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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Aaron Finch: Laid-back but lethal

Aussie skipper Aaron Finch's mild persona hides a competitive streak and a cricketing brain that keeps ticking overtime.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai | Updated: January 16, 2020 8:21:57 am
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Andre Borovec remembers a bat cartwheeling towards him when he walked out to bat at Geelong Cricket Club in Australia. A 15-year old Aaron Finch had just shown his ire after being given out lbw and Borovec, who had first met Finch three years earlier and is now the assistant coach of Melbourne Renegades — Finch’s Big Bash team — had to jump out of the way.

Borovec chuckles at the memory. “It was a brief phase but those were bad days for the lad.” Finch was a kid playing with men in the competitive grade cricket and the game seemed rather tough. “It was probably the toughest initiation for him. He was playing with men and things weren’t going his way and the seniors at Geelong were very patient with him. We knew we had a good nice kid with talent. I remember a chat where I told him, ‘Cricket is a hard game, no doubt, but you can make it harder by being in too much of a rush. By getting ahead of the game. Wait, learn, be patient, and things will change”.

That he did then, and later intermittently through his international career, waiting for the ODI call, waiting for a Test spot, learning to open in Tests though he personally believed he would have been better off in the middle order and was dropped early last year. He became Australia’s ODI captain in 2017 and was hailed as the “best captain tactically” during the World Cup by the likes of Michael Vaughan. It’s in the shorter formats that he has really sparkled — he is the second-fastest batsman, after Virat Kohli, to score 1,000 runs in T20Is.

Brendan McArdle, Australia’s popular cricket agent in decades gone by, remembers a furious hundred by a 16-year old Finch in grade cricket. “They were 5 for 15, and then Finch comes and smokes us. There were three hooked sixes that I can still remember.”

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That memory would prove useful a few years later when McArdle had a chance to push and promote Finch for league cricket at Clifford Alliance Cricket Club in England. It wasn’t easy, Finch had already been disciplined at the Australian Academy for reportedly keeping an untidy room, among other things, but with McArdle and support from the English club captain James Postill, he made an impressive march in England. “After some visa issues, he landed up one Saturday morning, rented a car, drove to the ground and blitzed a breezy 70,” McArdle recalls.

The imagery that both Borovec and McArdle serve up is of a laid-back individual at ease with himself. Both bring up the comparison with Shane Warne. “Warne used to be like that, he became in-your-face type later during his international career. He was different as a teenager. Finch was a bit like that,” McArdle says.

Sips of beer and puffs of cigarette is how Borovec remembers Finch’s early days. “Back then, smoking wasn’t such a big taboo as it’s these days, you must realise,” Borovec says. “But yeah, that was him. By and large, it still is.”

“He is an interesting man. Laid-back but at the same time, very competitive on the field. Forget cricket park, be it playing cards or even swimming in the pool, he would compete. Then a beer and a cig,” Borovec laughs. “He would be very cool, chilled out as they say off sport.”

***

Finch comes from a small country town called Colac, west of Melbourne. “There are probably four pubs there,” says an old acquaintance of Finch, artist Gavan Serle, who has known him as a kid. “It’s a traditional country town, close to the Great Ocean Road, probably around 15,000 population. Largely a dairy-farming town, with a few in services,” Serle says.

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“I remember Aaron being good at footy too. Laid-back and a kid with a sense of humour. Sports was his life, he was playing senior-grade football when he was 15. Around that stage, he chose cricket — not a bad choice. Australia’s captain. It’s a huge badge of honour that, and coming from a small town.”

About nine years back, Serle started to paint portraits and as a tribute to Finch’s 156 against England in 2013, he froze the batsman into a monstrous leg-side heave on a canvas. “I thought I would give it to his family but then came a charity appeal for a cancer fundraiser in memory of Colac’s legend Rick Burnett. I then approached Finch, who readily agreed to sign it off and it sold well in the auction. He is that kind of a guy; never forgets his roots, I can go on about what he does for his old clubs and neighbours but I don’t think he would like me talking about them,” Serle says.

