Fast bowling is a tough business. A tough, serious business. Think of Gus Fraser, trudging back to his mark with a face as long as Livery Street. Or Jimmy Anderson, scowling his way through another spell. And who can blame them? Invariably fast bowlers have spines held together by plates and screws, toe nails that come off in their socks and blisters as large as a side of bacon. They’re kept going by a diet of physio and pain killers. Their future is full of hip operations and micro-fracture surgery.
But, at almost every moment of this Port Elizabeth Test, Mark Wood has had a smile on his face. Before his overs, he’s run up to the umpire to give him his hat or jumper, much in the way you see excitable children act when they start playing cricket. And between deliveries, he’s thrown the ball up in the air to give himself catches, much in the way you see excitable children act when they start playing cricket. Often, in delivery, his commitment is such that he hurls himself off his feet. And ahead of play, he ran over to the traditional musicians who were entertaining the crowd to have a go on their drums. All while wearing a broad grin. Much in the way you see excitable children…
And you can understand why. For Wood has spent more of his career in rehab than a Hollywood star. He’s undergone numerous operations on his ankle and, since his last competitive match – on July 14 – had knee surgery and endured a lengthy period on the sidelines due to a serious side strain.
It’s worth looking back on the moment that injury was incurred. It was the World Cup final. The 45th over of the New Zealand innings. Wood, who had defied all the predictions to play in 10 games in the tournament, was mid-way through his final over when he felt sharp pain in his side. He knew, in that instant, he was in trouble.
He could have stopped bowling. Had he done so, he might still have had an outside chance of returning before the end of the Ashes. But the game was in the balance and he didn’t want to let his team, his captain, down. He completed his spell. The last two deliveries, with no thought to his own welfare, were bouncers. The pain worsened considerably.
“I had three balls left,” he recalls. “And every ball I bowled it got worse. I knew it was pretty bad. But it’s a World Cup final and I didn’t want to limp off after 9.3 overs. I spoke to Eoin Morgan about going through those three balls, but I knew I was out of the Ashes.”
So Wood will never take moments like these – representing his country, tearing in and unleashing whole spells of 90 mph deliveries – for granted. He knows such experiences are precious and fleeting. He knows it could be over at any moment.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” he says. “I’m just trying to have fun, take it all in and play with a smile on my face. It’s been a lot of fun.
“I love it. I’ve waited quite a while to come back. July was the last game I played and, with the way my body has been, it’s something you can’t take it for granted. This could be my last game.
“I’m not just hoying [throwing] out clichés. That’s genuinely how it is. I have to take it as it comes because that’s the nature of how I bowl. Tomorrow I could fall over for the 54th time in the game and strain my ankle or something like that.
“I’m just about patched together. I’m wrapped up like a mummy on my left leg. Something is going to hurt eventually but it’s part and parcel of being a fast bowler. I’m not a natural. I’m not 6ft 5in and built like a tank, so I have to give everything I’ve got to try and rev it up.”
Now there will be those, reading this piece, who look at the scorecard and wonder what all the fuss is about. And it is true, at this stage, Wood only has two wickets. And while he has also seen a chance or two put down, struck five sixes in a brisk 42 that helped set up the declaration and plucked a fine catch out of the air – “I made a bit of a meal of that,” he says bashfully – the fact is there have been other, far more eye-catching individual performances in this match.
But in a team game like this, we cannot be judging the value of players’ contributions simply by the scorecard. The truth is, Wood has bowled at a pace – somewhere around 94 mph at his quickest – that has brought a new edge to this England attack. Some of the South Africa batsmen – notably Zubayr Hamza – have looked horribly unsettled by him. And, while there is no way of proving it, you suspect Wood has, in both innings, helped create chances at the other end as rattled batsmen struggle to retain their composure. You suspect his value is far greater than the number of wickets he has so far taken.
“I like the word ‘assists’,” he says, while trying to explain his contribution. “I think it’s good to bowl in a partnership.”
