Our interviewee this month is a fast bowler who with a bit more luck, could and probably should, have played more than his current tally of 36 Test matches for England. A key bowler in England’s famous 3-1 series win in Australia and someone who when I shared the name I’d be interviewing, I received countless responses of “I love Finny” and/or “brilliant, brilliant, guy”. It is of course Middlesex and England bowler, Steven Finn.
And having now interviewed the big man, I concur even more… a brilliant guy. In fact, what I enjoyed most about this interview was his honesty about the highs and lows of his England career. In an era when we were crying out for a genuine quick bowler, you do sit back and think, because of injuries, bad luck, and of course at times loss of form – something that everyone suffers from, we never quite saw the best of Steven Finn for long enough. But that said, when you do reflect on his career to date, in the 36 Tests he has played, boy there are a good number of memorable performances.
“I loved playing for my country,” remarked Finny. “I was fortunate, across formats, to do it well over a hundred times. So, even if I don’t play for England again, to be able to look back and say I’ve achieved what I have, I feel pretty proud. When I got picked up on the Middlesex academy, I didn’t think playing for England would ever be possible. To have done that over a hundred times, sitting here now as a 31-year-old, I feel pretty good about that.”
And so, he should. When you look back at some of our most memorable series wins in recent years: Australia away in 2010, India away in 2012, Australia at home in 2015 and South Africa away in 2016, Finny played significant roles, as the wicket-tally’s back up.
We’ll come on to all those series and experiences later, but as we always do, let’s first rewind back to the beginning and what got this lad from Watford into the beautiful game?
“Well, I spent a lot of my life around cricket clubs around the Watford area watching my Dad play. Mum would always be helping with the teas, so cricket had just always been part of my life since being a little kid in a pram. In fact, there a lot of photos of me as a kid asleep on snooker tables in clubhouses, while my Dad was playing for Hertfordshire!”
And was there a role model? “Glenn McGrath. Although it was painful watching him knock England over for fun, as a kid I loved watching him bowl. He was such a legend of a bowler.”
We’ll forgive him for that early admission!
Finny has been a loyal bowler for Middlesex throughout his career, taking hundreds and hundreds of wickets and it’s thanks to former Middlesex player Toby Radford, that the county has reaped the benefits of Finny’s undoubted talent. “I played for my local cricket club, Langleybury, when I was kid and at the age of 10, I started playing in the age group sides for Hertfordshire. I then got put forward for the South of England under 13’s side, when I was 12, which was being managed by Toby and the following year he became Middlesex’s Academy Director and invited me down. He believed it would make me a better player – I bit his hand off for the opportunity and that’s where my association with Middlesex began. I was 14 and have been there ever since.”
Finny’s development at the academy was rapid. He made his first-class debut as a 16-year-old against Cambridge University at Fenners. “That debut was special as I did it with my best mate Billy Godleman, who was also 16. It was a bit surreal to make my debut in a dressing room with Ed Smith who’d just played for England not long before, Owais Shah, Ben Scott, Ben Hutton – guys who’d played a lot of first-class and international cricket. But all of them were really encouraging and certainly helped us settle in and just be part of the team.”
And what was the step up in level like at such a young age? “I was lucky to grow up and play men’s cricket as a kid and I’d always played ahead of myself. When I look back, I didn’t really play many age group games for Middlesex and just went straight into the second team and then the first team. I was very fortunate. Initially you are a bit wide eyed but you’re having fun, so you don’t really notice, and if I’m honest it wasn’t anything different to what I had experienced before.”
Finny didn’t play consistently for the first team until he was 18, but from there he never looked back.
“In those early years I just loved being in and around the squad. In 2007, I remember Andrew Strauss played quite a bit for us that year. It was great to share a field with him and a few of the other guys who’d played international cricket. I was very lucky to have people like that around at Middlesex. And of course, it was great to have Lords as my home ground.”
I was intrigued to know what that was like as a youngster having that early opportunity to play at the home of cricket, a ground that many people would dream to play at. “I watched a lot of cricket on TV as a kid and you dream about playing there. We were lucky at Middlesex in that when I was in the academy we’d come in and bowl against the first team players before a game started, which got us used to the ground. John Emburey, who was coach at the time, would invite us up to the dressing room to get a feel of what it’s like. To experience all of that as a 15-year-old does help to settle you down so when your debut does come along everything feels a bit more normal and helps that transition from academy to first team player.”
