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Cricket news - The three stages of Liam Plunkett
At the end of the 2012 summer, Jack Brooks signed for Yorkshire from Northamptonshire. Being something of an eager beaver, he had sorted out a flat which had a spare room for a fellow new signing, Liam Plunkett.
The two had not met before beyond the odd encounter in county cricket. For Brooks, this was the big move he had craved: the chance to challenge himself, move up a level and, perhaps, push for international honours.
By contrast, Plunkett was already an England cricketer in all three formats. A lapsed one at this juncture, but an international cricketer nonetheless. But whatever inferiority complex Brooks may have had towards his decorated soon-to-be housemate dissipated at the first interaction on a Sunday afternoon that winter.
"I turned up at our flat to greet Liam... and he was literally dropped off by his mum," recalls Brooks. "It was like when you're being dropped off at school for the first time? Sheepish when you get out of the car, a bit nervous. Like that."
The reason why Mrs Plunkett was chaperoning her 26-year old son was because, for the second time in five years, he was serving a drink-driving ban.
Aged 21, he crashed into the back of another car while driving back from a night-club when more than double the legal drink-driving limit. That was also the case in July 2012 when Plunkett was pulled over in his Jaguar after an evening out with friends. The car, loaned to him, was returned and a 40-month driving ban incurred.
It spoke of the turmoil he was enduring at the time. He was festering in Durham's 2nd XI despite being regarded as one of the most ferocious English bowlers going. An England career had seemingly come and gone by 2007. Yet from 2007, he was regarded as something of a lost cause.
"The tragic thing," remembers former Durham coach Geoff Cook, "was that you could see it. In front of you. You could see cricket slipping further and further into the background. And he was getting deeper and deeper into areas that weren't going to help his cricket."
Yorkshire came in with an offer to take Plunkett to Headingley and, before making a decision, the player consulted Cook who , reluctantly, told him the truth. That a change was his only hope.
As talks moved to an advanced stage, the pair had one last meeting. Nothing official, per se, but Cook knew how emotional and impressionable Plunkett could be and wanted to reassure him that a move away was the right thing.
"I just looked him in the eyes and said, 'go and get back in love with the game'." On Thursday, Plunkett, seven years on from those words, will play in a World Cup semi-final against Australia, the biggest match of his career.
"Thankfully he did," muses Cook. "Simple messages, eh?"
Plunkett first registered on Cook's radar as a batsman for Durham's under-16 side. Born in Middlesbrough, the county's indirect yet strong connections with Marton-in-Cleveland, Plunkett's home town, saw him join the academy.
He was nothing to shout about then: a batsman who could open and eventually did out of necessity. "Not outstanding" is how Cook puts it. But he was always a committed trainer, even then. Coaches were struck by how much he enjoyed the physical development side of cricket, which was certainly rare at the time for someone in the mid-teens. This thirst for the grind meant when a growth spurt came about, he filled out accordingly.
"It was a rapid change," remembers Cook, who had no hesitation in taking the bat out of his hand and giving him the new ball instead. At the time, the academy filled their Saturdays with league cricket and Plunkett was consistently the fastest on the block. First-team recognition followed.
Around this time, Duncan Fletcher, as England coach, had a dream of forming an arsenal of tall, quick bowlers. With the Ashes taking centre stage in 2005, Plunkett was quietly making waves with 51 first class wickets that summer, bowling himself into Fletcher's favour and, subsequently, onto a tour that winter, aged 20.
Yep, you read that right. 2005. If there's a nugget in Plunkett's story that makes you double-take, it's the year of his debut. Also, the location: Lahore. At the time of writing, he is the only member of this squad to play a match of any kind in Pakistan.
As much as this was an exciting time for Plunkett, Cook could not shake the feeling that he was simply "in the right place at the right time". The call-up was deserved, the qualities of pace and bounce a rarity. But coming late to the craft of fast bowling, a gift bestowed upon him almost overnight, meant his action was still new to him.
In the words of the ECB, his action was "mixed": his top-half was front on, chest to the batsman while delivering, and his bottom-half was more classically side-on. The governing body were keen to nip anything like this in the bud and history shows it was a dire time for the ECB's biomechanics department. James Anderson was a notable "survivor" from this period, and only in the last two years can you say with confidence that Plunkett is, too.
