Steven Finn sits on a roller during a nets session before the South Africa series
© Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'I wasn't willing to be honest about my mental state and that cost me'

From the high of a debut Ashes win to being deemed "not selectable", through multiple injuries and comebacks, Steven Finn has lived many lifetimes in cricket

Interview by Alan Gardner  |  

Ten years ago this week England were preparing to go into the second Ashes Test at Adelaide Oval. They would go on to win the series 3-1, a memorable and rare success in Australia, and one of the early career high points for Steven Finn. Still the youngest Englishman to take 50 Test wickets, Finn has represented his country more than 120 times but also battled a number of setbacks - from issues with his run-up to a knee problem suffered on England's last Ashes tour that required two rounds of surgery. He talked to us about memories of 2010-11, the "Finn's law" no-ball change, rebuilding his technique, and the difficulties of bowling fast.

You made your Test debut in 2010, and less than 12 months later you were celebrating an Ashes win in Australia. What is it like to reflect on that achievement now?
It certainly doesn't feel like ten years ago. It makes me feel a bit old, especially when I'm playing for Middlesex with guys who are 18-19 years old, and they'd have been eight when we won that Ashes. It's a bit frightening when you sit around and chat to them about it.

I was fortunate that I went down there with almost a blank sheet of paper, thinking "This is great, I've never been to Australia before". I wasn't tarnished by experience. So my memories of it are all really, really positive. Guys that we played with were outlining how hard it was to tour down there, but once we got there and got on top of Australia, and the media and public turned on them, it was actually a great place to tour. The couple of times I've been down there since, it's not quite been the same, when we've been on the receiving end of the public and press backlash. It's the sort of thing I probably didn't appreciate how special it was at the time, while I was in the middle of it. It's only with hindsight you realise what a massive achievement that was.

You played in the first three Tests, picking up a six-for in Brisbane and 14 wickets overall - are there any particularly fond moments that stand out in memory?
There's a couple of wickets I was pretty pleased with. I nicked off Shane Watson in the Adelaide Test. It was late in the day, he'd got fifty and was looking good - that was a pretty big wicket for me. And then the [Mike] Hussey wicket on the last morning at Adelaide, before the rain came. He was their last recognised batsman, and I managed to get him out pulling, caught at mid-on, and we went on to win. So those little memories are the ones that you remember.

"I never felt like I was holding myself back and trying to bowl line and length, but on the flip side, I never felt like I was trying take a wicket every ball. I was trying to find the balance, but there are very few bowlers that have found it"

But one of the things I recall really vividly and fondly was our entwinement with the Barmy Army and the English supporters out there. The way we celebrated after Test matches - we'd go and meet up with them and have beers - and it was that camaraderie and sense of togetherness, in subsequent tours when you're not on top, that you realise is so hard to cultivate. The one thing I really remember is how much we wanted to embrace it and have fun, and that definitely shone through in the cricket we played.

You mention the contrasting experience of later tours. Is there a sense that success almost came too easily at the start, which then meant adjustment was required when you hit harder times?
The first time, in 2010-11, I couldn't believe I was in that team, to be honest. Because you're sat around the dressing room, and there's just greats of English cricket - people I've watched on TV for the last five years - there with you, and all of a sudden I was shoved into the middle of that and made it into the first team for those first three games. It was a surreal, bizarre feeling. This series, which is the biggest thing you can be involved in winning as an England cricketer, aside from the World Cup, to be shoved in as a youngster was something I didn't quite appreciate at the time, as much as I do now. I was so wet behind the ears, so wide-eyed to everything, you then realise on subsequent tours what the guys were talking about, about how oppressive Australia can be if you're not playing well.

When you were dropped for the fourth Test, you were actually the leading wicket-taker on either side. Were you just pleased to have played a part in the series or was there disappointment at being left out?
You don't have hard feelings because you realise that you're going to need more than 11 people to win a Test series. It's very rare that you play the same team all the way through a five-Test series. But I was disappointed and upset, cried when told - it was the first time that I'd been properly left out of a cricket team, really ever.

You feel like you've let people down, you feel you've let yourself down to not get picked. I didn't bowl great in the Perth Test. I was probably a bit tired, a bit loose and wild, getting carried away trying to bowl quick and banging it in. Then, all of a sudden, you've gone at four an over for a Test match and you've lost your place. I saw it as a job unfinished at the time. Whereas now, when you look back, I played three Test matches in one of the best series that an England team's been involved in in the last 25 years. You change your perspective as you go on, but at the time I was really upset and disappointed.