Finch would also go down in Australian public imagination when he was one of the three pallbearers — along with Tom Cooper and Michael Clarke — at Phillip Hughes’ funeral. He has talked about the tragedy in the past and in particular the moment when he flew down to stand by the hospital bed. “Talking to a guy you know so well, not knowing if he can hear you, if he gonna survive.” Hughes’ mother had called him and asked him if he would carry the coffin – “Now, you will be wearing a suit, won’t you?’ To know that we were as close as I thought we were, that his family knew that.”

***

In the first ODI against India in Mumbai, though David Warner would rush past him to get to a hundred, it was Finch who set the tone with a counter-attacking start. Warner saw it as a mistake from the Indian bowlers — “they bowled a bit full at start to Finch”, but you could understand why. One of Finch’s old problems was the ball angling in from a good length. At times, through his career in fact, he has had issues with weight transfer and would be troubled by that ball. Perhaps, the Indians were a bit too full but Finch also transferred his weight on to the front foot without fuss, and kept creaming them. And when Jasprit Bumrah tried to hit the deck, it was right in Finch’s strong area: on his toes, punching them through cover point. The short balls don’t trouble him much.

“It never did,” Borovec says. “I remember at Geelong, since he was very young, the opposition bowlers would keep trying to bounce him out. He would pull fearlessly, even as a 14-16-year-old.”

Something else that hasn’t surprised the early watchers is his captaincy. All those days at Geelong, sitting with adults, soaking up cricket talk, has only helped.

“Absolutely not a surprise,” Borovec says. “I would remember he would keep pestering us older men to talk about the tactical side of things as a kid. He was always open. And some of the foreign fans might have been surprised when he was made captain, but not us in Australian cricket. Through his formative years, he captained a lot of his teams. And he has continued to improve.”

Not long after he became Australia’s ODI captain, Finch had talked about one major learning. That his team-mates would pull his leg for talking too much in meetings and how he had to cut out that trait.

“I can see that in Big Bash too,” Borovec says. “He now keeps his communication precise and to the point. But he is very open and wants people to talk more, and come up with ideas. I think it’s a throwback to his Geelong club days when us adults would sit with a beer and chat about the game — and he would be all ears. You can have all the ideas but (if) you can’t articulate it to team-mates, then captaincy can be limited. You have to generate ideas and apply them. Finch does it.”

Australian openers Aaron Finch and David Warner. (Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers)

Finch has also been lucky that he has been surrounded by mentors he respects. Not just Borovec, but also Australia’s current coach Andrew McDonald (who is in charge of the India tour as Justin Langer has taken a break), who is also the coach of Finch’s Big Bash team. “He goes to him for advice — from his batting to the mental side of things,” Borovec says.

In Borovec’s telling, McDonald is a no-nonsense type of coach, someone who wouldn’t spin false hopes and dreams. Proof came on the eve of the first ODI in Mumbai when one asked him (Finch was sitting next to him) whether he thinks Finch can still make it back to Tests, especially in the middle order. McDonald didn’t peddle hope; instead chose to say “I think the middle order is pretty strong now. And Finch would be grateful that he got to play in Tests as an opener and made a good fist of it.”

It was McDonald who Finch turned to when he was dropped last January from the Test squad and came to captain Melbourne Renegades. Finch would go on to lead Renegades to their first Big Bash title last year. “We didn’t really have to say anything as leadership took care of his Test blues,” Borovec says. “Of course, McDonald spoke to him at a personal level but I don’t think he was too down and out. The needs of leadership took care of his recovery. His ability isn’t just tactical strength but the skill to relate to all players. He was one reason for our triumph last year.”

As a captain, despite being saddled with a not-so-strong team, Finch managed to drag Australia to the world cup semifinals and now, with a blistering hundred in the first ODI, the laid-back-yet-competitive character has thrown the gauntlet to the Indians yet again.

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