huge lead, especially on a seamer friendly Edgbaston wicket. Australia begin their innings. David Warner is out there. Warner looks scary. He is stocky and powerful. He chews gum. He abuses. He snarls. And he scores a lot of runs. He is scary for the spectators. He is scary for the umpires. He is scary for the opposition. He seems scarier when he is walking out to bat in the third innings of a test match. He seems even scarier when the bowlers in front of him happen to be representing England.
Warner averages 46 in Test cricket. That average jumps to 54 in the third innings. That average jumps even further to 78 when batting against England in the third innings. England cannot afford to be complacent. The match hinges on this third innings. In all likelihood, the Ashes hinges on this third innings, the Ashes which nobody expected England to win.
Australia get off to a good start. They have 36 runs on the board when Finn comes into the attack. Finn bowled well in the first innings. Finn needs to bowl better in this one. With him, one can never know. He might be brilliant, he might be atrocious. He might be both.
The first over he bowls goes for plenty. Warner straight drives for three, Smith flicks for three, Warner punches for four, Warner ‘flat bats’ it for four. Finn is all over the place. He goes for 14. He bowls on off, he bowls on leg. He bowls full, he bowls short. He bowls everywhere. Memories of 2013 come flooding back. England can’t afford to have Finn bowling like that. They can’t afford it at all.
Finn changes ends before his next over. His second ball is short, it’s outside off, it’s innocuous. But it gets Steve Smith. He top edges it into Jos Buttler’s hands. It’s a poor ball. It’s a poorer shot. But it’s an excellent result. For Steven Finn. For England.
Finn bowls much better after the wicket. He uses the crease, he creates angles, he bowls quick and he makes the batsmen play. And then he gets wickets.
Third ball of his fourth over. Michael Clarke is squared up by an out swinger. He edges to fourth slip. Clarke trudges back. Finn exults. He has got England two crucial wickets. He will go on to get more.
Adam Voges comes out to the middle. He edges his first ball to second slip. Finn exults again. A little more this time. The English team celebrate wildly. Australia are reeling at 77-4. Finn has taken three of the four wickets. Finn is happy. Finn has just tilted this match heavily in England’s favour. Finn has just tilted the Ashes heavily in England’s favour.
Mitchell Marsh comes out to face the hattrick ball. Finn bowls it well outside off. Marsh leaves it alone without much fuss. The English team and the spectators behave as if it hit the stumps and the bails didn’t fall. Exaggeration.
Finn was on a hattrick the last time he played a Test match as well. It was at Trent Bridge in 2013. Against the same opponents. Finn got Shane Watson and Ed Cowan in his second over. A spell which promised a lot eventually turned out to be rather forgetful. Finn was thrashed, on the offside, on the leg side, straight back over his head, straight back over the keeper’s head. He was thrashed everywhere. He ended up conceding 80 runs from his 15 overs. He ended up getting himself dropped.
Hence, even after he gets Clarke and Voges off successive balls, there is this feeling which tells us not to go overboard, not to get too excited, not to celebrate too early. Finn can still get thrashed, that’s always a possibility.
Today, Finn doesn’t get thrashed. He picks up more wickets. Mitchell Marsh is bowled through the gate. Mitchell Johnson top edges to backward point. Finn has five. Australia are seven down with a lead of just eight.
It seems that Steven Finn’s job is done. But it’s not. James Anderson has left the field with a side strain. Peter Nevill and Mitchell Starc are building an important partnership. They are batting well. They are grinding England down. They are tiring England’s bowlers. They are carrying out a successful rearguard action. They are batting on.
Australia now has a lead of around seventy. Nevill and Starc seem to have made the pitch their home. There are signs of desperation in the English camp. They are feeling the jitters. They can’t do anything apart from trying. They are one man down. That one man is their senior most bowler, the leader of this attack. The man with more than 400 test wickets, the man who has the skills to clean up the tail. In the absence of Anderson, they have to rely a lot on their other fast bowlers, especially Steven Finn.
Finn bowls and bowls. Finn beats Nevill’s bat once. He beats it twice. He beats it thrice. But it never hits the stumps. It never takes his edge. Until the second ball of the sixty-fourth over. Finn has bowled many good balls in this spell. This is not one of them. It’s short, it’s slow, it’s down the leg side. It’s the ball of a tired man. But it brings him the all important wicket. Peter Nevill gloves it to Jos Buttler behind the stumps. The umpire raises his finger. Finn screams with delight. Nevill reviews. The decision stands. Finn screams louder. Probably the most important wicket of this match. Probably the most important one of his career.
Finn only bowls three more overs. He doesn’t have any energy left. He bowled and bowled. He took wickets, important wickets, Steve Smith in both the innings, Peter Nevill in the second when England needed it the most. It was a good selection, Steven Finn’s. It won England the match. Most likely, it will win them the Ashes as well.
They say cricket, much like life, is a game of risks. On the first morning of this match, each side took a risk. For one, it paid off. For the other it didn’t. Michael Clarke backed his team to bat out the first day under tough conditions. They couldn’t. Alastair Cook backed the revamped Steven Finn to deliver. He did. That’s where Australia lost. That’s where England won.