"Liam's best quality was saying 'yes' to everything," says Cook. "But it meant he was too accommodating."
The tinkering introduced grey areas into the technical and mental areas of Plunkett's game. He became obsessed with swinging the ball, something which was never expected of him in the past. And though he had some success - Adam Gilchrist fell first ball of an innings to a perfect inswinging yorker from his hand in an ODI in 2007 - his natural strengths suffered.
June 2007 was the last match of his first Test stint and as he remained on the periphery of national selection, he continued to put hours into an action that patently wasn't "him". Teammates at the time say he was visibly in his own head as he would bowl, whether in the nets or a competitive match, and things were only getting worse.
"He used to go through his action as he walked back to the top of his mark," remembers Durham and England teammate Steve Harmison. "Now, you only do that when there's something wrong with it. He used to get told off for doing it because it was a bad look. He was always in his own head."
Durham were frustrated because they were kept out of the initial stages of the process, because at the very least they could have painted a finer picture on Plunkett's character. How he needed to be taken through the process of remodelling his action. "If you're too young to know how your body works or your mind works," says Cook, "the changes made become in isolation. There was no great knowledge of the person they were dealing with."
As the years ticked over, Plunkett lost his way. Durham were winning trophies but he was, at most, a bit-part player. The pitch at Chester-le-Street, no place for banging the ball in halfway down, also seemed to be against him. Maybe, quite naturally, he turned to alcohol. Not so much for relief but as a distraction.
The club were split: some felt he was throwing his career away. Others, such as Cook and Plunkett's family, were concerned. So, too, was the man at the centre of it all. He began to develop anxiety, particularly after heavy nights. Eventually, he would attribute the two and curb his drinking altogether. But that took time.
"He became a little boy lost, really," says Cook, palpably upset as he looks back on this period. When Yorkshire came in with an offer in 2012, moving on, as hard as it proved to be, made the most sense.
When Jack Brooks was a village cricketer, he realised he had to address his fitness to meet professional standards. The information available, particularly at the level he was at, was minimal, and Brooks had no access to a specialist strength and conditioning coach. So he went onto Google and typed in, "how do you get fit at cricket". One of the first results was an interview with Plunkett in which he spoke at length about his own gym routine. A decade later, the two were housemates.
If you have ever shared living space with anyone you know the beauty and headache it brings. But it was mostly plus points for these two, particularly on the fitness front.
"He was inspirational actually because he probably got me fitter," reflects Brooks. Coming from Northamptonshire, a smaller county relative to the behemoth that is Yorkshire, fitness was not high on the agenda. "He has an addictive personality and can't sit still. But that meant he was always getting me to come along to the gym with him, a lot, in his spare time. I benefitted from it massively on that front, especially the competitive nature he brought." It was not all one way: "I think I introduced him to afternoon naps."
Like many others who meet him, Plunkett's genteel nature and emotional intelligence comes as a surprise. Both characteristics are far from the mind when considering the man's stature. Brooks nicknamed him "Zangief", after the burly, bearded Russian fighter from Street Fighter 2 - "a big Russian brute who likes taking his top off and walking around in his pants".Play fights were one-sided and, on one occasion upon returning home after a particularly raucous night out, Plunkett accidentally put Brooks through a wall.
Amid the horseplay were occasions when Plunkett needed reassurance. "He's a big bloke," says Brooks, "but he still needed an arm around him now and again. He was a lost soul at times."
The pair do not live together anymore, nor do they share a dressing room with Plunkett moving on to Surrey and Brooks joining Somerset. But their bond is lifelong. Brooks acted as Plunkett's joint-best-man, sharing duties with former Yorskshire teammate Andrew Hodd.
That's another thing about Plunkett - the value he puts in his surroundings. His family have always come first, and 'family' is meant in the wider sense rather than the select few closest to him.
Both his parents have had serious health issues. His father suffered from a rare kidney condition and, aged 21, Plunkett offered up one of his own for a transplant. His father refused and, after a course of dialysis, eventually took a kidney from another donor. His mother has had two separate forms of cancer. The latter part of Plunkett's career has allowed him to supplement emotional with financial assistance.