"The Ashes, which is the biggest thing you can be involved in winning as an England cricketer - to be shoved in as a youngster was something I didn't quite appreciate as much as I do now" © Getty Images

Was the decision fully explained to you?
Yeah. There was absolute merit, and it proved in that Test [at the MCG] - we bowled them out for 90-odd on the first day. As I've found since, sometimes you don't fit into a team and that's sport, that's the way it works. But at the time, you really want the team to do well but you're also disappointed that you're not out there sharing those experiences - because the three games that I did play, when we were having good times on the pitch, you remember how amazing that feels.

The following summer you became the youngest England player to 50 Test wickets, eclipsing Ian Botham's record. Was that something you were aware of at the time?
You are aware. Again, you don't play cricket to beat records, but when you do have something like that, it's nice, it's rewarding. I only played that one Test match that summer, against Sri Lanka, and then got left out of the India series - and I was still trying to adjust my game to be a bit more economical rather than being an absolute tearaway. That would hopefully have set me up for a long international career, marrying the two together, the wicket-taking ability and the low economy rate. You're thinking, "I could actually be a decent bowler here." But it doesn't always work out like that. Still, today I've got that record, so you're proud of it, but it's not something you get out there and play for.

On the question of bowling pace versus line and length, do you ever look back now and think, "I should have gone one way or the other"?
No, because you're always looking to get better. At no stage did I ever feel like I was holding myself back and trying to bowl line and length, but on the flip side, I never felt like I was running up to take a wicket every ball. I was trying to find the balance, but there are very few bowlers in the history of the game that have found it. It leaves you striving for perfection, which I think can be dangerous, because you're not accepting that you're not perfect.

Sometimes, if I was to go back to those couple of years in that cycle of my career, I'd probably look in the mirror and say, "Just be yourself, try and be true to the style of bowler that you are." Which sometimes I got away from. But you live and you learn; it's professional sport, and almost every sportsman goes through that and comes out the other side as a better player.

"You're in your hotel room in tears, or if someone asks you about your bowling you get really emotional, because you're in this rabbit hole where you don't see a way out"

Did it make it harder that for pretty much all of your England career you were the third seamer behind a pair of modern greats, James Anderson and Stuart Broad?
I don't think so. They're incredible bowlers; you understand you're going to be second fiddle to them, so you try to create a niche around that. In that period it was as a wicket-taking impact bowler, and especially in those first few years of my career, I most definitely did that. I'd be thrown the ball to try to get wickets.

I probably lost my way a little bit but then - and this is a long way down the road - when Trevor Bayliss became coach, he was more of the mindset, "Mate, you just bowl how you bowl, go out and take wickets", and I really enjoyed the freedom he gave me.

The issue you experienced with hitting the stumps at the non-striker's end led to a change in the laws and a lot of tinkering with your run-up. Do you ever wish you hadn't been forced to make those changes?
I was backed into a corner by the ICC and the people who make the rules. People have tipped the stump at the non-striker's end since the start of cricket, and it has not been called a dead ball or a no-ball. The precedent was set in the Headingley Test in 2012, by Steve Davies, the umpire, to call that a dead ball. With the volume of cricket I was playing at the time - I was in every team - there was no break in the schedule to be able to go and have a month of working on straightening my run-up. I'm 6ft 8in, and things do leave the width of your body sometimes. I wasn't intending to get that close to the stumps, but when you're in this constant cycle of playing, you get into bad habits.

I was forced into a corner and those [new] rules meant that I couldn't bowl how I was bowling, because I was going to give away no-balls and free hits. I relied on a big, long run-up, momentum through the crease, where I used my levers, used my height, got my arms nice and high. The fix was the shorter run-up, sprint towards the middle of the crease, you don't go near the stumps, but because everything's rushed, you rush through your action, your levers are shorter and you're forcing the ball down.

