Faulkner looks to Lancashire for a new beginning

James Faulkner celebrates a Lancashire wicket Getty Images

It is over three years since James Faulkner's three wickets against New Zealand earned him the Man of the Match award at the World Cup Final. It seems longer. Since that game at the MCG, his stock has fallen, a fact aptly illustrated by his not being picked up in the latest IPL auction. It gets worse. Faulkner no longer has a central contract with Cricket Australia and few people think that was a poor call.

His return to Lancashire Lightning for the Vitality Blast is the next stage in the process to put that right. No one would call Lancashire County Cricket Club a backwater (well, no one west of the Pennines, anyway), but it is comfortable and familiar territory, just the place to put his game back together again.

Some cricket followers may reckon the all-rounder has had his 15 overs of fame. But his supporters still treasure the memory of his 47-ball 69 not out against England at the Gabba in 2014, an innings that secured a wonderful one-wicket victory for his country. It is difficult not to reflect on that and believe that his talents will flower again.

Faulkner points out that if the decline was sharp, so was the pain in his right knee, the joint which takes much of the strain when a left-arm seamer bowls the ball. An unpleasant spiral set in: Faulkner played when he probably needed to rest and underperformed because he was not fully fit; his response to criticism was to play again. And so it went on.

The easy tabloid headline claimed the all-rounder dubbed "the Finisher" was, himself, "finished" The initial remedy for all this woe had three components: stop playing cricket, get fit and go home.

So Faulkner returned to Tasmania, to the environment and the coaches he knew. He has left the Melbourne Stars and gone back to the Hobart Hurricanes for the next Big Bash. And this English summer he will be treading another of his paths to former glory when he plays for Lancashire in the Blast, a competition he helped the side to win in 2015.

Faulkner arrived at Old Trafford having hardly bowled a ball for five months. In Tasmania he began a careful programme of exercise in the gym and enjoyed living at home, reacquainting himself with the importance of family and friends. In particular, he enjoyed leaping out of bed and not being in immediate pain when he put any pressure on his knee.

And now he is in another place where he knows everybody and feels welcome. But the move to Lancashire also marks an important stage in his recovery. He has signed a two-year contract and knows he will be expected to make a major contribution.

"I've been over here for four weeks and it's been pretty much as though I haven't left," he said. "There are still a lot of familiar faces in the changing room so I'm sure we're going to have a good year. This is my second Blast. It was fantastic last time and I'm expecting the same thing this year, especially with the Roses games and the fantastic crowds they get for those. I enjoy the heckling, the banter, the singing."

So far, Faulkner's return has been low-key. He has taken three wickets for 88 runs in 11 overs and made four runs in his only innings. The heatwave in England has extended to the north-west and the pitches are dry and inviting for Lancashire's medley of spinners; to date others have attracted attention.

"I got flogged a bit for three or four years on the road and my body struggled"

But he has got through the games and settled in easily at a club he knows and among people he likes. Only the ground has changed.

"Old Trafford looks completely different, it looks like a real stadium now," he said "We just played solid cricket throughout 2015. It was just one of those years when everything falls into place. We had last ball finishes in the quarter- and semi- finals. Everything clicked. It's easy to get on a streak in T20, whether it's winning or losing."

This year Lancashire have won two out of their three games in the Blast - Derbyshire are the next in line at Old Trafford on Saturday - and Faulkner has his eyes set on a return to Edgbaston for Finals Day in mid-September. Such an occasion would help his memories of the last three tough years to fade and would also be perfect preparation for his new season with Tasmania.

"I haven't played cricket for about five months and it's probably been a bit of a blessing in disguise," he said. "I got flogged a bit for three or four years on the road and my body struggled. It was tough and a lot of it was physical with the pain in my knee, but that affects you mentally as well because you can't perform as 100%.

"I came back from that but in the last twelve months I've had some serious time to put the bat and ball down and hit the gym. I've also been able to get away from the game mentally and I feel like I'm in a good place. It's good to kick things off here before the summer back home. I'm looking forward to having a couple of years here and winning some silverware."

But Faulkner is also taking things very steadily. He hasn't put a line through four-day cricket but there is no question of him playing County Championship games for Lancashire. He will play in the Blast, however long that lasts for Lancashire, and take it from there.

"It's just a case of being able to play the game without discomfort so that I'm not getting out of bed in the morning and leaping around the bathroom," he said. "I want to be able to perform and not disappoint both the fans and myself.

"There have been some tough times when my body hasn't behaved as I might have wished but I don't regret any of it. It's got me where I am today and I definitely aspire to play for Australia again. If I can put some good performances on the board, you never know what can happen.

Ah yes, Australia. It has not escaped Faulkner's notice Old Trafford will host a World Cup semi-final in 2019. He knows he cannot take things too quickly - that how things were messed up last time - but admits he has a "100% burning ambition" to play for his country again.

"I was a part of the last World Cup and that was very special," he said. Now I want to be a part of the next one. It would be fantastic to play in a World Cup semi-final at Old Trafford but I just want to play as well as I can and to do so in a winning team."

Over the last week, that road back to Old Trafford in a year's time has included the dismissals of Worcestershire's Joe Clarke (an England player in waiting), Gary Wilson and Brett Hutton. Faulkner has come through his games well. The Finisher has made a start. And for the moment, that is all he can do.