Ashes 2015: England's misfit bowlers and their rise to the top

Three of England’s would-be Ashes pacemen have one thing in common – none has had a simple route to  the top.

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Liam Plunkett is 30. He made his Test debut as a raw 22-year-old in the summer of 2007 but was discarded for seven years after three Tests against West Indies. Recalled in 2014, in some ways he was the lucky one. At least he got a taste of international cricket early in his career.

Mark Footitt, 29, and Mark Wood, 25, have also been late developers. Wood has still played only 26 first-class matches for Durham, while not too long ago, Footitt was struggling even to get a game with Derbyshire after being released by Nottinghamshire in August 2009.

The three of them made intriguing selections for England’s Ashes training squad this week: all of them, in their different ways, have been cricketing misfits who have taken time to show they belong among the sport’s elite. All have the potential to become key players in the Ashes.

Plunkett, like Footitt, changed counties to get his career back on track. After making an initial impact in his early twenties his career meandered with Durham and it took a move to Yorkshire in the winter of 2012 to rediscover his form and appetite for fast bowling.

He regards the influence of Yorkshire’s Australian coach Jason Gillespie, the man many thought would now be guiding England, as crucial. “One of the first nets I had with him [Gillespie] I hit the side-netting pre-season,” Plunkett recalled this week. “He told me he didn’t care – he just wanted me to go out and bowl as fast as I could.”

Plunkett was speaking just minutes after stepping out of an oxygen chamber as he continues his rehabilitation from a thigh injury that ruled him out of the final three matches of England’s epic one-day series against New Zealand.

Dealing with injuries is something just about every fast bowler has to deal with but for Footitt the issue was worse than most.

“At the end of 2012, when my back was so bad, I was in so much pain that I did really start to ask myself if it was all worth it,” he said. “I was going through all this pain just to play a game of cricket. Then you have the operation and start feeling that hunger again. I just wanted to fulfil the potential that I knew I had.”

Footitt cannot disguise his delight at his selection for the Ashes squad. “This week has been a whirlwind, I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling in about three days,”  he said.

Like Plunkett, he sees moving counties as crucial. “It’s all about opportunities,” he said. “My chances at Notts were limited because there were so many good seamers there and it was hard to break into the side. Now I know my game a lot better and I think I’m hitting my peak. I’m injury free, bowling plenty of overs and taking plenty of wickets.”

Wood has also had to bide his time before making his breakthrough. Unlike the prototype academy route taken by the modern cricketer, he made his name, not at Durham but with Northumberland in the Minor Counties championship.

He spent two years with them and didn’t make a discernible breakthrough with Durham until 2013.  Now, after an impressive start to the summer, he looks set to grow in the international game.

The parallels between England’s three misfits are striking. All bowl around 90mph, all bowl aggressively and all can trace their rise back to 2013 – when England defeated Australia 3-0 on home soil before going on to capitulate Down Under.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” said Plunkett. “You always think that you’re going to play for England again but at the point I left Durham I really just wanted to get back playing first-team cricket in the County Championship. That said, my ultimate aim when I signed for Yorkshire was to get back playing for England and that will always be my burning ambition.

“I was going through a bit of a rough patch. I never thought I was going to give up cricket because I still felt I had a lot to give. The way I did it was just to become a more aggressive cricketer, which perhaps I hadn’t really done at Durham.

“That was encouraged [at Yorkshire] and I’ve excelled there. Jason Gillespie has been a big factor  – he’s a great coach and a top bloke. You want a guy who’s brutally honest with you and you get that with him.”

It’s a measure of Plunkett’s longevity that of the 2006-07 Ashes party, only Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jimmy Anderson remain in the England set-up. If called on this summer, Plunkett will have gone full circle, with the young tyro becoming an elder statesman in an increasingly young and exuberant side. Despite his inexperience at the highest level, Footitt will also bring a certain nous to a team that Trevor Bayliss will hope to mould in his own image.

Footitt can also look forward to renewing acquaintances with his former England Under-19 team-mates Stuart Broad and Moeen Ali.

“We all came through the same age group side,” he said. “Moeen is 18 months younger than me, which just shows what incredible talent he has. We were playing for the Under-19s when the 2005 Ashes series was on and that’s the Ashes memory that stands out for me.

“We would finish the days play and then rush in to see what the score was and what had been happening. It seems like only yesterday, it doesn’t seem possible it was 10 years ago.”

Plenty has happened since, with that series not just ending 16 years of Ashes misery but also acting as a springboard to a decade of unbroken home success against Australia for England. The odds of that run continuing have lengthened since the 5-0 whitewash last time out.

However, the one-day series against New Zealand has provided English cricket with a welcome shot in the arm before the main event.

“I loved that one-day series and those two matches were two of the most enjoyable I’ve ever played in,” says Plunkett. “To be part of a team that’s so fresh, young and going toe-to-toe with the World Cup finalists has been brilliant. The atmosphere in the dressing room and the grounds has been superb. People have just been given the freedom to go out and express their talent.”

It’s an approach that is likely to continue under Bayliss. For Plunkett, Wood and Footitt this summer could prove to be well worth the wait.

Mark Footitt

Age: 29

Height: 6ft 2in

Clubs: Nottinghamshire 2005-09, Derbyshire 2010-now

Style: Left-arm fast-medium

Top speed: 90mph

Tests: 0

ODIs: 0.

First-class wickets: 230

Average: 26.16

Five-wicket hauls: 13

Best bowling: 6-48

Limited-overs wickets: 36

Average: 28.50

Best bowling: 5-28

Economy rate: 6.45 runs per over

T20 wickets: 12

Economy rate: 10.77 runs per over

Liam Plunkett

Age: 30

Height: 6ft 3in

Clubs: Durham 2003-12, Yorkshire 2013-now

Style: Right-arm fast-medium

Top speed: 92mph

Tests: 13

Wickets: 41

Average: 37.46

Best bowling: 5-64

ODIs: 31

Wickets: 40

Average: 35.72

Economy rate: 5.92

First-class wickets: 423

Average: 30.99

Five-wicket hauls: 11

Best bowling: 6-33

Mark Wood

Age: 25

Height: 6ft

Clubs: Northumberland 2008-10, Durham 2011-now

Style: Right-arm fast-medium

Top speed: 93mph

Tests: 2

Wickets: 9

Average: 33.22

Best bowling: 3-93

ODIs: 3

Wickets: 3

Average: 40.66

Economy rate: 4.88

First-class wickets: 89

Average: 25.94

Five-wicket hauls: 5

Best bowling: 5-32