Finn says he was

Finn says he was "backed into a corner" over his inadvertently hitting the stumps in his action © Getty Images

In hindsight it's the thing that stuffed me up for a couple of years. I found it difficult to untangle those bad habits without having a break, which I just didn't have over the course of the next two years, to the point it got to in Australia, where I got sent home from [the 2013-14] tour because I found myself down a rabbit hole that was so hard to get out of. It's frustrating that it happened - a knee-jerk reaction from the ICC to change the rules of the game that had a knock-on effect on me. But it is what it is, you try and deal with it. Luckily I came back from it and did well for another year and a half, two years in international cricket

Had you grown up occasionally clipping the stumps in your delivery stride, or did it creep into your game?
I loved Glenn McGrath when I was a kid. He was my favourite bowler ever - I'm ashamed to say it but for the '99 World Cup I had an Australia shirt. I loved how him and Shaun Pollock and those guys got real tight to the stumps. When I was young, I loved getting close to the stumps to be able to bowl a line down to the other set - it probably made it a bit easier for me. It's something that's always been there. As long as your momentum doesn't change significantly, you can maintain it through the crease. From watching McGrath get so close to the stumps and have that little dart in, it naturally came into my game as a result of trying to copy him.

How did you manage to fix the issue?
I came home from that Australia tour in 2013-14, and because there was no cricket until April, I had months and months to be able to work on it and nail in that good habit, to then be able not to think about it while I was competing, so you can just get in a battle with the person at the other end, as opposed to worrying about where I was landing on the crease. I put the habit right and I've not kneed the stumps since. It shows with a little bit of time and removing yourself from a situation, you can iron those things out, but when you're playing all formats for England, you don't have that opportunity.

Ashley Giles described you as "not selectable" on that 2013-14 Ashes tour. Did you think that was a fair comment?
Yeah, I probably wasn't in the right mental state to go out and compete. You're in your hotel room in tears, or if someone asks you about your bowling, you get really emotional, because you're in this rabbit hole where you don't see a way out. Every day you're practising and there's people lining up behind the nets to watch you suffer through the process.

"Sportsmen deal with performance anxiety every time they walk out onto the pitch, but it's when it's leaking into the rest of your life and not just cricket, that's when you sit up and take notice"

That's the harsh side of pro sport. You live the highs in the limelight, which is amazing because that's what makes people's reputation and names, but unfortunately you also live the lows through it as well, and that's definitely what happened on that tour. You're not selectable because your mental frame of mind is affecting how you're performing, and if you were to go out onto a pitch, you'd be more fragile than you would usually be.

So yeah, it was probably the right decision to send me home in that instance. If anything, if I'd been more brave and spoken up more about how I was feeling, and how my frame of mind was, I could have probably gone home after about a month of the tour. Because you're nowhere. You know you're struggling and you're up against it, but you want to be out there and competing. We're so privileged to play cricket for our country, and having the good memories of what you've done before makes you want to stay out there and fight through it.

And this happened in the era when people weren't as aware of the mental fragility that comes with professional sport and modern life - now people would be more attuned to how you are feeling in that situation. It took Jonathan Trott's thing to be played out in the public eye for people to actually sit up and say, "Okay, this is quite a serious thing that these young guys have to go through." If I was braver and more confident in knowing what was going on, I'd have probably sent myself home a long time before I did get sent home.

That England team had been to No. 1 in the Test rankings and enjoyed a lot of success under Andy Flower before falling apart quite suddenly, as documented in the film The Edge. How mentally demanding was that set-up for the players involved?
I don't think it was that particular environment; cricket and sport in general is a demanding environment for people to live their lives in the spotlight. I wouldn't necessarily say it was the regime. It's something that now - and it's an amazing thing - people are aware and willing to talk and be vulnerable [about]. I wasn't willing to be vulnerable and honest about my mental state and that cost me.

Looking back now, would you describe what you were experiencing as some form of performance anxiety?
Sometimes it runs deeper. It's not just a performance thing. I've been speaking to a psychologist regularly over the last four years or so and you try to unravel the things that you've been through: the experiences you've had and how they affect your way of thinking and your mood, and the knock-on effects on your normal life. I think it's underestimated how linked that all is. It's not just performance anxiety - sportsmen deal with performance anxiety every time they walk out onto the pitch, and you accept that because that's your job. But it's when it's [leaking] into the rest of your life and not just cricket, that's when you sit up and take notice.