Finny’s early performances for Middlesex saw him get selection for England at under 16 and under 19 level, including an under 19 World Cup in Malaysia. A tournament that included the likes of Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Trent Boult and Tim Southee. “There was a long list of pretty good players in that age group. We had a very good side, including the likes of Chris Woakes, James Taylor, Stuart Meaker and Richard Dawson. I think 95% of that team have gone on to play over 100 first-class matches. It was a great experience. We got knocked out in the quarterfinals to India. We probably should have done better than we did, but India were a strong side who went on to win it. But it was great fun and a good experience. I shared a room with Chris Woakes, and you made a lot of strong friendships.”
I asked Finny, in terms of preparation how much do the age group sides and the Lions prepare you for full international cricket? “If I’m honest, they do and they don’t. They do get you used to the environment and the players you might be playing with. But the pressure and intensity that comes with full international cricket is another level and you just can’t prepare for that. What it does do though is make you super competitive to be the next person to be called up for the first team, which creates healthy competition.”
It’s a fair point.
Finny’s impressive performances for Middlesex and the international age group sides, saw full international recognition come sooner than what even he probably would have imagined, when he was called up for England’s 2010 tour to Bangladesh, following an injury to Ryan Sidebottom.
“The call up came completely out of the blue. I’d had a good Lions tour to Dubai just before that squad was announced so I guess I thought there might be an outside chance if there were injuries, but I always saw myself at that moment in time a long way down the pecking order.”
A call did come through though from chairman of selectors Geoff Miller, which Finny eventually answered…
“He had to call me five or six times. I didn’t recognise the number, so I didn’t answer it! When I did eventually answer he told me that I was going to be going to Bangladesh the following day, so I had to get all my stuff together and my feelings were that I just wanted to give it a good crack while I was there and if it was meant to be it was meant to be and if it wasn’t it wasn’t.”
In what is a graveyard for fast bowlers an impressive performance in the warm-up game saw Finny picked to make his Test debut for the 1st Test in Chittagong. In a series dominated by spin, Finny bowled with pace and control and picked up four wickets in the two Tests. “Bangladesh is tough for a seam bowler. Playing out there is not easy at all. You have to have some high-quality spin bowlers to win games. Luckily in that series we had Swann who was at the top of his game and bowled like an absolute dream. That took the pressure off me as a seamer to go and blast people out. I only got four wickets in the two Tests, but I felt I bowled some half decent spells and did enough to keep my place in the team for the summer.”
Following that tour to Bangladesh as Finny says, he retained his place in the side the following summer, when against the same opposition, he took 9 wickets in the match at Lords. His second innings 5/87 put him on the famous honours board in his first Lord’s Test. “Every time you play at Lords you see the honours board in the dressing room, so to get my name on it in my first Test match at Lord’s was special. Every time I play for Middlesex now, I look up and see my name and that’s a pretty cool feeling which brings back a lot of great memories. You don’t strive for personal accolades. You’d much rather the team win. But for us to do well in that series and me to get a few wickets was good. A lot of the challenges players face in international cricket is questioning yourself whether or not you are good enough, so to get a five-wicket haul early, certainly gave me a lot of confidence to crack on.”
And crack on he did. In his first summer of international cricket, Finny took an impressive 28 wickets in 7 Tests against Bangladesh and Pakistan.
I couldn’t move on to the winter tour without asking about that moment at Lord’s when three Pakistan players were exposed for spot-fixing. “On the morning of that 5th day, it was just hard to concentrate. Thankfully the majority of the game had been completed. But it was just a surreal feeling. Without doubt the weirdest Test match I’ve been involved in and won. Usually when you win any Test match you walk off the pitch feeling exhausted and completely fulfilled and ready for a few beers to talk through what happened over the five days, but it was hard to do that after that Test match. But all that said, we shouldn’t forget how good a series win that was. Pakistan were a class cricket team, who had some quality players so to come away with a series win was satisfying.”
