ICC Men's ODI World Cup 2019
The country kid who became Cup captain
Aaron Finch discusses his early cricketing days, his recent form slump and what it means to lead Australia at a World Cup
It was as apparent to Aaron Finch as it was blatant to his teachers at Colac South West primary school that academia did not hold the sports-obsessed boy's ticket to the future.
Yet one of the most constant keepsakes that Finch packs in the kit he hauls around the world in pursuit of his hugely successful adult career as a professional cricketer is a book, to which he's been known to refer on an almost daily basis.
It's a self-penned text, though not of the autobiographical-type that players have been known to publish mid-career to draw a dividend at the height of their marketplace currency.
Rather, it's a well-travelled notebook into which Finch scratches sometimes cryptic shorthand notes that capture his prevailing mood, mindset and methodology at times of greatest personal and team success.
As well as his observations when the game he serves turns against him, as it invariably does.
Finch famously experienced one of those cyclical downturns during the recent Australia summer, when he found runs harder to come by than straight As on his school report card.
And it was to his trusty notebook that he turned, in those raw moments immediately after another intensely scrutinised batting failure when insecurity was simmering and the search for answers became a lonely trek.
"I started to talk quite negatively, a lot of self-doubt had started to creep in," Finch recalled of that time a few months ago when he sought remedies among his own hand-written reflections.
"It's not an extensive diary or journal, it's just notes that are basically some thoughts about what my my mental state was, or how I was feeling going into a particular innings.
"Some of it doesn't even make sense when I read it back, and my hand writing's not great.
"I read some notes back the other day and I thought 's***, what does that even say?', so I had to go back an extra page just to find the context that I'd been writing it in.
"But it's good to be able to go back and reflect, and to have a little checklist for yourself and say, if you’re playing in England, 'right, when I was playing well and got a couple of hundreds in a row here, what was I doing?'.
"I also read through it on the night before matches, so then I can go to bed with a really clear mind.
"Just some observations on each bowler I might face, and how I think they're going to get me out - and what my plan is going to be for dealing with that.
"They are just little check lists that I go through."
It's a typically pragmatic workaround from perhaps the most blue-collar of the regular men's team's captains appointed by Australia in the past generation.
Of course, Steve Waugh (Bankstown in Sydney), Ricky Ponting (Mowbray in Launceston), Michael Clarke (Liverpool, in Sydney's west) and Steve Smith (Menai, of the southern Sutherland shire of Sydney) were all products of hard-nosed suburban competitions.
But Finch's family roots that run deep through the fertile volcanic soil of Irrewarra, a tiny farming hamlet on the outskirts of Colac in Victoria's undulating western district grazing country, makes his rise to the ODI captaincy as uniquely different as it is distinctly Australian.
It wasn't only the exasperated teachers at Finch's primary school – where in grade four, the boy told a full assembly that he would play cricket for Australia when he grew up – who noted his slavish obsession to sport.
Finch's grandparents were often badgered into throwing a ball at him in their backyard so he could practice his batting, and he would stash a set of whites under a seat in the family car when he went to watch his older brother, Jason, play senior cricket on Saturday afternoons.
His subterfuge was fuelled by the conspiratorial hope that one of the selected XI might fail to show, and young Aaron would be drafted into the starting line-up.
Many of the teammates and opponents the gifted wicketkeeper-batter encountered during his progression from regional, state and then national under-age representative teams opted to pursue the more plentiful elite-level opportunities that existed in Australian football.
Prominent among those were Luke Hodge, the Hawthorn premiership captain who opened the bowling in Colac West's triumphant under-17 cricket outfit in 2000-01, and future AFL stars Brett Deledio (Richmond and GWS Giants) and Marc Murphy (Carlton).
The latter pair were members of the Victoria under-17 team that Finch led to the national title in Adelaide 15 years ago, by which time Finch had concluded his future lay in the summer game despite his strong football affinity.
"I loved playing footy, like every country kid," Finch told cricket.com.au earlier this month, prior to embarking on Australia's World Cup defence in the UK.
"Taking hangers, pretending to be Gary Ablett (senior) - I loved him.
"I used to go and sit in the outer at Kardinia Park and watch Geelong play.
"I was always hopeful to play cricket, but I would have loved to have been an AFL footballer as well.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't very good."
Although Finch was clearly very good at cricket, the rough-edged technique forged in country competition against uncompromising adults (which he experienced before teenage-hood) needed refinement if he was to make good his playground decree.
For that, Finch is forever grateful to the experienced, accomplished mentors he met when he progressed to Victoria Premier Cricket ranks with Geelong.
"We didn't have school cricket or anything like that in the country – I think we played one game a year against the school from down the road, and most of the guys who played in that were just doing it to get out of class for the afternoon," Finch recalled.
"Then in local club cricket at Colac, where I was playing in the seniors when I was 12 or 13, you just went into survival mode and used whatever method you could to get a few runs.
"So when I got to Geelong, there was a lot of people who put in a lot of hard work to help me improve my game.
