Steven Finn: England’s fast learner

Steven Finn: England's youngest since Botham

Sir Ian Botham doesn’t appear to be a man concerned too much about records and reputations, and given his reputation as an England supporter he will no doubt have been as pleased as anyone to see one of his longer standing records disappear to Steven Finn.

33 years have passed since Botham became the youngest England bowler to 50 Test wickets, but with the wicket of Prasanna Jayawardene, Finn at the age of 22 years and 63 days overtook Sir Ian which is no bad thing for a young man in the early stages of his career. It rounded off a fairly up and down match for Finn, one which started poorly with the ball as he continually sprayed the ball down the leg side and struggled to find his length-frequently bowling either too short or too full.

England’s bowlers were poor but Finn in particular struggled more than Chris Tremlett or Stuart Broad to cope on a ground he should know well and often provided Matt Prior with more of a challenge than either Tillakaratne Dilshan or Tharanga Paranavitana as he continually found himself diving towards his leg stump.

Yet to his credit, Finn managed to turn things around albeit slowly but surely. On the third day he began to locate a far more consistent line and length, as David Saker discussed at the close of play, and then today he began to threaten consistently-including sending shudders through Lakmal’s helmet with a bouncer aimed at his head. All the while he maintained his happy knack for taking wickets, four of the top six in fact, to finish with match figures of 4-108 which hardly reflect his early struggles.

This exemplified two of Finn’s finest qualities-firstly the knack for taking wickets consistently and secondly his ability to learn quickly and adapt to a situation. Against Bangladesh he was rushed into the team quickly and found himself forced to cope on dead subcontinent wickets-something which impressed the England management. Then against Australia he found himself being challenged by Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin in Brisbane but bounced back to take a six-wicket haul. He’s even managed to stop falling down in his delivery stride, adapting his run-up to generate more pace and stop him falling away as he delivers the ball.

Sure he still has plenty of work to do, as his problems in the first innings showed, but Finn has already shown himself to be a fast learner. If he carries on like this then perhaps today’s record could be the first of many for a young man going places fast.

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Five Things We Learned In County Cricket

 1)      Lancashire could be the new home for the left arm spinner

For Lancashire the story of the match prior to the toss was the return of James Anderson to first class duty, yet by the end of the match there was only one thing person wanted to talk about, the art of spin was alive and well in Manchester.

That’s not that Anderson bowled badly, three wickets and some decent overs under his belt were good for a first start, it’s simply the spectacular manner in which Warwickshire collapsed under the dual threat posed by Gary Keedy and Simon Kerrigan who took 3-2 and 5-7 in the second innings.

Lancashire’s seam bowlers have been largely responsible for their flying start to the season with Glen Chapple, Sajid Mahmood and Oliver Newby all starting well, but here it was their spinners leading the way which is a promising sign once the pitches start to dry. Certainly their current speciality appears to be the slow left arm spinner, with the dependable Gary Keedy continuing to thrive but the development of Simon Kerrigan is very promising. Kerrigan has a strong action, good control and a decent temperament, all ingredients for a left-arm spinner to perform well.

Add in the potential of Stephen Parry who has shown promise in T20 cricket previously and you have three capable performers, all of whom practice one of spin bowling’s more underrated forms. Certainly in English cricket it is undergoing something of a revival with Monty Panesar at Sussex and Danny Briggs at Hampshire, but judging by the performance on Friday, it is Lancashire which is the real home of left-arm spin in England.

2)      Northants old boys have still got it

County cricket is undergoing something of a youthful revolution at the moment as the ECB’s attempts to incentivise youth development for counties encourages them to give greater opportunities to younger players. So much so that the old boys who were once to be found on County team-sheets up and down the country are very much becoming a thing of the past.

Yet amidst the juvenile excitement and talk of potential stars of the future, one club is still providing a home for the old boys of County cricket and so far they are proving their worth.

Northants’ recruitment policy may never be everyone’s cup of tea-too many Kolpaks down the years, not enough youth development-but they know how to get the best out of what they have, and still manage to reinvigorate some of cricket’s elder statesmen. But the decision to sign Chaminda Vaas last season proved to be the bargain of the season, and he has continued to both take wickets and score runs this season too.

Then there is the captain Andrew Hall, forgotten by South Africa yet still the anchor of Northamptonshire’s middle order and one of the canniest bowlers on the circuit. David Sales continues to provide cameos which demonstrate why he could have been one of England’s finest but for injury. Then there is James Middlebrook, another underrated operator who was apparantely written off when he left Essex but who has been reinvigorated at Wantage Road as has Mal Loye following his exit from Lancashire.