The wicket of Dean Elgar will have been especially rewarding, though. Elgar is probably, at this stage, the best player of pace in the South Africa side. So to set him up with a spell of short balls and then send his off-stump sent cartwheeling with a rare full delivery that may have left him a fraction provided more tangible rewards than the slaps on the back from appreciative teammates.
“Every fast bowler wants to see a stump going flying,” he says. “And that was a great feeling. And one that really helped with my confidence. If you don’t get a wicket you’re thinking ‘I need to try and prove a point; I need to show my value and keep my place in the team.'”
You could argue – and you may well be right – that Wood overdid the short ball here. In the second innings, 41 of the 66 deliveries he has so far bowled have been short or back of a length. Only two have been fuller than a length. For a man capable of swinging the ball – both conventionally and reverse – that seems like a bit of a waste. He’s better than playing the part of a simple enforcer.
Incidentally, that final spell was six overs. It’s too long for a bowler of Wood’s pace and fragility. Mitchell Johnson, at his very best, rarely bowled a spell longer than three or four overs. England could learn from that.
But those were the orders and he’s a team man. “You do what is best for the team,” he says. “I noticed my pace dropped off a little at the end. But when you’re bowling bouncers all the time, it takes it out of you.”
Wood’s career stats are, in the grand scheme of things, fairly unremarkable. This is his 14th Test; he has one five-for and an average of 36.81. But we should probably distinguish Wood’s statistics before he lengthened his run-up and afterwards. Before that change, there was a lot of talk about his pace, but not much evidence. He routinely bowled in the mid-80s and he routinely underwent ankle surgery.
But since the end of 2018, when he made the decision to lengthen that run, he has bowled with consistent pace and hostility. The only other Test he featured in since then included his career-best performance – he was player of the match after dismantling West Indies in St Lucia – while his World Cup spells included the fastest delivery of the tournament and meant that only four men claimed more wickets. Just as importantly, the longer run appears to have taken a bit of stress off his body. But for that side strain – the knee was more of a clean-up job than anything especially serious – his body (and most crucially, his ankle) has stood up pretty well to the exertions.
For that reason, there is hope he could appear in the fourth Test next week. And with Jofra Archer now bowling again in training, there is a possibility that England could field both their fast bowlers on a Johannesburg pitch which has, at times, been rated among the fastest in the world.
“I’d love to play there,” Wood says. “I’ve never actually played a match there, but I trained there once and the ball flew through. I’d love to have a go there.”
The word “love” comes up a lot in Wood’s conversations at present. He says he “loved” his batting, “loved” how well Ollie Pope batted and Dom Bess bowled and “loves” being back in the team and “doing something I really enjoy”.
The result is that, if the weather relents – “I thought Africa was the sunniest place in the world,” Wood mused, “but I come here and it’s just like Durham,” – England have a great chance of achieving back-to-back victories in South Africa for the first time since January 1957. To put that in perspective, Winston Churchill’s second spell as Prime Minister had just finished. It’s a significant achievement.
So was the gamble to keep bowling in the World Cup worth it?
“Absolutely,” he says with feeling. “I’d take being a World Cup winner even if I didn’t play another game of Test cricket. I would not swap that for the world. I’ve always got that to look back on. It was the pinnacle of my career.”
He’s probably right. But to see him throw himself into his work again at Test level, to know how hard it’s been to get back to this level, to appreciate how much better England’s attack looks when he is part of it and to witness his uninhibited enthusiasm… you rather hope there are a few more Tests left in Mark Wood yet.
Ollie Pope ready for trial by West Indies fire despite slow warm-up pitch
Ollie Pope has insisted that England are ready for the challenge of facing a fiery West Indian pace attack next week, despite three days of preparation on a “slow” wicket in their intra-squad warm-up match.
West Indies officially added Shannon Gabriel to their squad on Thursday evening, and he looks set to go straight into the side that plays at the Ageas Bowl on July 8. He is expected to be joined by Kemar Roach, Alzarri Joseph and captain Jason Holder – who averages 14.22 with the ball in Tests since 2018 – in the same formidable fast-bowling line-up which blew England away in Barbados and Antigua last year.
