@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
England have had little to be happy about during the 2021/22 Ashes, but one cricketer who can put a smile on anyone’s face is Mark Wood.
Well, almost anyone’s. There are a few batters who might contest that label. For while his cheery attitude, tireless efforts and cheeky antics have made him a fan favourite, he is an uncomfortable proposition to face, one of the fastest bowlers in the world and with a skiddy short ball in his armoury.
However, while he had earned positive reviews for his efforts in this series, for a time that hadn’t translated into success in the wickets column. He had bowled quickly throughout the series, without much reward. At one point in the fourth Test, he was maintaining an average speed of 92.5 miles per hour, but by the end of that pride salvaging draw, he had just eight wickets at 37.62 apiece.
Given his overall career record – up to the start of the Ashes, his bowling average of 33.10 was the third worst of any England seamer with more than 10 Tests this century – it was possible to wonder whether he was one of those bowlers who looked better than he was, who set pulses and speed guns racing without troubling the scorers hugely. However, according to CricViz, his underlying numbers remained solid throughout, maintaining an ‘Expected Average’ of 26.4, with a certain amount of the discrepancy attributable to luck. At the last possible opportunity, in the second innings at Hobart, that fortune reversed spectacularly, with a series of fierce, well-directed bouncers reaping spectacular rewards.
His second-innings figures of 6-37 was his career-best performance, marking his third Test five-for and his first in the Ashes. They were the best figures by an England bowler in Australia since Matthew Hoggard’s 7-109 at Adelaide in 2006. He finished with 17 wickets at 26.64, but with Wood, it’s his wicket-taking ability that stands out. His strike-rate of 42.7 balls per wicket is the best for an England bowler in an away Ashes series this century, with a cut-off of five wickets. If you extend the cut-off to 15 wickets, Dean Headley is the only post-war England bowler to outperform Wood.
It’s enough to make one wonder what might have been had England’s other out-and-out speedsters, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone, not been unavailable through injury, though neither could have done much to improve England’s woeful batting. The plan was for the three to dovetail as England’s battering rams. Instead, Wood found himself beating on his own against Australia’s fortress.
Still, England have got more out of Wood than they would have expected, given his injury struggles and need for management in the past. Wood managed four out of five Tests, saving his best performance for last. The 121.1 overs he managed were his most in a Test series and his resilience, and England’s willingness to ask more and more of him as the series has gone on, has raised questions over his handling.
While there was criticism of him being pressed upon to bowl as Australia chased a declaration, more puzzling from a long-term point of view is that Wood bowled more overs after the urn was surrendered than when the series was live. Australia made their highest score of the series at Adelaide in the one Test Wood missed, with Marnus Labuschagne, who would become Wood’s bunny, making his sole hundred of the series.
Still, Wood is a bowler who needs careful managing, and the solution won’t be to play him constantly from hereon. With questions starting to gather over both Stuart Broad and James Anderson’s futures, England must figure out if Wood is a bowler who they can build an attack around in all conditions. This, arguably, is Wood’s first telling intervention to come on a surface that’s not properly rapid, with devastating contributions in the West Indies and South Africa both coming on lightning-quick pitches. Here, there was plenty of help for the seamers, and Wood was England’s best bowler.
His record in England is poor, with an average north of 40 at home. But that improved to 31.54 in the 2021 summer. Earlier last year, in Sri Lanka, Wood averaged 51.33 in the series, but also took arguably it’s most important wicket, pinning Dinesh Chandimal late on day one of the second Test to break a century stand. For a time, with his hold over Labuschagne and not much more to show for it, it seemed the role of partnership breaker whose impact outsized his numbers would be his again. That he might be more than that is at least one positive for England.