Liam Plunkett channelled spirit of 'Rocky' to revive his England career

Liam Plunkett started off as a promising pacer before suffering a dip in form, but he's returned to become one of England's best-ever limited-over bowlers.

Alam Khan
by Alam Khan
10th August 2017

article:10th August 2017

The 32-year-old is a key part of England's limited-overs set-up.
The 32-year-old is a key part of England's limited-overs set-up.

There is a sense of irony, perhaps even fate, when England bowler Liam Plunkett tells how he has spent the last 10 years in Philadelphia when his cricketing commitments allow.

It is of course the city where the inspirational Rocky boxing movies were filmed and the 32-year-old – whose fiancée Emeleah lives in Philly – has similarly endured his fair share of blows before rising up to take his chances.

Plunkett is certainly a survivor. At 20, a paceman who was confident with the bat, there were great expectations for his future when he made his Test debut in Pakistan in 2005. He took two wickets but the hosts racked up 636 for an innings victory. It was, though, to be Plunkett’s first of only 13 Test matches spanning nine years.

On and off, he has been part of his country’s one-day squad for 12 years, and 11 in T20 competition to reflect a story filled with contrasting fortunes and emotions – and what might have been had he adopted the same approach as he does now.

“You always look back, don’t you?” he says. “In hindsight, I wish I’d continued like that, played 100 Tests and 200 one-dayers but you can’t have regrets.

“Where I was then I relied on talent, didn’t really think about what I had to do, took things with ease and just played the game. I was young and didn’t really do the specific one per centers that I do now to improve my game. But you have a dip and you come back and play. I never gave it up and I’ll take where I am now after everything that’s happened.

“I feel that dip after that has made me a better player. I’m still playing for England now and in white ball cricket (ODIs) in the rankings I’m one of the best in the world.”

LEEDS, ENGLAND - APRIL 05:  Liam Plunkett of Yorkshire   poses for a portrait during their press day at Headingley on April 5, 2017 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Now a proud Yorkshireman: Plunkett.

Plunkett is currently No11 on the ICC list, but ranked as high as seven in June when England fell to eventual winners Pakistan in the ICC Champions Trophy.

He may be 32, but he feels stronger, fitter and fired up to fulfil more ambitions. “I feel I can play for England for another couple of years,” adds the Middlesbrough- born Plunkett, who endured a seven-year gap to his last Test in 2014 against India, where he bowled Virat Kohli for a first-ball duck. “I also feel I can still bowl quicker.

“The World Cup in 2019, that’s my aim and what I’m working to. Of course you also look at playing in the winter with the Tests and Ashes coming up, I’d still like that, or there’s all these T20 opportunities you want to get
involved with.

“I’m nowhere near finished and want to keep playing, keep performing and keep winning. I’ve won four County Championships and Ryan Sidebottom has five so I’d like to pass him at some point.

“Absolutely there’s more to come. I think I’m near the top 10 England bowlers of all-time in white ball cricket [currently 12th and 12 shy of 100 wickets] so I want to go up as much as I can, to get top five. I’d love to have that in my locker and tell the kids down the years I was one of the best white ball cricketers.

“There’s a freshness, energy and quality about this England side and I want to be part of it for as long as possible.”

Plunkett has claimed 145 international wickets for England.

Having secured an impressive series win over South Africa, England next host West Indies with the first Test on August 17 and T20 and one-dayers to follow next month.

Despite groin and hamstring injuries, Plunkett hopes to be involved against a country whose fast bowling legends helped inspire him.

“I grew up watching bowlers like Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. The West Indies have been going through some changes, but they still have talent and their youngsters are getting better and you can’t underestimate them. They will be coming here to prove a point.”

But, ahead of the Australia tour at the end of the year, England are proving a fearsome force with Plunkett’s Yorkshire team-mate Joe Root starting well as captain.

“Amazing isn’t it?” he says. “Look at that first game as captain, all that pressure, and he gets 190 and they win, wow. He plays like he’s just down the park. He’s just so level-headed and what people don’t realise is his training is so intense, he won’t just have an easy net.

It doesn’t surprise anyone how good he has been and I think he’s going to get better and better. He’s going to be a great no doubt. If they had a Hall of Fame he’d be in it now. He’s young, but he enjoys the pressure, and what I’ve seen at this level is the world’s best don’t worry, just play their game and enjoy it. The same goes for the best bowlers.”

It is a mantra Plunkett adopted himself to repair his game and revive his fortunes. After being dropped by England in 2007, his form began to falter at county side Durham and it took a move to Yorkshire in 2013, working with former Australian pace ace Jason Gillespie, to make him believe again.

And just like Sidebottom, Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid and more recently Gary Ballance, restoring confidence and finding form for his county has led to another call for his country.

Plunkett is more than capable of chipping in down the order.

“I always had that desire, even when things weren’t going right, I felt I had plenty more to give,” he tells Sport360°.

“I just needed to have that method to come back and perform. To get that backing, which Yorkshire gave me, I appreciated that.

“As soon as I stopped thinking about the technique side of stuff, just enjoy the game, do what I do best, everything fell into place. There was no extra pressure either.

“When I joined Yorkshire I thought to myself, approach it like it’s your first club, like you’re an academy team player and have got stuff to improve. I nailed everything fitness wise, was first to the nets and everything.

“Dizzy [Gillespie] being a bowler himself and been through crappy times, he helped me a lot. He told me not to stress too much. I was hitting the side netting at first, but he said he didn’t care and to just bowl fast, enjoy it. I bowled quicker and with that came accuracy.

“It was sort of a rebirth and everything went well after that. I feel better now, more at ease with myself through the experience. As you get older you think you have to change your training a bit, adapt more, maybe not do as much running, but more swimming, biking and strength work.

“You know you are not going to make it to the top if you are not fit, don’t take care of yourself. You are going to get found out in the field. I never stop trying to improve, adapt by trying new things, because I know there’s a lot of people waiting in the wings and if you slip up then you might lose your place.”