Timing is everything in sport, they say.
Whether it’s timing the ball or hitting form at the right time or being in the right place at the right time. In a small way or a very big way, timing can be crucial.
So Boyd Rankin’s luck was right out this winter when his first senior tour, an Ashes trip no less, turned out to be arguably the messiest, unhappiest and most chaotic tour that England have ever undertaken. Unfortunate timing, that.
Rankin made the Test debut for which he had worked so hard and long and taken the bold decision to quit the set-up of his native Ireland. An achievement to treasure.
But, it transpired, not an experience to treasure for the Warwickshire fast bowler. Has anybody, in the 137-year history of Test cricket, ever made their debut in less propitious conditions?
Four-nil down and nailed on for a whitewash, England were in disarray. Some senior players had bailed out and most of the rest were devoid of form and confidence.
In these circumstances, come January 3, at Sydney Cricket Ground, after two months trailing round Australia on the periphery of the ailing squad, Rankin got his call-up.
Quite a big ask. Okay, Boyd – turn this one round on debut,
Add into the mix that Rankin was far from fully fit. Selected in the touring party as one of a battery of tall paceman, the 29-year-old had played almost no match cricket for months. Hardly ideal. And then he had an eve-of-match back spasm. Good luck on yer debut then, mate.
Predictably, it didn’t turn out well. Rankin hobbled off injured on his first day in Test cricket and only late in the match, England hurtling towards defeat by 281 runs and doomed to that whitewash, did he collect his first Test wicket – Peter Siddle.
Will that also prove to be his last? Rankin knows that is a possibility after a Test and a tour that couldn’t have gone much worse.
But quiet and soft-spoken though the big man is, he is full of determination to keep his name in the England reckoning. Rankin is passionate about resuming his “unfinished business” in the Test arena.
“The most annoying thing is that I didn’t do myself justice,” he said. “With the injuries I was carrying I didn’t show what I can do, but I wasn’t going to miss my chance. It probably didn’t do me any good the way it turned out but I had worked so hard to get there I wasn’t going to turn it down.
“I had a few issues with my shoulder and back but even though I wasn’t fully fit I just tried the best I can like I always do. I thought I did quite well, but it was quite a struggle.
“I didn’t do myself justice and that was unfortunate but I always believe that things happen for a reason and I learned a lot.
“It was a tough winter, my first tour away and I didn’t really know what to expect but I learned a lot about myself and that environment so now it’s a matter of getting back to what I do best. It’s important to have a clean slate and hit the ground running at the start of the new season.
“I have clearly got unfinished business at Test level. It is a very different package with the mental side of things and the preparation and a lot more attention. The intensity is a lot higher and it takes a lot more out of you mentally and physically so it is important to try to find a way through that. It takes a bit of time to get used to that environment.”
That is true even at the best of times, never mind the worst of times which this Ashes tour unquestionably was.
Rankin has proved he can handle the pressures of international limited-overs cricket, both for Ireland in World Cups and England in ODIs, notably when he had the Aussie top-order hopping about.
The Test level present the final step up – the biggest challenge. You need to be as close as possible to 100 per cent ready to rise to it but, embroiled in a wretched tour and a team-strategy which had fallen apart at the seams, Rankin was far from best-equipped do that in January.
“Coming off the back of last season I felt it was the best I had bowled in my career,” he said. “But then on tour it was quite tough having to wait for so long on the sidelines which probably didn’t do me any good. You can only bowl so much in the nets before you need to be playing games.
“I probably did get a bit stale through the first four Tests. I just had to keep working hard but it was difficult to keep your motivation with constant training and not a lot of match practice.
“By the time my chance came everything was against the whole squad at that stage. I just tried to do what I would normally do.”
Whether Rankin gets another Test chance depends on several factors: principally his form and fitness, of course, but also the thinking of England’s next head coach, whoever that might be. Ashley Giles is starting to look less of a shoo-in as the national team’s joyless winter continues in T20.
The quietly-spoken Irishman will do all he can to ensure that further caps follow but is phlegmatic and realistic about the situation.
“If the chance never comes again then that’s just the way it is,” he said. “All I can do is concentrate on performing for Warwickshire and see what happens.
“I want to play all formats for England. I have shown what I can do in limited-overs and people know what I can do in first-class cricket in the championship, so it’s a matter of putting in more performances for Warwickshire.”
It’s all about that timing. A heap of early-season wickets for the Bears and Rankin could find himself playing Test number two in rather more promising circumstances – piling in from the Nursery End against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in June.