By SB Tang
In a classic scene from The Simpsons, Milhouse Van Houten, Bart Simpson’s perennially tread upon doormat of a best friend cries, after one patronising comment too many from Bart: “I demand respect!”
Tim Bresnan is an accomplished professional cricketer, but he could be forgiven for sharing that sentiment when comparisons are continually made with the bowler whose Test XI spot Bresnan claimed for the 2010–11 Ashes Boxing Day Test and has yet to relinquish — Steven Finn.
In the lead-up to the recently completed Test series against the West Indies, everyone it seemed, from the most casual observer to Michael Holding in the Sky commentary box, was declaring themselves to be a big fan of Steven Finn. For good reason too. Finn is a strike bowler, a genuine out-and-out wicket-taker and, no matter how much Test cricket has evolved over the years, the requirement for victory remains the same — a side must take 20 wickets to win a Test match.
Strike bowlers, unlike stodgy opening batsmen or keepers who can’t bat, never go out of fashion, their popularity as enduring as that of Queen Elizabeth II.
Finn’s bowling marries McGrath’s height and natural steepling bounce to Flintoff’s venomous pace. He already has 56 Test wickets at an average of 27.42 and is still just 23 years of age. His potential is limitless. Perhaps most encouragingly of all, in his short international career to date, he has already shown a capacity for rapid improvement.
Finn’s wicket-taking ability has never been in doubt. His economy rate — so crucial to the Strauss-Flower administration’s highly successful risk-averse strategies in the field — has. When Finn was dropped for the 2010 Boxing Day Test, he was England’s leading wicket-taker for the series, but he had the worst series economy rate of any English bowler, including Collingwood and Pietersen. He was then left out of England’s 2011 World Cup squad.
Since that omission, Finn has shrunk his one-day international economy rate from 5.63 to 4.65. This remarkable improvement has not come at the expense of his wicket-taking potency — both his strike rate and his bowling average have improved too, falling from 60 to 30.5 and from 56.33 to 23.73 respectively. There has been no trade-off between economy and wicket-taking potency.
Although Finn’s control of line and length is still nowhere near that of a McGrath, Pollock or Walsh, what this improvement reveals is that, in addition to his considerable natural athletic gifts, Finn possesses another virtue necessary to excel as a Test cricketer — the willingness to work to eliminate his weaknesses.
But, Finn must wait his turn to get back in the England XI. Bresnan is currently ahead of him in the lengthy (and lengthening) queue and deservedly so.
At first glance, the contrast between Finn and Bresnan could not be greater.
Finn looks like a natural born fast bowler. Tall, upright and muscularly lean without ever being thin, his physical appearance alone calls to mind a holy trinity of modern-day fast bowling greats — McGrath, Pollock and Ambrose.
Bresnan, as Tanya Aldred fondly observed in a profile in Wisden 2012 commemorating his selection as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, “still has the air of a man with an emergency cheese sandwich in his back pocket.” I would describe his build as solid; Eric Cartman’s mother would describe it as “big-boned”. He is a refreshing throwback to the days when beep tests and skin folds were about as familiar to professional cricketers as sushi lunches and scantily-clad cheerleaders. All that mattered was that a professional cricketer was cricket fit and Bresnan certainly satisfies that criterion by regularly bowling in excess of 20 overs a day for county and country.
Bresnan, like Trueman, Statham and Flintoff before him, is a fast bowler from the north who turned professional at a young age. Finn is from the south and attended a school in Hertfordshire with a 331 year history and a latin motto inscribed beneath its coat of arms — “nemo sibi nascitur”, which Google Translate informs me means “one of them is born”.
After Bresnan finished the First Test against the West Indies at Lord’s with match figures of 1/144, the pro-Finn cacophony only grew louder. However, if one could raise prick one’s ears above the ever-increasing din, it was possible to hear a slightly more nuanced tale of Bresnan’s performance in that Test. It is a tale of how, even when he is not adding to his own statistical wickets column, Bresnan contributes to his team’s success.
So often, the first day of a touring team’s opening Test in foreign climes sets the tone for the entire series and even prefigures its outcome — who can forget Nasser Hussain’s infamous decision to bat first underneath an azure Queensland sky in the opening Test of the 2002–03 Ashes series and the merciless 272 run second wicket stand between Hayden and Ponting which ensued?