The win set England up for THAT tour down under. Finny took 14 wickets in the first three Tests but was then left out, somewhat surprisingly, for the final two Tests at Melbourne and Sydney. “It was frustrating to be left out but in hindsight when you look back at it and to think you played three Tests in what was one of the best series victories England have played in, in modern times, is pretty special. We had a lot of fun on that tour. I remember after the last Test in Sydney we got involved with supporters and had a few drinks. There was lot of camaraderie throughout that tour between the players and The Barmy Army and all the England supporters. At the time you probably didn’t appreciate it as much. For people like me on our first Ashes tour, we just thought you go down to Australia, win and have a good time. It’s only when we’ve been down there since and been battered a few times that you realise just how special that series was.”
And the personal highlight of the tour? “It had to be after that Sydney Test match. We all ended up in a multi-floor bar in Sydney and I remember thinking that I felt like a movie star! There were thousands of England fans celebrating. Definitely my favourite moment!”
That England side under the guidance of Andrew Strauss and Andrew Flower went on to become the number one Test side in the world, and alongside the 2005 Ashes winning team, was arguably the best side that had pulled on an England shirt for over two decades. I was keen to here from Finny, what in his opinion made it so special? “It was just so balanced. The only real interchangeable place in the side was the number 6 batting position after Paul Collingwood retired and then the fourth bowling spot which was between me, Bresnan and Tremlett. It obviously helped to have 2 or 3 of the top 10 batsmen in the world in the team, together with Anderson, Broad and Swann who were all in the top 10 bowlers, and of course the best wicket-keeper batsman in the world, in Matt Prior. That mix of talent and the way everyone came together to become a functioning team on the pitch was great. It was definitely the best cricket team that I’ve played in. We toured the world together and won a lot of Test matches and series.”
I asked Finny about his own favourite performances during that period of dominance. “In 2011, we went on a one-day tour to India. We lost quite badly, but I remember going out there and seeing that tour against a star-studded Indian side which included the likes of Kohli, Dhoni, Jadeja and Yuvraj as a real challenge and a good marker as to where my game was at. I felt I bowled really well, and quick, which was extremely satisfying. Then in 2012 in a Test match at Lords against South Africa, I took a couple of four wicket hauls. We lost that Test, but I remember thinking that was as well as I’d bowled in Test match cricket.”
This brought our conversation on to that 2012 series against South Africa and that incident at Headingley. The incident involved South African captain Graeme Smith complaining to the umpires that Finny’s dislodging of the bails in his delivery stride (when his knee would glance the stump) was off-putting. It was an incident that led to Finny having to completely remodel his action.
“On occasions in my run up, I was accidently touching the stump with my knee which was knocking off a bail. A couple of months later, the ICC ruled that moving forward that would be a no ball. In the game at Headingley, Steve Davies, who was umpiring called it a dead ball, so I had to find a solution to fix the problem. The challenge in international cricket, when you play all three formats, is you don’t have time to go away and work on your game. When you play game after game, it’s not easy to just change something in your run up. That was my natural way to bowl, and how I’d bowled my whole life. It did knock me off course and made me search for answers. I tried shortening my run up which in hindsight was a bad move and it took me a little while after that to untangle it.”
But untangle it he temporarily did and later that winter Finny enjoyed the highs and lows of a series win in India. “I was set to play a decent role in that series. Unfortunately, I only played one Test in the series because of injury. I actually got injured on the first day of the tour, so the tour was a strange one as I then went and spent time with the England Lions who were also touring out there to get some bowling under my belt and to do my rehab. I was then involved in the Test match in Calcutta where I was part of a two-man seam attack with Jimmy Anderson, and felt I bowled well. But then I did my back in, playing in that Test match and flew home with a disc problem. So, I wasn’t even there for the celebrations! But it was a great series win for England. Swanny, Monty and Jimmy bowled superbly and there was of course the emergence of Joe Root in the last Test. Again, you realise just how special that tour was, when you look at the results of subsequent tours to India. It’s hard to go there and win.”
Having mentioned bowling in a two-man seam attack in that Test match in Calcutta, I was interested to know what that is like as a seam bowler? “When you go into the game knowing there are only going to be two of you, it’s easier than if you get reduced to two seamers during a Test match. But there is pressure. You know that you have to perform, otherwise it’s all going to be on the other guy. You’re also aware that the spinners will be playing a major role and will be bowling the majority of overs, so you can get your head around the fact there is only going to be two of you. You just have to try and make something happen when it’s your turn. You’re just taking on a different role to what a seamer’s role would traditionally be in England.”