They help balance a team which remains one of the weakest on paper as it continues to accommodate some largely unproven players such as Lee Daggett, James Brooks and Alex Wakely but thanks to their experienced heads they continue to punch above their weight. Clearly the old boys have still got it.

3)      Surrey’s ground-staff know their own strength

Credit to Chris Adams and the Surrey ground staff, they realised their overwhelming strength this season and they are determined to make the most of it. Thus when they left a bit of green on the Oval wicket ahead of their game against Lancashire it was probably in the knowledge that the fastest bowling attack in the country were probably going to be too much for Leicestershire.

In truth that is exactly how it turned out. Surrey’s strength this season has been the four pronged pace attack, led in this match by the returning Chris Tremlett, Pakistan seamer Yasir Arafat and the ever-developing duo of Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker. Here they were comprehensive in their demolition of Leicestershire, particularly in the second innings where only James Taylor could defy them on a pitch which was livelier than many the Oval has had in recent years.

Not that it was always like that during the match, when Surrey batted they batted well and showed that application and discipline could ensure runs would flow. But this was a pitch which suited their attack more than Leicestershire’s, one with bounce and decent carry which suited their quicker, taller bowlers. If the ground-staff have any sense they’ll keep preparing one’s like that all season, it could be the best way forward for Surrey. After years of flat wickets, a lively pitch for a lively attack could well be the answer.

4)      Rotation policies can do counties more harm than good

Come the end of the season one hopes that Middlesex aren’t left to rue this weekend’s match in Bristol when the leaders were held to a draw by Gloucestershire. That’s not to say they didn’t perform up to scratch, they did. Well enough in fact to dominate most of the match, but not enough to push for the win.

Their batting was good, but it was their bowling that ultimately let them down. It was a good match for the seamers with Corey Collymore, Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones all taking wickets-Roland-Jones indeed managing to take a 5-fer, but only two wickets were taken by Gareth Berg and the rest of their attack went wicketless.

So what was missing? Well actually it was probably Steven Finn who has started the season like a train and appears a cut above the rest of the bowlers in Division Two. Finn was actually in Bristol, but as he revealed on Twitter, was being rested due to a rotation policy. One wonders quite what Angus Fraser, always a bowler who preferred to bowl as much as possible, was thinking though ultimately it has cost Middlesex. With Finn here, they would probably have won and kept up their early momentum. Sure he could have benefitted from the rest, but ultimately Middlesex have shot themselves in the foot.

5)      Craig Kieswetter is back and better than ever

Last season could have been a tremendous one for Craig Kieswetter. He won the World Twenty20 with England and played a key role in the Final victory over Australia. He left the tournament with a winner’s medal and potentially a 50-over slot as England’s opener for the World Cup in India within his grasp. Yet something went wrong. Kieswetter was brought back down to earth in a tough limited overs series against Bangladesh and then Australia as he was frequently exposed by the moving ball early in his innings as his unconventional technique proved his undoing.

He was then swiftly dispatched back to County cricket by Flower who opted for Davies ahead of him insisting that work with Somerset and rehabilitation in County Cricket would help in the long run. Yet if that was the aim, last summer it didn’t work as he failed to register a first class hundred and averaged just 27 runs in first class cricket-hardly the stuff which would knock on the door for England honours.

Thus while England were winning the Ashes and then off to India for the World Cup, Kieswetter had to watch from the Caribbean were a winter of technical work with Graham Thorpe and plenty of matches against regional opposition were designed to get him back on track.

Judging by his start to the season, the work has paid off. The sages assure us he has returned a less frenetic cricketer and far more assured both against the moving ball and the short one. After a couple of quiet County matches, he has exploded into life-starting with a couple of fine CB40 knocks before notching a century against Worcestershire on a wicket which was proving troublesome for even Somerset’s top order.

It’s a start, but a promising one which suggests that the breakthrough summer he was due last year could well be in the offing. Keep up form like this and an ODI recall will be little more than a formality while a winter away on full tour could well follow. For Somerset fans the good news is that Kieswetter is back on form, though the bad news is that England will know that too.

The County Cricket Five-Fer: Round Two

Five Things We Learned From The County Championship

1) Graham Onions will play for England again sooner rather than later

England’s successful last 18 months have created their own fair share of victors and victims. But few can have been more of a victim of England’s success than Graham Onions who was surely the forgotten man of English cricket.