Pope has an imperious record against bouncers in his fledgling Test career to date, scoring 67 runs off the 54 short balls he has faced to date and being dismissed only once, and managed to withstand a brief barrage from Ben Stokes and Jamie Overton on the final day of the warm-up.
But despite those positives, the pitch was slow from the outset, with several balls dying on their way through to the wicketkeeper and several short balls sitting up nicely. The Ageas Bowl’s head groundsman, Simon Lee, is in his first season in the job after joining from Somerset, and – perhaps harshly – came in for criticism in his final years at Taunton for obliging when asked to prepare challenging batting surfaces. He has not had the luxury of a county season in which to get used to his new surroundings in preparation for his first Test pitch, but will undoubtedly hope the bounce is slightly truer next week.
“It was quite a slow wicket,” Pope admitted. “On the first day it felt a little bit soft, and there wasn’t a lot of carry. Nicks weren’t always carrying through. We’re not sure what kind of wicket we’re going to get out there come next Wednesday, but it was quite slow. It started turning a little bit at the end.”
In particular, Pope highlighted the contrast with what had been served up in training. “We’ve played on some quite spicy wickets in the nets, and obviously just against our own bowlers. There’s no net bowlers around, so the quality of bowling has been seriously high on some pretty spicy wickets.
“Sometimes it’s trying to get through the net and keep your wicket rather than feeling good and finding the middle of the bat. We’re gone from one extreme to the other. That’s great for our games, because it’s good to adapt.”
And Pope maintained that he had few qualms about which type of surface he played on, saying that it was up to England’s batsmen to adapt. “Sometimes on a wicket with truer bounce, it makes playing the short ball a little bit easier, but then again it makes it a little bit easier to pull if it’s a slightly slower wicket,” he said. “It’s just adapting, whether you want to take on the pull shot or get under a few more, depending on how quick it is and how consistent the bounce is.
“The quality of competition going on out there was really high-class throughout the three days. I think we’re getting there. I felt pretty good in the first innings, and it was nice to spend a bit more time out there today. We’re all moving the right direction.”
England will name a squad for the first Test on Saturday morning, with seven players from their enlarged 30-man training group set to leave the bubble at the Ageas Bowl. Joe Root has already been confirmed as missing the first Test to attend the birth of his second child, and the side will be led by Ben Stokes.
The selectors were due to meet on Friday evening to finalise the details, but 22 players will be named in total, with around 15 in the main squad and a smaller group of reserves. Those likely to miss out include Keaton Jennings, Lewis Gregory and Amar Virdi, while question marks over Olly Stone’s fitness (he took no part this week due to a tight hamstring) and Sam Curran’s lack of match practice following his self-isolation this week could count against them.
Jofra Archer only bowled three overs on Friday, and twice received medical attention in the match – first on his foot on Thursday evening as he tried to break in a new pair of bowling boots, and later on Friday as he hurt his left wrist in the field – but is understood to be fully fit and available for selection in the first Test.
Hamish Rutherford’s Worcestershire return confirmed, Ashton Turner’s deal off
Rutherford had initially signed to play all formats this summer, but will only play in the Blast after the postponement of so much of the county season. The ECB will announce which formats will be played next week, but it is anticipated that the T20 Blast will start in September and run into early October.
“It’s been a bitterly frustrating time for anyone in cricket all around the world and it’s no different for Hamish,” said Alex Gidman, Worcestershire’s head coach.
“We are looking forward to him coming back. Hamish and Riki Wessels can cause quite a lot of destruction at the top of the order and it’s important for us as a club and as a group of players that we challenge as much as we can in that competition.
“It’s something we’ve been successful in for the past two years and, regardless of how that competition looks this year, we want to try and do as well as possible in it.”
Rutherford, the New Zealand opening batsman, is set to be one of only a handful of overseas players in the Blast this season, with most signings cancelled in order to cut costs or due to clashes with revised international fixtures or the start of the Australian domestic season. Northants remain hopeful that Paul Stirling will be available to play for them, while Birmingham Bears are optimistic about their chances of getting Chris Green over, since he does not have a state contract.
