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.”
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
“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.”
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.
“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.”
Cricket has always had a fun relationship with facial hair – who can forget big Merv Hughes’ famous moustache?
Hughes was a fast bowler, but the spinners have never been far behind when it comes to displaying a grizzled face. Here’s a look at the five best bearded spinners.
BISHEN SINGH BEDI
Slow left arm orthodox, played for India from 1966-79 and part of the famous ‘spin quartet’, taking 266 wickets in 67 Tests.
English slow left arm orthodox spinner who played an even 50 Tests for 167 wickets. A cult hero with fans throughout his career.
The controversial Sri Lankan right-arm offbreak spinner is the world record holder for Test wickets taking 800 in 133 Tests.
The vintage Kiwi took 362 wickets in 113 Tests over a career that stretched from 1997 to 2014. Another slow left arm orthodox.
The latest spin king, the right arm off spinner is just the second player to score 250+ runs and take 20+ wickets in a series.
World cricket is forever waiting for the next gem to be unearthed. And if the ‘next big thing’ brings back memories of an all-time legend, the level of interest rises exponentially.
Here, we take a look at three young cricketers who look set to take the world by storm and compare favorably, in our opinion, to icons of the sport.
They are not big names yet but if they live up to the promise they show in these videos, then anything’s possible.
What do you make of our three picks?
The 17-year-old fast bowler from the north-western territory of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan is already 6 ft 6 tall and bowls with serious pace.
Indeed, it’s not hard to see why the left-arm quick is being compared to Wasim Akram and Mohammad Amir.
Interestingly, Shaheen was introduced to the game by elder brother Riaz Afridi, who played one Test for Pakistan in 2004.
Last year, Shaheen claimed five wickets in three games during the Asian Cricket Council Under-19 Cup in Sri Lanka – showcasing the pace and bounce he gets from his height.
If the teenager can maintain his fitness levels, it won’t be long before he gets to play for the senior team.
The subcontinent is famous for producing players who look extraordinarily similar to their role models, be it in the batting or bowling departments.
India opener Virender Sehwag admitted he tried to copy Sachin Tendulkar’s shots even at international level. When Pakistan all-rounder Shoaib Malik started his career, his bowling action was a near perfect copy of that of spin great Saqlain Mushtaq.
And now Sri Lanka have Nuwan Thushara. The 22-year-old fast bowler for the Sinhalese Sports Club bowls with the same slingy action that made Malinga a phenomenon.
Nuwan has the pace, the swing and the yorkers to raise hopes of a fine career. As of now, he has played one first-class game and two T20s, with only two scalps in the shortest format.
MS Dhoni is a once in a generation player. It can be dangerous to label a 17-year-old ‘the next MSD’ but the pace at which Lanchashire’s George Lavelle is rising through the ranks, it’s difficult not to wonder.
Lavelle is a right-handed batsman and a fine gloveman, who has been turning out regularly for Lancashire 2nd XI this summer.
He was named the Most Valuable player at the 2015 edition of the Bunbury Festival, an annual competition featuring the most promising Under-15 players in England.
In fact, tournament organiser David English named Lavelle in his all-time best Bunbury team, picking him ahead of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler. His lightning quick stumping for the second XI against Yorkshire would make someone like Dhoni proud.