When he stonewalled South Africa to ensure England got a draw from the 4th Test which gave them a fair chance of securing a series victory his place appeared beyond all reasonable doubt, especially given that he had enjoyed a fine series with the ball too.

Yet history tells us differently. Onions was dropped for the very next match for Ryan Sidebottom, England lost and drew the series and the Durham man was to suffer a terrible injury to his back which prevented him from bowling for almost a year.

During that time England have gone on and conquered all while discovering the talents of Steven Finn along the way plus enjoying the pleasant double surprise of Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett’s impact at Test level over the Winter. Pace bowling places in this England team are now contested more fiercely possibly than at any stage previously.

As if hes never been away

But don’t rule out Onions making a return to the Test arena. Because he is back, and judging by his performance against Yorkshire then it’s like he’s never been away. Pace, bounce and that devilish late movement gave him a five-wicket haul on his first game back and helped set up Durham’s victory.

He already looks a class above the County Championship which is remarkable given the length of time he has spent out injured. A good sign for England perhaps, and if he continues to kick on then don’t rule out a return sooner rather than later.

2) England’s pace bowling cup runneth over

While Onions was running in to destroy Yorkshire’s top and middle order, there were familiar tales elsewhere across the County Championship.

At Cardiff it was James Harris laying waste to Gloucestershire with 5-39, Nathan Buck took 4-112 for Leicestershire against Derbyshire, 17-year old Reece Topley destroyed Middlesex at Lords only for Steven Finn to do the same to Essex twice and Chris Woakes took match figures of 9-101 as favourites Somerset were thrashed by an epic margin at Taunton.

Reece Topley: One of the new brigade

Five pace bowlers, all under the age of 23, playing pivotal roles in their side’s County Championship matches are the stuff which Andy Flower’s dreams are surely made of. With the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett set to return then batting in the Championship could be a nightmare.

But for England the long-term prospect in the bowling department are healthier than ever. Flower has long talked about building up England’s strength in depth to enable weary players to be rested. Such developments will allow him to do just that because on the evidence of the County Championship so far England are spoiled for choice in the seam bowling department.

3) Jonathan Bairstow will get the century monkey off his back

Sometimes the monkey on someone’s back is hard to get away. For instance it took Ian Bell to his 10th Test century before he scored one without a team-mate scoring one. But as Jonathan Bairstow was edging ever closer to that elusive first Championship hundred doubtless there were more than just Yorkshire fans willing him onto that mark.

Sadly Bairstow fell for 81 as he edged leg-spinner Scott Borthwick to slip to become the seventh wicket to fall as Yorkshire eventually succumbed to defeat. He now has 16 first class 50s but has yet to reach the magical three figures mark. But don’t doubt that he will get there because he certainly will.

Too good not to ton up

For all the concern over Bairstow’s ability to convert starts into substantial scores, spend time watching him bat and you see a young player of great promise and such concerns tend to wash away. His capacity for playing innings of note in difficult circumstances was apparent from his debut when he top scored in the second innings on debut.

One particular instance was an unbeaten knock of 63 off 51 balls to see his side home in a key clash with Nottinghamshire at the back end of last year-an innings of real character. Yesterday’s innings came in trying circumstances with his side slipping to 158-6 before Bairstow and Pyrah managed to drag them to 225-6 which ultimately was not enough.

Sure he hasn’t got that elusive first hundred, but his ability to grind out scores of note when it really matters is the one which counts most. When he scores his first hundred, which he most certainly will sooner rather than later, don’t doubt it’ll be the first of many.

4) Paul Grayson might not have wanted an overseas players but Essex badly need one

“It’s been a complete nightmare. If it was up to me I don’t think I’d have any overseas players for championship cricket anymore, it’s just been so difficult.”

So said Paul Grayson after his club were unable to agree terms with Peter Siddle to be the club’s overseas player for this season. They would subsequently be unable to secure terms with Tim Southee before finally agreeing to sign Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

Yet his side could arguably have done with a decent overseas batsmen judging by their early season batting collapses. Batting cards this season reading innings of 201 and 227 against Kent and 115 and 215 against Middlesex speak volumes for the problems in their batting line-up. Though the subsequent arrivals of Owais Shah and Ryan Ten Doeschate after IPL duty ought to help matters they will be offset by the departures of Alistair Cook and probably Ravi Bopara once England duty resumes.

