Alastair Cook spent most of the time in the second Ashes watching Michael Clarke’s never ending orgasm of delight. And at the end, as you might do in a rom-com set in Katz’s Deli, he asked for what Clarke was having. He wanted a Mitchell Johnson.
Sport teams have quite a clear history in being beaten by a style or tactic, and then trying to replicate it themselves. It is how sport works. It is how music works. It is how movies works. It is how life works. This idea works. Let’s do this idea.
So there was no real surprise that England would pick the closest thing to Mitchell Johnson they could find. Liam Plunkett. That is what we were told before Lord’s. He was fast, he had been trained in the secret ways of Australian fast bowlers by Jason Gillespie. Andrew Gale had even used him like Johnson. And when he hit the pitch it was usually very short, with a field set for carnage.
But it did not really work. The pitch did not suit it. And Liam Plunkett also did not suit it.
His two wickets were when he bowled full. When he just continued punching the middle of the pitch he just bloodied his knuckles for no good reason. His pitch maps looked like he was trying to paint a stripe across the middle of the wicket. It was fast and accurate, but it was largely fruitless. They had picked a fast bowler, but by insisting he bowled huge long spells of short bowling they had turned him into a confused shire horse.
Three overs from the end of the Lord’s Test, with Sri Lanka eight down, Plunkett was bowled ahead of Stuart Broad. When the ball was given back to Broad for the last over, it was because Plunkett had not looked like taking a wicket, and could not be trusted by Cook to deliver.
Today he could not stop delivering. His full swinging ball to Dimuth Karunaratne would have made the England coaching staff fill notebooks with joy. He was fast and full again to Mahela Jayawardene. Then followed it up with the short ball that Lahiru Thirimanne seemed shocked to see. And then followed it up with some good old fashioned bombing of the tail.
But there was also a full ball to Kumar Sangakkara that was probably caught behind, and no one appealed, reviewed or even really seemed to notice from England. A short-of-a-length ball that took off from the pitch, took the edge and then wedged itself into Prior’s ribcage. And the short ball that Jayawardene hooked to a shocked leg slip.
By bowling his short ball less, Plunkett got more out of it. This pitch is not the WACA, or even Old Trafford, but Plunkett looked far quicker and scarier than the others, no matter his length. In using the short ball as an exclamation mark, instead of a comma, he made more of an impact. Plunkett outbowled them.
Plunkett has spent this time in the wilderness well. He has used it to become a beast of a man; he looks more light heavyweight than fast bowler. If the team bus ever breaks down, they would be fine getting Plunkett to drag it around town. This is essentially the same action he had when he was a whispy kid with a Test bowling average of 40 and hope in his heart. He has made it higher and stronger. On his own. Away from David Saker and the England machine.
Other than Plunkett’s determination and hard work, it is the county system that England has often ignored of recent times that virtually put Plunkett back together again. Yorkshire, Gale and Gillespie found a fast bowler in 2012 that was not being used by his county and within a few months at their club they had him playing England Lions, and by the first Test of the following summer he was in the team.
Yorkshire might just have given England an old player their new era needs.