With Trevor Bayliss (far right):

With Trevor Bayliss (far right): "He was more [about] 'Mate, you just bowl how you bowl, go out and take wickets', and I really enjoyed the freedom he gave me © Getty Images

You've said previously that the media training a lot of players go through discourages them from talking openly about things. Was that something you fell into?
I think we all did. We had a wall up around ourselves at that time, and this was part of the regime: you don't say anything to the press that isn't acceptable. It meant the media didn't get a true depiction of what we were like as people. Now I think you do interviews with players and they seem more like humans - you know more about where they're at. But at that time we just wanted to remain true to the people within the four walls of the dressing room, without really letting anyone in. Then, when you hit hard times, the press don't understand the people within the dressing room, so the relationship with the team is a lot different to what it is now.

One of the other debates throughout your career - one we saw focused around Jofra Archer during the summer - was about pace, and how hard it is to bowl fast all the time. Does it frustrate you that that conversation is still happening?
I think the last year or so has proved that people really have a distinct lack of understanding about fast bowling, people who expect Jofra to turn up and bowl over 90mph every single day. Physically the guy's a machine, an athlete, but even [for] the best athletes, it's not possible to perform at that level, or that pace, every single day. I think he's even alluded to it, that he sees himself as a more complete bowler than just being able to hurl the ball down there at 90mph, which I completely agree with. I think pigeonholing him is doing him a disservice, so it frustrates me when I listen to and read people talking about it who don't really understand the intricacies of fast bowling.

There are so many variables that come with fast bowling and I definitely fell foul of it during my career. You had a day when you didn't get anywhere near 90mph, even though you're trying, and someone's in the press box writing about you saying, "He's not trying today, he didn't bowl 90, write him off, no good." That's really frustrating. I feel for Jofra a lot, because he's done so many amazing things in an England shirt. That spell at Steve Smith where he got up to 96-97mph - unfortunately people expect that of him the whole time.

Did you always know when - or why - you were bowling quickly?
No. You don't know. Maybe other bowlers are different, but my experiences were that sometimes you'd bowl your first ball, look up at the clock and it's 91mph and you think "Bloody hell, that's all right." You don't feel it. Fast bowling is such a rhythmical process, sometimes you just rock up and you bowl quick. Or sometimes you operate at 86mph but be very effective. There are so many different little things that go into what makes a fast-bowling action, or what happens, or how the ball reacts on a certain wicket. It's very rare that you wake up in the morning and go, "I'm going to bowl quick today." It certainly didn't happen like that for me.

"You know you're struggling, but you want to be out there. We're so privileged to play cricket for our country, and having the good memories of what you've done before makes you want to stay out there and fight through it"

We've talked about some of the tough times you went through, but you came back strongly during the 2015 Ashes. What was it that you liked about playing under Bayliss?
That was probably the most content and settled I felt in the side, outside of the first 11 games I played in 2010. That period, from the 2015 Ashes through to the following summer, was some of my best performances in an England shirt - both one-day and Test match cricket. Again, injuries cost me - I got a stress fracture in the ball of my foot in Dubai, which then meant that I wasn't there for the series against Pakistan. Trevor told me just as I was about to get on the plane, "You were going to play in the first Test." I then came home from the South Africa tour - I bowled well for three Tests then missed the fourth with a side strain, missed the T20 World Cup with a calf strain after being in the squad. But when I did play, it was probably the most settled and the best I've felt in my career. I think his [Bayliss'] ability to give people the freedom to go and express themselves, as we saw with Ben Stokes, who has been vocal about how good Trevor Bayliss was for his career - I think a lot of people had a similar experience.

You look for people that you resonate with and who you enjoy playing cricket with. Andy Flower, in that period at the beginning, brought a discipline to my game that set me up to be a half-decent international cricketer over the next number of years, and you need that discipline. But you look at the way Trevor encouraged the team to go out there and push the boundaries, that's something that I really liked the concept of.

The summer after your comeback you played six Tests out of seven. But your last Test was in Bangladesh in 2016, and you have not played for England at all since 2017. Have there been any discussions about where you currently stand?
No. Since I got injured in the 17-18 Ashes and came home and had knee surgery, that set me back a fair way. I've had two knee surgeries - I had a big chunk of bone cut out of the inside of my knee, which has caused problems. But in 2017 I wasn't bowling well enough. I was chasing my tail a bit, trying to find form, trying to find rhythm. It wasn't injuries, it was just a lack of form in that summer, which then meant people overtake you and you're way down the pecking order. Which, again, is just the natural cycle of sport, unless you're an absolute legend like Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad.