In their place the onus falls on young batsmen Tom Westley, Billy Godleman and Jaik Mickleburgh and the experienced James Foster and Matt Walker to cope. It is hardly a recipe for success and the departure of the experienced Zimbabwean Grant Flower at the end of last season is clearly having an impact. Though the arrival of Tsotsobe will clearly be a boost for the club, a batsman rather than a bowler would have been vital.

5) Who will win Division Two is anyone’s guess

Seven of the nine Counties in Division Two have recorded one victory so far this season with only Essex and Surrey, who have played one game less, yet to get off the mark though Surrey admittedly almost pushed leaders Northants close in their first match.

Certainly this division promises to be a wide open contest. Surrey were initially tipped as the favourites for the division though their lack of a top class spinner could potentially count against them. Northants have experience in the likes of Andrew Hall and Chaminda Vaas but little strength in depth.

Derbyshire and Glamorgan are both rebuilding under new captains, Kent have a decent blend of experience and youth while Leicestershire’s young side captained by Matthew Hoggard are perhaps a little too green for promotion despite boasting in James Taylor and Nathan Buck two of England’s finest prospects.

Certainly compared with last season when Sussex steamrollered the division to romp home with the title by a fair margin there are few outstanding candidates. Ultimately this is the Division which could be one by anyone. All the teams have strengths and weaknesses which may dilute the quality of the cricket somewhat but makes the quality of the spectacle all the better.

Pack mentality allows England’s bowlers to thrive in hunt against Pakistan

As Pakistan subsided to their lowest score in a Test Match against England, the sense of inevitability about it all was rather depressing.

Like they had in the series against Australia and at Trent Bridge the Pakistan batting line-up collapsed like a house of cards. Once the opener’s go, no-one has the application necessary to hold out against the swinging ball.

The steady stream of outside edges which flew to the England close fielders were mere catching practice for a slip cordon who are steadily growing into one of the finest in the world under the tutelage of Richard Halsall.

Yet while the inadequacies of the Pakistan batsmen have been the subject of plenty of column inches and TV coverage, credit where credit is due to the England bowlers.

In these conditions these bowlers are in their element, led by James Anderson who is arguably bowling as well as he ever has.

Certainly yesterday with both in and outswing he was too much for the beleaguered batsmen, as his career test bowling average now stands at it’s lowest point since 2003 after picking up 4-20 on the back of his 11 match haul at Trent Bridge.

But while Anderson’s performances in these elements are fast becoming expected, the form of his two young sidekicks Broad and Finn are further reasons for optimism.

Broad in particular bowled his best spell in England since his series defining 5-37 against Australia, picking up 4-38 with a wonderfully spell of line and length bowling, no doubt remembering his recent 11 wicket haul for Nottinghamshire at this ground.

And then there was Finn, though the junior figure in terms of experience and figures of 2-10, his obvious qualities of immaculate line and length, good pace and height suggest that should he stay fit he can be an England Test bowler for many years to come.

Few bowlers can have caused such a stir so quickly, though bigger tests in Australia will lie ahead.

The exciting prospect for England is that Finn does not appear to shy away from any challenge. Plus a healthy sense of common sense, perhaps drummed into him by his mentor Angus Fraser, will not go amiss on the flat pitches of Australia if they are not needed in conditions such as those at Edgbaston yesterday.

Perhaps the key point for this England bowling attack though lies not in the wickets, but the performances together. The last England attack to operate as a unit were that wonderful attack in 2005, and the signs are that a similar rapport is being built up between the three quick bowlers and Graeme Swann in support.

Plus the different ingredients, Anderson with his swing, Broad his line and length and Finn his height make for a potent and challenging attack working in tandem.

Credit too must go to David Saker, England’s new bowling coach who is clearly having a real impact on this attack. Though more a coach of people than of their art, Saker encourages his bowlers to think on their feet and work as a unit. Such qualities are likely to appeal to a group of bowlers who are also not short on brain power.

There will be harder days to come, and certainly the debate about whether England should stick with a four or five-man attack will go on. So too is the desire to inject real pace into this attack-probably the missing ingredient, meaning the likes of Ajmal Shahzad and Graham Onions will come into contention.

Though whatever the changes both in shape and personnel, the key for England will be to retain the focus on the bowlers hunting in a pack. Because as Pakistan found out yesterday, England’s bowling attack is at it’s best when working in tandem.