"Guys like (former Australia under-19 captain) Clinton Peake, (ex-Victoria Sheffield Shield all-rounder) Jason Bakker, (long-time Geelong coach) Damian Shanahan, and (current coach and fellow Colac product) Liam Buchanan.
"All the years of work they put in with me to help out with my game has been so beneficial."
Finch's genuine gratitude to the community that kindled his passion and nurtured his talent is immediately obvious at any Colac club training session or weekend match.
Players of all ages turn out clad in the training kit, protective equipment or even wielding the tools of trade that Finch regularly bequeaths from his personal inventory to teams and individuals in need.
There have even been times when Finch's generosity has landed him in strife.
Such as the occasion when a mate phoned him to ask if he could spare a bat and, after searching the home he then shared with Glenn Maxwell to find he had already gifted his entire complement, he unearthed one from his Victoria and Australia teammate's stockpile and presented that.
When a miffed Maxwell discovered a few days later that the blade in question was the treasured memento he had used in his debut Test against India in 2013, Finch made a hurried call to his friend and completed a mutually agreeable trade.
Having honoured his primary school pledge to not only represent, but to captain Australia's men's cricket team, Finch now has precious few opportunities in his hectic playing schedule to return to friends and family in Colac.
But when he finds himself in need of the counsel and camaraderie he can't avail himself of in the western districts, and his notebook offers no answers, he seeks out his most trusted cricket confidante – Victoria coach and ex-Test allrounder, Andrew McDonald.
Like Finch, 'Ronnie' McDonald was a precociously talented national under-age representative who has compiled an impressive coaching resume, initially with Leicestershire in the UK and then with Finch's KFC Big Bash League club Melbourne Renegades and Victoria's state team.
"He's my number one go-to for everything – cricket, leadership, captaincy, relationship advice … everything really," Finch said.
"He's the one person that I've got absolute, one hundred per cent trust in with my game.
"I know that he has seen me bat from when I was 16 years old, so the level of understanding of my game that he's got is as much as anyone and I always go back to him for advice, or for just a little bit of guidance and reassurance."
Finch found himself in need of such pastoral care after the form slump he endured during the Australian summer cost him the Test berth he had dreamed of since the boyhood days he spent watching and idolising Dean Jones in a Baggy Green Cap.
With more than 150 limited-overs internationals and a decade of first-class cricket in Australia and England to prepare him, Finch had expected the transition to the Test arena would be challenging but manageable.
He soon learned of the toll the five-day game can extract, on the mind more than the body.
"The thing that surprised me most about Test cricket is how mentally tough it is," he confessed.
"I remember, even after the two Tests in against Pakistan in Dubai (last October), I was just cooked.
"You spend a lot of your mental energy thinking about the game and everything that can happen, and trying to play out scenarios in your head.
"So just mentally being able to switch off, I found that really tough.
"There's obviously much more scrutiny, so I felt like I had to be 'on' for every minute."
The gruelling nature of Test cricket also helped Finch to better understand the intensity that Justin Langer brought to the role of men's team coach when he took over from Darren Lehmann a year ago.
While Langer's playing career was the inverse of Finch's – Langer was a Test team regular who was deemed unsuitable for short-form international cricket – the pair have found common ground and worked closely together to help overcome Finch's run drought.
As part of that process, Langer recounted to his ODI skipper his own battle to re-establish himself in Australia's Test team after being dropped several times prior to 2001, before he grasped his chance in the final Test of that year's Ashes campaign in the UK.
"JL often talks about the amount of time he spent out of the side before he really came back in and nailed it, and I understand what he means by that," Finch said.
"When you're on the fringe for so long, and then get your chance, you try so hard that you end up trying too hard.
"I did that throughout the summer - I started wanting get a hundred, just to get people off my back and to show that I could still play.
"But you can't get a hundred if you don't get one, and it was really important for me to go back to the absolute basics, the fundamentals of batting – just bat time, and face a lot of balls.
"Scoring has never been my issue, my issue has been staying in long enough and if you look back over last summer, the amount of times I got out within the first five balls was higher than most.
"To get knocked over in the first five balls meant I was doing something fundamentally wrong – was I not sharp enough when I got to the middle? Was my mindset too aggressive? Was I too lazy? Was my footwork sloppy?
"All these questions were going through my mind, but it just came back to staying in.
"If you stay in for long enough, you’re going to score runs.
"They're entitled to bowl good balls, you just have to keep the good balls out and do that anyway you can – it doesn’t matter how ugly it looks."
Where Finch feels more assured is in the role of captaincy, which he inherited on a full-time basis last year when Steve Smith and David Warner were serving suspensions, and Test skipper Tim Paine lost his place in the ODI set-up.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his very early induction into senior-level cricket, Finch exhibited obvious leadership qualities throughout his developmental career and routinely led teams in under-age, regional and interstate competitions.
Most of those stints, however, were ephemeral and lasted only for the life of representative carnivals, until incumbent skippers returned or through the course of an occasional Australia A series.