Under one of those leaden, gun metal grey skies England loves to serve up in May, Strauss won the toss and sent the West Indies into bat in the First Test at Lord’s. The West Indies reached 4/181 just after tea on the opening day, scoring at 2.7 runs an over, with Chanderpaul and Samuels at the crease and well-set with a partnership of 81 — a respectable start for a team shorn of some of its best players by the IPL.
It was Stuart Broad who made the crucial breakthrough with a wide, fullish ball begging to be driven through the off-side. Samuels duly obliged by slapping it straight to Bairstow at point. Samuels’ dismissal for 31 exposed the West Indies’ long and brittle tail and the West Indies lost their last five wickets for just 62 runs to be bowled out for 243 in their first innings. Despite another gutsy middle-order fightback from Samuels and Chanderpaul in the West Indies’ second innings, the West Indies never recovered from their inadequate first innings total and England went on to comfortably win the First Test by five wickets.
Bresnan did not take a single wicket in the West Indies’ first innings and only took one wicket in the West Indies’ second innings.
That sounds bad.
However, ask yourself this: why did Samuels smack that juicy delivery from Broad straight to Bairstow at point?
Perhaps Samuels, a natural strokemaker, felt under pressure to score because he had, just two overs before his dismissal, been forced to play out a maiden. The bowler of that maiden: Tim Bresnan, who finished the West Indies’ first innings with the best economy rate of the English bowlers and seven maidens from his 20 overs. His accurate, disciplined bowling planted the seeds of discomfort in the minds of the West Indian batsmen which his colleagues reaped in the form of wickets.
Fortunately for England, England’s selectors ignored the pro-Finn chorus and retained Bresnan for the Second Test at Trent Bridge. The sun made its first, and thus far, only sustained appearance of the English summer and Trent Bridge lived up to Neville Cardus’s famous description of it as a “lotus land” for batsmen. It was in these conditions, by far the most batsman-friendly yet seen this summer, that Bresnan received the statistical credit his performance richly merited with match figures of 8/141.
One passage of play during the West Indies’ second innings neatly illustrates Bresnan’s approach to bowling. It is after tea on the third day. England’s first innings lead is 58 — hardly match-winning given the postcard-perfect conditions. The West Indies have managed to cut that deficit to 14, but for the loss of three wickets. Darren Bravo, the Brian Lara look alike, has scored 22 fluent runs off 42 deliveries. Like his hero, the left-handed Bravo wields the bat with an exuberant flourish, his back-lift high and possibly even angular. He bats with a smile on his face and joy in his heart and, today, on a docile pitch with still more than two days left to play, it looks like he might get that big score he’s been threatening to get all tour.
Bresnan is brought into the attack. Bravo lasts all of one ball against him. Bresnan’s solution to the problem of Bravo is straight out of the Brian Statham “if you miss, I hit” school of bowling philosophy — a full, straight ball delivered from around the wicket which pitches in line and raps Bravo half-way up his front pad. Bravo reviews, more in hope than expectation, and Hawk-Eye tells us what we already know: the ball would have cannoned into his middle stump.
Bresnan backed up his 8 wickets for the match, a timely reminder of his invaluable ability — which I had the misfortune of witnessing in person at the 2010 Boxing Day Test — to extract wickets in batsman-friendly conditions, with a typically unfussy 39 not out with the bat in England’s first innings after coming in when his side was 6/336 and still 34 runs in the arrears.
Since the Second Test at Trent Bridge and Finn’s slightly off-key display in the Third Test at Edgbaston, the pro-Finn chorus has died down. But, one can rest assured that it will return with equal force whenever Bresnan’s statistical results dip, as they inevitably will.
Perhaps, we now live in an age when big-boned cricketers — like four-eyed, red-shorted, pre-pubescent geeks in small towns in the American heartland — will never quite get the respect that they deserve from some quarters. If so, that is a pity.
Fortunately for the England team and their fans, the England selectors harbour no such illusions and recognise Bresnan for what he is — the Yorkstone foundation upon which the glamorous, world-beating English bowling attack is built.