When a sports team reach the end of the line, the first demand is usually to turn to youth. The alternative is not as eye-catching or as exciting but nevertheless, it is sometimes wiser to go for a player with knowledge and experience.
Seven years after he was last called up for a Test match, Liam Plunkett is back in England colours and, on the evidence on offer against Sri Lanka at Lord’s, as well as on the first day of this second Test, he has much to contribute to the pace attack.
Now 29, Plunkett will probably not be around for a long time. Fast bowling is hard work, so – fitness and form permitting – we might see him in international cricket for three or four years, perhaps five at a push. That does not matter. If Plunkett can thrive in the coming seasons, it will ease the minds of England selectors, and the temptation for radical yet unjustified selections – Tymal Mills, of Essex, springs to mind – will fade.
The difference between Plunkett and a bowler in his early twenties is that he understands his game. As obvious as that sounds, it is a quality sometimes overlooked. When Plunkett finds life difficult on his Test return – as undoubtedly he will – he will have an 11-year career in first-class cricket upon which to draw.
He has also known what it is to rise, then fall, before climbing to the top again. Plunkett’s career was drifting before he left Durham for Yorkshire in the autumn of 2012. A series of increasingly confident, menacing performances have restored him to international favour and now Plunkett has another chance, he looks determined to take it.
At his new home ground yesterday, some of Plunkett’s bowling was explosive, and thrilling to watch. He was quick and consistent, his hostility scrambling the mind of Dimuth Karunaratne to such a degree that the Sri Lanka opening batsman played across a full, straight delivery and was bowled through the gate.
If, as an international bowler, you can take the wicket of Kumar Sangakkara, you are doing something right. Plunkett should have done so twice, but failed on both occasions. On one of which he was culpable; on the other, he certainly was not.
In the middle of another rapid stint, Plunkett drew the edge from the Sri Lankan maestro and leapt skywards in celebration. His joy was premature, however. Matt Prior, playing in his 77th Test, contrived to drop a catch for which he had barely had to move. Prior tried to suggest the ball had moved erratically in flight, but that did not spare him the harsh judgement of Michael Vaughan. “A goober,” remarked the former England captain, using a cricketing slang term for a particularly bad error.
In the final over before lunch, Plunkett himself was at fault as he failed to appeal when Sangakkara chased a wide delivery. Television replays during the lunch interval showed that batsman had made a faint connection with the ball.
Perhaps the younger Plunkett would have become disheartened. The older version responded with two wickets in two deliveries, removing Mahela Jayawardene – one of the world’s finest batsman – and Lahiru Thirimanne. Then, as Plunkett and Stuart Broad tore apart Sri Lanka in the final session, the former delivered a venomous bouncer that would have troubled many more accomplished batsmen than Dhammika Prasad.
Prasad has been recalled to the side for this Test but his first innings lasted only two balls. His attempts to evade Plunkett’s bumper were in vain as the ball took the glove and was caught behind.
Bowling in tandem during the late afternoon, Plunkett and Broad were fearsome indeed. “I know what I am now,” Plunkett said in the build-up to this Test. “I run in and hit the pitch hard and back myself to do that.”
This is a man who knows his mind and is aware of his role, as Sri Lanka have discovered already. Later in the summer, India’s batting technicians may be the next to feel Plunkett’s fire.