It wasn't until Finch took the helm of the Renegades in BBL|02, after the club's forgettable first year, that he came to understand a captain's responsibilities don't simply begin at the coin toss and conclude when stumps are drawn.
"I'm just a cricket nuffie at heart," Finch admits.
"I love talking cricket and I'm always asking questions, so I've always felt comfortable talking about the game regardless of the level I'm playing.
"But off-field leadership is something that I've had to work on because I probably didn't understand how much of an impact that can have on a group, and it was something I learned pretty quickly when I took on the Renegades job.
"I didn’t fully understand the impact of off-field leadership and the demands on a leader - not just a captain, but a leader.
"It's just about having the respect of the players, and then having the ability to find the best way to get the maximum out of them."
It's that 'cricket nuffie' preparedness to talk in-depth about the game with anyone and everyone that accounts for a captaincy style Finch acknowledges is overtly consultative.
He admits to being "really open to input", and in recent times has enlisted the wisdom of experienced teammates Usman Khawaja and Maxwell, as well as his ODI deputies Alex Carey and Pat Cummins in formulating on-field strategies.
Now, with Smith and Warner back in the fold for the World Cup defence, he will also be tapping into the pair's vast tactical know-how throughout the two-month tournament.
But an area in which he, and Langer, concedes he needs to find further improvement is his on-field demeanour when fortune is eluding him, or when his team is not performing to expected levels.
"I can get very emotional at times out on the field, it's something that I've been working on," Finch said, adding that one of the reasons he uses Khawaja as a captaincy sounding board is the Queenslander's unflagging capacity to make measured, calm decisions.
Langer concedes it's an issue the pair have addressed, and noted it was perhaps surprising given the outwardly unflappable character Finch presents when not in the immediate heat of battle.
"We've all got areas that we can work on, and that's one area where he can get better – his body language as a captain," Langer told cricket.com.au.
"But that's what I like about Finchy.
"Not only did he show courage to come through the other end of a lean spell over the summer, but he's also taken on-board feedback about getting too emotional, getting too grumpy on the field.
"It's interesting from the external view that he can appear really calm, and he's my family's favourite – they love him because he's such a nice bloke.
"But he can, like all of us under pressure, get a bit grumpy and he finds it difficult to hide that on the field.
"He has evolved over the last twelve months, and has done that while he was going through a tough time personally with the bat, so it's a great credit to him and it's a trait of really strong leadership."
Perhaps the only other issue that gives Finch pause for introspection now that he has roared out of his form trough with huge ODI series returns in India and the UAE in recent months, is the question of his longevity in the game.
Married last year to his long-time partner, Amy, the 32-year-old admits that discussions about the post-cricket future fill him with dread, and he remains unsure if he'll pursue the life of a roaming global T20 franchise agent after his international playing days are done.
What a day! Our wedding was everything we’d imagined and more! Wouldn’t have been possible without the following bunch of incredible people, thank you for making @_amyfinch and my day as special as it was! Styling & flowers @ruby_and_james Venue @willlow_and_stone_estate Catering @blakesfeast Photography @shetakespictureshemakesfilms Hire furniture @danneventhire Marquee @ballarat_party_hire Design @kgcreative.co Suits @samandko Shoes @aquila_est1958 Dress @cappellazzocouture Hair & makeup @blondie.salon Entertainment @adelaideclark @hugobladel and team Celebrant @korenharveyweddings Cake @burntbuttercakes Beverages #LionNathan @666vodka @ghmumm @ghmummau #grinchwedding A post shared by Aaron Finch (@aaronfinch5) on
Certainly, there was no contingency plan being formulated throughout his school days as to what his place in the workforce might be if the fourth-grade prophecy had not come to fruition.
"I was stuffed, I had no other plan," Finch confesses with a broad grin.
"The footy dream wasn't going to happen at five-foot nine, with short legs and a fat bum.
"It scares the crap out of me, thinking about what I'm going to do when I finish playing - it really does.
"I guess you're never ready for it, but it can happen any day, unfortunately, in the cut-throat business of professional sport.
"My wife keeps at me about finding what it is I really want to do, but we'll have to wait and see."
It's an as-yet-unwritten story, which will require an altogether fresh page.
2019 World Cup
Australia's squad: Aaron Finch (c), Jason Behrendorff, Alex Carey (wk), Nathan Coulter-Nile, Pat Cummins, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, David Warner, Adam Zampa
May 22: (warm-up) Australia v West Indies, Southampton
May 25: (warm-up) England v Australia, Southampton
May 27: (warm-up) Australia v Sri Lanka, Southampton
June 9: India v Australia, The Oval
June 12: Australia v Pakistan, Taunton
June 15: Sri Lanka v Australia, The Oval
June 20: Australia v Bangladesh, Trent Bridge
June 25: England v Australia, Lord's
July 9: Semi-Final 1, Old Trafford
July 11: Semi-Final 2, Edgbaston
July 14: Final, Lord's
For a full list of all World Cup fixtures, click HERE