Paul Pridgeon, the chair of Worcestershire’s cricket steering group, confirmed that Turner’s deal with the county was off. “Because of the change from the original T20 dates, Ashton would not be available for the entire competition because he would be required to return for practice by his state side,” he said.
Recent Match Report – Team Buttler vs Team Stokes Warm Up 2020
Team Stokes 233 and 157 for 4 (Bairstow 39, Sibley 38) drew with Team Buttler 287 for 5 dec and 200 for 6 dec (Pope 55 not out)
England’s final preparations for the long-awaited return of Test cricket were boosted on and off the field on Friday, with Sam Curran testing negative for Covid-19 and a handful of key batsmen spending important time at the crease.
Curran’s all-clear was perhaps the most important development of the day, removing the need for a fresh examination of the much-discussed ‘bio-secure bubble’ at the Ageas Bowl ahead of Wednesday’s #raisethebat series opener against the West Indies.
The all-rounder emerged from self-isolation in his hotel room to take in the final session of a drawn internal clash between Team Stokes and Team Buttler, during which five of England’s likeliest top six enjoyed valuable workouts. The game finished with Stokes’ side 157 for 4 in a nominal chase of 255 – the final equation having only been set up by Jos Buttler’s second declaration.
Now it is over to the selectors to fill in the blanks, with a 22-man squad due to be named on Saturday morning, cutting eight names from the original training group of 30. As many as seven of those could be listed as reserves, living and training on-site in Southampton but largely in support of a core group.
Ollie Pope was the day’s top-scorer, pleasingly into fully fluent mode with a rapid 55 not out, while openers Rory Burns and Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Stokes himself each passed 30 to bank useful middle practice before the real thing.
Joe Denly conspicuously failed to join them among the runs, lbw second ball to Jack Leach, but the belated appearance of Dan Lawrence at No.7 suggests his place is safe for now.
There was greater clarity on the spinning position too, with Dom Bess’s status as the man in possession only underlined by expensive spells from Leach and Moeen Ali. The pair did share five wickets for Team Stokes but three of those came from the care-free pursuit of declaration runs and both were far too expensive.
Leg-spinner Matt Parkinson picked up the wickets of Jonny Bairstow and Sibley in the concluding session, only for Stokes to cool his momentum by launching him for 22 in a over.
The day began with Mark Wood taking on the role of the absent Barmy Army, waving a flag on top of the pavilion as he sang his team-mates onto the field with a burst of ‘Jerusalem’. That proved a rare break to the silence England have found so unusual this week, with some suggestion that artificial noise could be piped into the venue for the Test match.
Resuming 54 ahead of Stokes’ side, Team Buttler’s opening pair of Burns and James Bracey put on care-free stand of 61 in the morning. Bracey, whose day one 85 proved the top score of the match, was first down for 22, top-edging Stokes to fine leg, before Leach trapped new man Denly clean in front for one. That was a rare victory for Leach, who leaked five sixes and looks short of rhythm.
Moeen was also loose but had the satisfaction of bowling Burns on the back foot for 35 before lunch. Runs flowed freely in the afternoon, Pope scoring with consummate freedom as he shared 50-run stands with Buttler (35) and Chris Woakes (37), who were both caught in the deep.
Lawrence’s demotion down the order, and ultimate demise for 6, concluded the innings at 200 for 4.
Bairstow was invited to open alongside Sibley for the fourth innings, suggesting a place in the 22 awaits him, and the pair added 70. Parkinson accounted for both, caught at cover and stumped respectively, but three huge sixes and a reverse sweep for four in a solitary over off the bat of Stokes proved the end of his stint.
The soon-to-be Test captain finished unbeaten on 37 from just 17 deliveries, while Crawley chimed in with a bright 34 before falling lbw to Wood. Bess ushered in the early finish when he dismissed Moeen for six, underlining his new status as the man in possession of the slow bowling berth.
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