"I've seen some friends in that situation, where one minute you're a cricketer and then all of a sudden you're trying to find what you're doing next, so you're always making contingency plans" © Chance to Shine

Do you still have ambitions to get selected again?
I don't know. It couldn't be further on my radar at the moment. I've got one year left on my contract at Middlesex, I want to try and help them get back to being a force. If I'm bowling well, that can help that cause. I've still got a lot to give to cricket - even though I've been around a long time, I'm still only 31. I feel like I'm through the worst of my knee injuries and can really put together some big seasons and help Middlesex win things. That's my sole priority at the moment. I can't even kid myself and think about playing for England again, because it would take a lot of things to happen for me to be able to do that. My target is to have a good summer with Middlesex - it's been great to see that we've got young players coming through, so it's my job, with the experiences I've had, to try and help them get better. That's what gives me satisfaction at the moment and where my head's at.

You also took on the Middlesex captaincy in T20. What was that experience like?
I enjoyed it very much. We made a vow at Middlesex this summer to not have overseas players come over; we wanted to give younger players an opportunity to get some first-team experience, and we saw some guys come through with some really good performances who are only in their teens or just out of their teens. So to be able to captain them, and give them the opportunity to just go out and, like Bayliss and the good captains and coaches I've played under did, just let loose and go out there and enjoy themselves, and we'll make sure everything is going right around you.

What about the tactical side? People often say that bowlers…
…we're all stupid?

Well, that's the harsh way of putting it. But is this a chance to prove them wrong?
Not necessarily, but I think the tactical side of it is something that's interesting. As a bowler, you're always attuned to the intricacies of the game, the ebbs and flows. Especially T20, you're there feeling it the whole time as a bowler, feeling what's happening on the wicket, you're close to the action. So yeah, I enjoyed the captaincy, but for the future we've got Eoin Morgan, who's the England captain and World Cup-winning captain, to come back when he's not in a biosecure bubble. I was happy to step in and do my best, but also happy to stand aside and let him do it next year.

You weren't involved in the Bob Willis Trophy this year. Was that a deliberate plan for Middlesex to give youngsters more of a chance?
No, not necessarily. With my knee problems, coming in off a long layoff… I still want to play four-day cricket; it's something that I'm passionate about doing. I've played a lot over the course of my career and I don't want that to be it. I was just not picked in the teams, and it was great that it did give an opportunity for someone like Blake Cullen, who I think is going to be a really special bowler. But when things do get back to normal I'm keen to play four-day cricket.

"I can't even kid myself and think about playing for England again, because it would take a lot of things to happen for me to be able to do that"

And imparting wisdom to someone like Blake behind the scenes is part of your role now, too?
Yeah, always. As you get older you become less selfish, you start to look at how you can help people, especially in my position, where I feel I have experienced a fair amount in my career, good and bad, to be able to help people through situations. Your role as a senior player, when you've been there a long time and when you love the club like I do, it changes, definitely. So now I'm in that phase, even though again people sometimes presume I'm 39, when I'm 31. But it's important that you do give back.

What about your post-playing career? Have you begun to think about that transition?
You do think about it, and we're actively encouraged to think about it, because an injury can mean you're out of the game pretty quickly. I've seen some friends in that situation, where one minute you're a cricketer and then all of a sudden you're trying to find what you're doing next. So you're always making contingency plans.

I've enjoyed doing media work; that's something I'd like to do more as it fits in around my playing career. And there's a couple of other bits and bobs. I'm working on a presentation that charts the ups and downs of my career, the challenges that you face as a sportsman, the methods you use to come through that and out the other side a better person, and get better at your job - that's something that I'm working on at the moment to maybe take to either sports teams or into a corporate environment. But I'm also focused on playing cricket and trying to be good at cricket still.

This project sounds like it could be your first TED Talk. Was the aim to do something motivational?
A lot of the stuff that we've talked about is what the presentation covers - the good times and the bad times and how you try and remain consistent through that. I don't know what category it would fit into, it's sort of motivational/educational/hopefully interesting. If it's not, it will probably get done once and burned. But it's something I've worked on for a couple of years now and I just need to get out there and do it. I've done it to an empty audience, but I've not done it to people yet, so that first time's going to be pretty scary.

Being around the England team you get wheeled out sometimes to speak on stages - but it's a different challenge when you're there saying stuff that you believe in and there's people in the audience trying to work out if you're talking sense or you're talking garbage. That's a bit more daunting.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick