Steve Finn turned 28 this week. Somehow it comes as a surprise that he is not both younger and older: to talk of Finn is to speak of potential, but such conversations began last decade.
Finn is a devoted Watford fan, but if he were a football club he would be Arsenal, achieving what most could only dream of yet never quite delivering as much as promised. He begins the summer of 2017 much like he has most previous summers: on the edge of the England side, in Tests and ODIs, with the sense of a career on loop, the same questions being repeated endlessly.
In many ways this is all very unfair. Finn has already put together an outstanding career: 125 Test wickets, including a ferocious 6/79 to help England regain the Ashes in 2015; the third fastest Englishman to 100 ODI wickets; and a crucial role in Middlesex’s County Championship victory last year. Across all professional cricket, he has taken 741 wickets.
Yet because Finn’s gifts are so obvious - the 6ft 7in height and the bounce that comes with it, the ability to approach 90mph and swing the ball away - somehow he has left many disappointed. Finn was marked out for greatness young - he made his county debut aged 16, the youngest Middlesex player for 56 years, and then became the youngest ever Englishman to 50 Test wickets.
England tends not to deal with sporting prodigies sensitively. In the case of Finn, this meant copious advice. Even while he took 46 wickets at 26.23 apiece in 2010, his first year in Test cricket, much of the focus was less on his remarkable strike rate than an economy rate, nudging four, that did not sit easily with the Strauss-Flower philosophy of bowling dry, especially as England had only a four-man bowling attack.
“Everybody said 'it's great that he takes a load of wickets, but he goes for too many runs'. I think that affected him,” says Richard Johnson, the Middlesex fast bowling coach and the man Finn has worked most closely with. “That's a really difficult thing - if your strike rate's low but you're going for a few runs how do you convert that to going for fewer runs but keeping your strike rate?”
Finn has often seemed a bowler unsure exactly of what he is, or wants to be - the ‘enforcer’, or a metronome in the mould of Glenn McGrath. In this sense, Finn’s very talent has been a curse.
“He's still someone who strives to get better in terms of going for fewer runs, but doesn't want to forget that his strike rate is incredible. There's only very few people in the history of the game - like Glenn McGrath and Curtly Ambrose - who get the balance spot on. He's starting to come to terms with that,” Johnson reflects. “There is a middle ground. He doesn't have to be the bloke who doesn't go for many runs, especially around the England team at the moment, with the likes of Anderson and Broad, who keep things particularly tight.”
But at an age when Finn should be England’s undisputed attack leader, he instead finds himself focusing on reestablishing himself in the side. Since that heady first year in Test cricket, Finn’s highest return of wickets in any of the following six years is only 20, and last year - 17 wickets at 46.64 apiece from nine Tests - was his least penetrative. His longest unbroken run in England’s Test side remains his first, the 11 consecutive Tests he played in 2010. That brilliant return at Edgbaston in 2015 did not, after all, mark Finn’s elevation from England peripheral to essential.
“He’s obviously had a frustrating time in the last couple of years,” Johnson reflects. “He's been a bit in and out. So every time he gets a ball in his hand he feels he's under pressure to perform, which he is.”
England will hope that, this time, Finn’s return is for good - not just because of his cocktail of pace, bounce and away swing, the most notable improvement in his game in recent years, but also because he is so affable. For all that Finn is described as flaky, he has shown remarkable resilience - remodelling his action after his penchant for knocking over the stumps led to the creation of ‘Finn’s Law’, making doing so a no-ball offence; coming back from leaving the 2013/14 tour of Australia early, when he was notoriously described as “not selectable” and said bowling felt “alien”, to regain his international place within eight months; and returning from numerous injuries.
“To keep coming back makes you more of a hardened cricketer,” Johnson reflects. “He’s learned to deal with the bad times.
“I reckon 28 is about the time when you really discover who you are and what you’re about. I get the feeling that's where he's at at the moment, understanding more about what he's trying to do and how he does it. That comes with experience.”
In the coming year, England have a home Champions Trophy - perhaps their best chance yet to win an ODI global event - followed by an arduous series against South Africa before touring a reinvigorated Australia. It is a country that should be ideally suited to Finn, yet is instead where he was dropped for the first time in Test cricket, in 2010/11, and then traipsed around forlornly in 2013/14, even working with Alastair Cook on the basic mechanics of turning his arm over. There would be nowhere better for Finn to complete a defining year, one in which he could finally become the bowler that England have always longed him to be.
“There’s not many cricketers around the world who are 6ft 7in, who can bowl 87mph and swing the ball away,” Johnson reflects. “He's got to trust that a bit, and believe in it a bit more - he's quite unique. Something obviously is good there, he's just got to do it more consistently. I don't understand why his best days aren't ahead of him.” How England will wish that he is right.