Steven Finn believes that Josh Tongue’s success since he dismissed Steven Smith at New Road last month proves that “English cricket as a whole” benefitted from Smith’s short stint in the County Championship.
Smith’s three-match contract with Sussex prompted fierce debate within the county game around the merits of enabling Australian players to tune up for the Ashes – and the World Test Championship final, in which he scored a century – by signing short-term contracts, but he batted only three times, making 30, 3 and 89.
Tongue trapped Smith lbw to bring the first of those three innings to an end, and has since taken a five-wicket haul on Test debut at Lord’s and been named in England’s Ashes squad. Finn, who has missed the entirety of Sussex’s 2023 season to date through injury, said that Tongue’s upwards trajectory demonstrated that Smith was not the only beneficiary of his time at the club.
“What did I learn? That he’s a lot more normal than you’d think he might be in the dressing room,” Finn joked. “It was a big debate, wasn’t it? About whether it was good for English cricket, letting him play three first-class games before an Ashes series.
“I don’t have a problem with it. I would say that because he was my team-mate and helped to put us in positions to win games. But I think for the people playing against him… Josh Tongue got him out and bowled against him. Smith said, ‘I think he looks like a good bowler.’
“Three weeks later, he’s playing Test cricket and took five-for here. The confidence that someone like Tongue will have gained from bowling at him and getting him out far outweighs the negatives of him being here and playing three first-class games before an Ashes series.
“He’s good enough to be able to adapt whether he plays three games or one game… the effect he had on the dressing room and the environment there was a really positive thing, not just for Sussex but for English cricket as a whole.”
Finn believes that Tongue will have a role to play in the Ashes – though not simply to target Smith again. “Smith is too good to allow something like that to faze him or worry him,” he said, speaking at Lord’s at the launch of IG’s Net Gains campaign. “[But] I certainly think looking at the way Tongue bowled here, I see him having some sort of impact at some stage of the series.
“I thought it was impressive, the way he kept his pace up. I liked the angle of his arm – slightly beyond the perpendicular – so that gave him a different angle of attack compared to the other right-arm, over-the-wicket bowlers. He bowled great pace; he did the hard yards, banging it in when he had to, and showed discipline and skill when he came back to hitting a good length.”
With five Ashes Tests scheduled within seven weeks, England are likely to rotate their seamers throughout the series. “I think this management has done something quite unique in the sense that they’re going to have people not kicking off about not playing,” Finn said.
“In the early part of my career when I got left out, I dragged my bottom lip around, I sulked and that can be sapping to the dressing room. One, I don’t think this management will allow it. But two, they encourage people to buy into the ethos of ‘you’re not picked now, we’re going to be upfront with you about why, we’re going to keep you completely in the loop and you’re going to play a part at some stage in the series’.
“Look at the way they managed the Ben Foakes scenario: Brendon McCullum picked up the phone, called him and said, ‘You’re still a big part of our plans, this is just the decision we’ve made’. You get buy-in from that and there is a lot to be said for that, whereas in the past it can be a bit cloak-and-dangers with being left out of the team.”
Finn was a three-time Ashes-winner with England, playing roles in the 2010-11, 2013 and 2015 series, but found himself left out of the side by Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss three Tests into the 2010-11 tour due to his high economy rate, which was seen as more important than his low strike rate.
It is an attitude at odds with the current England regime under McCullum and Ben Stokes. “You look at the freedom with which they’re playing at the moment, without constraints,” Finn said.
“When I started – when I was younger and I was a bit of a tearaway – you look at that environment that I was in and it was a great team. The way it was run and managed at that time suited the characters in it.
“But from a selfish perspective you look at the way the guys play now and the freedom they have… there are not many cricketers who played in the last 20 years who wouldn’t want to be involved with this team now.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98