When people reflect on Finny’s England career it’s hasn’t just been memorable performances with the ball. There has also been the odd moment with the bat as well. And none more so than in New Zealand, in early 2013.
With a first innings deficit of 293, England had to bat and bat to save the game in Dunedin. Cook and Compton put on a big first wicket partnership but with the end of day 4 closing in, Finny who was given the unenviable position of nightwatchman had to make his way to the middle. 286 minutes and 203 balls later, he departed for 56 runs – his highest Test score – to a standing ovation from the England following. “I was surprised people stayed awake it was that slow and boring! It was one of those situations in a game where we had our backs against the wall. Cooky and Nick Compton had played well, and I was told to pad up and be nightwatchman. Whenever you pad up as a nightwatchman you cross your fingers and hope a batsman doesn’t get out, so you don’t have to go out there. Then they do get out and you just have to switch on and watch the ball. My innings seemed to last forever. I think Brendon McCullum had got a bit bored by the end of it. The thing that motivated me was each time I got to a break, be it at the end of the day, or lunch etc, Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson would say, if I’m still not out at the next interval they would each buy me a crate of wine. I ended up walking away with 6 crates! Even if Jimmy does still owe me his 3!”
A second Ashes series was won at home in the summer of 2013, Finny taking 14 wickets in 4 Tests, including an excellent 6/79 in the 3rd Test win at Edgbaston. But it was the return Ashes tour that winter that brought about the lowest point of Finny’s international career. A moment when one-day coach Ashley Giles, said he was “not selectable”. A somewhat harsh term. I wondered if this was going to be a difficult topic to address, but Finny answered openly and honestly about the situation, the way he tried to deal with it and the mental affect it had on him personally.
“By that tour the bad habits that I had grooved into my action such as shortening my run up had become engrained into my game. I reached a situation where I had to try and untangle everything whilst away on an Ashes tour, while always at the same time having to be prepared to play in an Ashes Test around the corner. It was very difficult to live that out in the pressurised environment that an away Ashes series brings, when really, I could have done with going away and spending time, away from the spotlight, on trying to fix the issues in my run up. Naturally a situation like that effects your mental health. You see yourself down a rabbit hole without seeing a way out and it became quite difficult. Obviously, the nature of that tour and the way the team were playing, together with the fractious way it ended didn’t help. I was eventually sent home from the one-day leg because I just found myself down, as I say, a rabbit hole which I couldn’t get out of. I knew I had to come home, to take a step back, readdress and recalibrate things before getting back involved again. It was a pretty difficult time. But you go through times like that when you’re playing sport. There are good and bad periods, and you’ve got to try and remain level.”
I think anyone who was on that tour really felt for Finny. Nobody doubted his commitment. I think everyone then and still do to this day, just felt empathy. Because here was a likeable guy who loved playing for his country, who had to completely re-model his action; an action he’d had since first playing cricket, and it just wasn’t happening for him, no matter how hard he tried.
But when he did get that recall, in the summer of 2015, for the 3rd Ashes Test at Edgbaston everyone was so pleased when he bounced back with 8 wickets, including a match winning 6/79, as England won by 8 wickets to go 2-1 up in the series. Everyone felt he’d cracked it. “Even through the low times, I still believed I was capable of helping England win games of cricket. A lot of the work that I did through that period after I returned from Australia was with the motivation of getting another opportunity with England. I just wanted to get that opportunity and do myself justice. The 2015 Ashes series was probably the highlight of my England career. The way that we won it after being 1-1 after two Test matches, with the momentum seemingly with Australia, and to take those wickets and halt their momentum was probably my favourite moment in an England shirt.”
It was an outstanding performance.
Six wickets in the opening Test win of that winter’s series in South Africa, had many of us believe the old Finny was well and truly back. He became a guaranteed pick in the side. He was fast, hostile and importantly, was picking up wickets, only for him this time to be hit by injury. “It was extremely frustrating. This had been the period when I felt most settled in a Test side. I felt like I had carved out a role for myself again similar to what I had done in 2011-2013. And then I got a side strain and had to come home early again. It was hugely frustrating because you feel you’re just getting the wind in your sails. You’re a regular back in the team, then injury. That injury really affected me and was a tough hard one to come back from, after all that hard work to get back in.”
