ENGLAND TOUR OF WINDIES, 2019
Wood ended with figures of 5 for 41 in the first innings. © AFP
There was a delay to the start of the West Indies first innings and it was nothing to do with a dodgy sightscreen for a change.
A disagreement had arisen between Joe Root and James Anderson about the positioning of fine leg. Rooting , England’s incumbent captain, thought the fielder should be fine, perhaps to encourage his bowler to stick to a straighter line of attack. Anderson, England’s greatest ever, wanted the man wider to offer insurance at backward square leg to cover the loosener on leg stump.
There was probably more at play here. At the start of the last English summer, there were whispers of both Anderson and Stuart Broad undermining Root’s authority as skipper. All three denied anything of the sort, especially when former captain and Root confidant Michael Vaughan fanned the flames by publicly suggesting the pair should be dropped.
But since then it does seem Root has been more assertive. Broad was left out for the first two Tests in Sri Lanka but the real kicker came in the Caribbean when he missed the first match in Barbados. Here, Anderson was getting the short shrift and, eventually, Root had his way. The fine leg, the pawn in this impromptu and unnecessary power game, was Mark Wood.
Though the episode lasted only a minute or so – probably barely even that – it was a neat summation of Wood’s career to date as a Test cricketer. At the mercy of a captain who has never been sure how to use him; trying to satiate any short-comings of another bowler. Both factors are intertwined in the muddled thinking that festers in the psyche of this England set-up: the batsmen may lose their favourite positions but bowlers such as Wood and Chris Woakes lose their positions outright.
Wood’s record under Root tells tales of poor captaincy and under-performance, with an average of 78.4 and an astronomical strike-rate of 151.8. By contrast, Wood’s wickets under the stewardship of Alastair Cook cost just 34.4 runs and came every 61 deliveries. The Durham man’s extra pace was often seen as a way of testing the nerve of opposition batsmen against the short ball. Unfortunately, in part to Root’s lack of creativity, those passages were predictably timed, draining Wood’s reserves for subsequent spiky spells.
In Root’s defence, the bowler Cook had at his disposal was a far more effective operator than the one he had to deal with. Injuries and dwindling confidence meant the thoroughbred who galloped during the 2015 Ashes – and bowled regularly above 90mph – had not quite become a cart horse, but had certainly lost the zip elevated him to the international scene.
That’s the thing about Wood – he is a fast bowler who moves the ball late when at top speed. But when he loses a few miles-per-hour, any lateral movement comes from the hand and is dependent on how he angles himself on the crease. Root had never been able to call upon the real or even the idea of Mark Wood – the one who strikes fear and elicits mistakes from even the most seasoned internationals. Until here at St Lucia, of course.
You can throw in the usual caveats about “dead rubbers” and the series already being lost. But none of that matters to Wood as he channelled team and personal frustration to strike fear into West Indies batsmen who have had it all their own way.
Upon his entry in the 22nd over, his impact was immediate, striking with his fifth ball – a 92mph delivery that forced Shai Hope to drive to gully – and then again with his sixth, when Roston Chase was caught on the hop, fending again to Rory Burns, taken off his feet by the momentum of ball off bat. There was no hat-trick, but a third arrived soon to take us to tea: the unflappable Shimron Hetmyer hurried into an edge that Root took the sting out of first before holding.
The pace remained after the interval and, with it, a fourth wicket – Darren Bravo unable to get his feet set in time and edging to Root – Wood had his best return in Test cricket, usurping a three for 39 against Pakistan in October of that 2015. It remains that year forms the crux of the arguments *for* Wood, yet also reinforces that three ankle operations and countless injections have robbed England of that man.
Nevermind that his fifth wrapped up the innings, it was another number today that told another story – 94.6mph. In his first outing, at the dregs of a tour where West Indies bowlers have served fire and England’s have served rice, Wood bowled the fastest ball of the series. Aged 29, he is bowling quicker than he ever has, with all 50 deliveries for his 5/41 delivered above 86mph. For that, he may be able to credit those days spent recovering on the couch.
It was on watching the Sky television coverage, seemingly many moons ago, that Michael Holding was talking about England’s options and got to the subject of Wood. The man himself sat up in his seat as the West Indian great talked about how he would be better served extending his short run-up to give him more momentum at the crease and take the strain off his body, notably that troublesome left ankle.
That nugget stayed with Wood for a while, but it was only in the summer of 2018, after he had made his last Test appearance in May, that he decided to pull the chord. The majority of work was done away with the England Lions in the UAE at the end of 2018. Fuelled by time running out to state his case for the 50-over World Cup and the Ashes, he threw himself into the remedial work to lengthen his approach and, then, bowled like the wind. A number of observers for the Lions noted Wood was as sharp as they had seen him. The joy of that little back step he took before setting off may be a thing of the past, but there is evidently plenty to savour with this new approach.
It was for this reason that selectors called for Wood when Olly Stone went down with a back injury instead of a fresh pick in Jamie Overton. Though England have wasted that selection by using him a Test too late, they at least leave this series with a soul rediscovered.
At times, it was like watching a toddler at a ball pit as Wood’s unbridled enthusiasm at being let loose saw him hurtle up to the crease and throw himself off his feet and onto the deck. Given his injury record, you found yourself averting your eyes in case he broke that ankle clean off. But it was a sign of where he is physically that he had so much confidence in his body to launch himself into this Test like it could be his last.
Moeen Ali deserves great credit, too. His excellent 4/36 across 15 overs were, for the most part, in tandem with Wood. There was no release of pressure: in the nicest way possible, you forgot Moeen was there as the dot balls ticked over and viewers caught their breath, bracing themselves for the next assault coming straight out of Ashington.
Long-term, it was a welcome boost for Root, who has not had much to comfort him. The partnership of Wood and Moeen was a nod to a future where he would not need to rely solely on Anderson for control or Stokes for a breakthrough when conditions are not aiding the ball.
To that end, in many ways, this might only be the beginning for Wood. Can he consistently provide England with these thunderbolts? Will he be able to maintain his fitness to become a dependable Test quick? History may be a dampener on both those fronts.
Nevertheless, Wood has finally shown England and the world just how good he can be. Even if it was only for a moment, it is a day that can never be taken away, England well on their way to a Test victory because of him. You can’t ask for much more than that.