Quickly, his immediate surroundings at his new county were becoming equally homely. In Jason Gillespie, he had a coach able to harness his best qualities with simple messaging and reassurance. The former Australian quick recognised the value of what he had in Plunkett. At the base level, a person who, in return for belief and a sense of value, would run through brick walls. Within two years of moving to Headingley, he was an international cricketer once more.
Because of this turnaround, Plunkett possesses one of the more peculiar CVs in professional cricket. The gaps are particularly stark.
A Test debut in 2005, five appearances in 2006 and three more in 2007 were only added to in the summer of 2014, when England were whitewashed by pace on that previous winter's Ashes tour and wanted some firepower of their own. A consistent run in the ODI side up to 2007 gave way for solitary caps in 2010 and 2011 before a return to consistency from June 2015. As for his T20I career, a solid nine years between his first (June 2006) and second cap (November 2015).
Gillespie's intervention was set most during a return to the five-day game that allowed Plunkett to pick up a maiden five-wicket haul in 2014 - against Sri Lanka at Headingley, no less. He'd get four more in the second innings, albeit in defeat. A couple of caps against India that same summer capped off his second and final crack. 13 Tests would be his lot.
But the reintroduction into a new, more empathetic system meant not only could he stand firmer than he did when he was younger, but he could deal in absolutes. Specifically, what he needed to improve on to be what England needed him to be.
The car crash of the 2015 World Cup showed England they were primitive with the bat. But it also alerted them to the value of taking wickets between overs 10 and 40. England were continually hoodwinked into assuming they were keeping run rates in check when the reality was batsmen were ticking over, getting set and then launching late assaults that they could not quell.
Adil Rashid's leg spin was highlighted as a remedy. So too, pace. Coupled with his height, Plunkett shot to the front of the queue. But after five ODIs in the summer of 2015, he spent the winter twiddling his thumbs. Rather than do as he might have done - ask questions of himself that would not necessarily bring kind answers - he went straight to Trevor Bayliss and simply asked what he needed to do to avoid being left behind again.
Variations were the key. Cutters, slower balls, cross seam deliveries, subtle changes of length, different release points. The sort of things that require graft - something Plunkett always had an appetite for. The numbers tell you how successful he has been.
Since the 2015 World Cup, Plunkett has 93 ODI wickets and 47 have come in the middle overs - the most of any seamer. Only Mark Wood has taken more during that period in this tournament, but Wood has played all nine group matches. Plunkett has missed four, including all three England defeats. There's a lesson in there.
It's also worth looking at the eight scalps picked up over the last few weeks: Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Mushfiqur Rahim, Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Tom Latham. Not a bunny among them.
Such assurance in his role has meant that, even during the games in which the 34-year old has missed out, he has been a source of comfort in the dressing room. The type of person you need around when things get tense. A relaxing influence on even the most highly strung. And it is not a great leap to say that on Thursday he will be a deciding factor on whether England reach their first World Cup final in 27 years.
When Plunkett calls time on his career, he will move across the Atlantic to settle with his wife in Philadelphia.
Since meeting his partner, who is American, he has spent whatever free time he has had across the pond. Mostly they have been winters, but occasionally when there was extended time-off in the summer - not often by choice - Plunkett would use the city of brotherly love as a sanctuary.
A few years ago, Brooks went out to visit Plunkett and his girlfriend as she was at the time to check out his soon-to-be life. He was originally staying for a week but one morning Plunkett woke up before him, got hold of his flight details and extended his stay by a week. Brooks assumed Plunkett, out of boredom, just wanted the company with his partner working during the day.
At the end of the extra week, Plunkett implored him to stay, to no avail. A few days after returning home, Plunkett had proposed to his girlfriend. "I didn't realise at the time, but he wanted me there," says Brooks. "It turns out he wanted me to stay to be part of it. Stay for the party and stuff. I didn't know it then, but he wanted me to be his best man and share that experience."
There is a juxtaposition at play here, that a man who is so devoted to family has been quite so nomadic. But Plunkett is an example of how family, home and a sense of belonging do not need to be rooted to the ground. Whether that is cultivating a new base in Philadelphia or finding his place in English cricket.
But before life moves on into that final chapter, the player who was once a 20-year old tearaway speedster and 31-year old red-ball enforcer will undertake his most important assignment as a 34-year old middle-over specialist.
English cricket may have spent four years of discovery to reach the cusp of a home World Cup final. But for Plunkett it has been a lifetime.
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