But comeback he did and Finny played in seven further Tests in 2016 against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But that Test in Bangladesh was to be his last (at the moment at least) in an England Test shirt.
Finny did make it on to the Ashes tour down under in 2017, following the withdrawal of Ben Stokes, but the injury curse struck again, but this time a serious one – an injury which took two years to properly recover from. “That was the worst injury I have ever had. I was batting in the nets when I just bent down to pick up a ball to throw back to the bowler, when I collapsed in a heap on the floor. Immediately, I knew something was wrong, I literally couldn’t straighten my leg or put any weight on it. I went and had some cortisone injections to try and help it out, but they didn’t help. I was walking around on crutches and then the scan results revealed I’d dislodged some cartilage in my knee, and that cartilage had been floating around and had got stuck between the joints. It was pretty painful and then to top it off I found out I had a benign tumour in there as well which they wanted to get out in case anything serious developed down the line. So, I was hit with a double whammy. I came home, had an operation and then had to go through all of the rehab. It took me two years to properly recover from that knee surgery. So, it was a pretty significant moment in my international career because I’ve not been involved since.”
I asked Finny, where he now sees himself in terms of international cricket, after all, he’s only 31 years of age. “People have obviously gone past me in bowling terms. What will be, will be. Of course, I miss playing for England and I’m very proud of what I did playing for England. But I’m still very motivated to play for Middlesex and to help support and develop the good young cricketers we have there.”
Middlesex have been in a period of transition in recent years and this year Finny had a taste of captaincy, as he led Middlesex’s T20 side in The Blast. “We made a vowel to not have overseas players this year and to give the youngsters a chance and expose them to first team cricket. The way the lads played this summer will stand us in good stead in the future. We shouldn’t be relying on overseas cricketers for success. You have to have a solid foundation. With my captaincy this year, I was trying to let the guys go out there and express themselves. We’re very fortunate at Middlesex to have some very good young players coming through. So, to see them come out and do very good things in a Middlesex shirt was really pleasing. We were in positions to win 8 out of the 10 games we played. They were all that close. So, the fact we competed with some very inexperienced players in T20 cricket is something I think we can all be very proud of.”
Off the field, Finny has been dipping his toes into the world of commentary, with good success. His performances with the mic for TMS last winter in New Zealand were insightful and commentary is something he is keen to do more of in the future. “I was lucky enough to go down to New Zealand last winter for the T20 and Test series with TMS. It was certainly a different kind of touring. When you’re playing, you’re always focusing on performance and preparing yourself to perform, so to go down there and commentate gave me a completely different perspective. I loved it. New Zealand is one of my favourite countries anyway, but I found it relaxing, refreshing and good fun. Hopefully in the future I get asked back to do it again.”
Although Finny’s playing career is far from over, I did want to close by asking him which player was the player he’d played with and which batsman was the toughest he’d had to bowl to?
“Played with, it has to be Jimmy Anderson. He’s a freak with what he does. Something else. I’ve always been incredibly jealous of the way he is always in control of what he’s doing and where he wants the ball to go. I’ve always been more of a tearaway kind of bowler, whereas he has this unbelievable control. It’s no surprise to me see what he’s gone on to achieve. In terms of batting, I’ve always found Shane Watson incredibly hard to bowl to. The way that he bats against my style of bowling and his ability to pick up length really quickly is unreal. If its full he hits it back past you, if it’s a bit short he hits you through mid-wicket and if it’s a bit wide, he cuts it. Whenever I have bowled to him in Tests, T20s or ODIs it has been a battle.”
Will Finny play for England again? Who knows. But as a Middlesex member I know that England’s loss is very much our gain.
But at the time of writing this the figures speak for themselves. 125 Test wickets at an impressive strike rate of 51.2, over 100 ODI wickets and across first class, List A and T20s, that wicket total is just shy of 900. It’s impressive stuff.
Finny, thank you. And who knows an outstanding summer next year, and let’s not rule out a 4th Ashes tour, just yet….