Chris Woakes shows why England are lucky to have him

Chris Woakes celebrates the wicket of Rishabh Pant
September 02, 2021

In another era, an era without James Anderson, Chris Woakes may well have been England's premier swing bowler for a decade. And in another era, an era without Ben Stokes, Woakes may have been England's premier seam-bowling all-rounder, too.

But sometimes it seems it is Woakes' destiny to be the supporting actor to the Oscar-winning star; the sidekick to the hero; the straight man to the comic. Despite his outstanding record - and it might be remembered he was England's player of the year in 2020 - he had not played a Test in more than a year and, if England were at full-strength - with Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad and Stokes et al available - there's every chance Woakes would have been overlooked once again.

He should, by rights, be a star in his own right. Instead you get the impression that, when he is recognised in public, people come up and ask what it's like to play with Stokes. You imagine Stokes doesn't get that in reverse.

So it was pretty typical that he should end without a five-for after the first day of the LV= Insurance Test at the Kia Oval. It wasn't that he didn't deserve one - he surely did - but more that it seems more than a little typical that he shouldn't quite gain the credit he is due. He has a better bowling average in England (22.47) than either Anderson (24.06) or Broad (25.78) but, aged 32, he has played only 39 Tests.

He provided a reminder of his abilities here. Generating movement that none of his colleagues, even Anderson, could match, and bowling at a slightly quicker pace, Woakes maintained a probing off-stump line and claimed four wickets to help his side gain the upper-hand on the first day of this match. In English conditions at least, he really does demand selection.

It should have been even better. There were two dropped chances off Woakes' bowling, both of them in a slip cordon that seems to change every time you look at it. Virat Kohli, poking at a beauty which left him, one of those fortunate to survive. How like Woakes to defeat the best player and still end up without the wicket. His figures (3-19 from 11 overs at one stage) were dented by a late assault from Shardul Thakur, too.

Maybe a reminder of Woakes' skills was required. He hadn't played a first-class game for more than a year - his previous one, the final Test against Pakistan last summer, finished on August 25, 2020 - and has had a frustrating time of late. Having been sidelined in Sri Lanka after being deemed a close contact of Moeen Ali, who had been diagnosed with Covid, he then found himself surplus to requirements in India. As an IPL player, he was not considered for the Test series against New Zealand and then suffered a freak heel injury, sustained when he slipped down some stairs, which kept him out of the first three Tests of this series.

Joe Root recently described Woakes' last year as a "nightmare," but Woakes, typically, was more phlegmatic.

"There are a lot of people in the world who have had a lot worse 18 months than me," he said. "But it has been a weird time. And I was absolutely desperate to play cricket again. It's felt like a long time coming. I do feel I've missed out a bit by not being able to build on the year I had before [in 2020] but I loved it today. They were good conditions in which to bowl and I was happy to show what I could do again."

You wonder if that unassuming affability has sometimes held Woakes back. You can't imagine him taking to TV, as Broad once did, to bemoan the decision to leave him out of a side, can you? Or posting videos of himself on social media, as Anderson once did, to prove his fitness to reluctant selectors. He is not a sulker, a moaner or a prima donna. He spent several months in bio-bubbles over the winter without bowling a red ball in anger. He didn't utter so much as a tut. Maybe, at times, he should make it slightly less comfortable for coaches to leave him out.

"I don't look at it that way," he said. "It's well publicised that my record in England is much better than my record away. But I played a lot of cricket last summer. I like to think that, had I been available this summer, I would have been in the first XI."

Woakes' reputation as a home-track bully is understandable. He takes his wickets in England at a cost of 22.47 apiece, but overseas they cost him 51.68. But it might also be a bit outdated.

When Darren Gough worked with the England team as a bowling consultant, towards the end of 2019, he encouraged Woakes to forget about floating the kookaburra ball up in the hope of gaining swing. Instead he encouraged him to hit the pitch harder - as hard as he could - on a length in a bid to extract anything he could from the seam and surface.

Combined with his other skills - not least the wobble-seam, which is a relatively new addition to his armoury - this seemed to add an edge to Woakes' game. In two overseas Tests since (one of them on the bowlers' graveyard that is Hamilton) he claimed seven wickets (including that of Kane Williamson) at a cost of 25.71. It's a small sample size, but his potential value in Australia shouldn't be discounted at this stage.

It was no coincidence that Woakes' introduction into the attack coincided with England seizing the initiative in this match. India were 28 without loss after eight overs when Woakes came on. He didn't concede a run in his first three overs - there was only one scoring stroke in his first five-over spell - and, with Ollie Robinson (8-6-8-1) equally frugal at the other end, England delivered seven successive maidens at one stage.

The pressure brought two wickets, with Woakes dismissing Rohit Sharma in his first over with one that lifted and left him to take the edge. Later Ravi Jadeja poked at one which left him, Rishabh Pant was defeated by a slower ball - a reminder of Woakes' limited-overs skills which, but for Stokes' brilliance, might have been player of the match in the World Cup final - and Thakur was beaten by one which nipped back.

Woakes later confessed that, having "not played a lot of red ball cricket," he was more than a little nervous and concentrated on his core skill of moving the ball away from the right-handers. "I knew the lads have had some success with the wobble seam, so I tried that more than I usually would," he said. "And thankfully, I got away with the nerves as the surface was responsive and I got that early wicket."

He confessed, too, that the efforts of bowling 15 overs would hurt him tomorrow. But it will be sweet pain. He had waited a long time for this and had proved, once again, that England are lucky to have him.

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