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Ashes 2023

Mark Wood and the primal theatre of pure pace

Mark Wood
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

Ben Gardner was at Headingley to witness Mark Wood’s first home five-for, a spell that wrested the third Ashes Test back in England’s direction.

For 3.4 overs, on paper, basically nothing happens. All of Mark Wood’s first 22 deliveries come and go without a wicket to the bowler or a run to the batter. Thirteen of those make no contact with the bat, whether left alone or played and missed or hitting the body or some combination of all three. There are leg byes and an absurd bouncer that flies over Jonny Bairstow and bounces once more on its way to breaking the advertising hoardings that is about the median fastest ball Wood bowled. But apart from that, the ground holds its breath.

It isn’t just those in the middle that are frozen in time. No one dare move from their seats, lest the spell be broken. The crowd barely even remembers to clap Wood in, too transfixed in the moment to realise they are watching something historic: a landmark spell by England’s fastest-ever bowler. For a couple of balls here and there they recognise the occasion, build up to the instant when another thunderbolt whistles past an edge or a nose, and there is the odd trumpet trill to soundtrack the scorchers. But for the most part, Wood is everything, the composer, conductor, orchestra and audience, an entire stadium swirling around him as he sprawls on the ground.


After each delivery, the crowd’s eyeballs shoot up, in unison, to the scoreboard. Not for a replay, but to see the speed gun, that magic number that means everything and nothing, tick up higher and higher. His first three balls read 91mph, 93mph and 95mph, and it doesn’t feel out of the question that the progression will continue, that three figures will be broken by the end of the over.

The peak turns out to be 96.5mph. But as he nears the end of his fourth over, you wonder how long he can keep going. Short, sharp bursts. This is the mantra with a bowler as precious and as piercing as Wood. But those bursts have to count for something. His 23rd ball is cut for two, the first runs off the bat he concedes. His 24th – the last of his first Test spell of 2023 – demolishes the stumps.

This isn’t the pressure building, it is pure percentages. If you bowl that quickly, at some point, someone will miss one. Test cricket can at times be an overwhelmingly complicated game, match-ups and tactics, narratives and nuance. This isn’t that. This is basic and primal.

Can you face fast bowling? It’s the question that acts as a filter at every level of cricket. Many a promising player has cruised up each age group, only to find at some point, something has changed. There’s a hulking quick or a spindly speedster, and all of a sudden they are no longer able to do what they always have. The drives lose conviction, the forward defensives hit a little higher on the bat, and come on that bit quicker. It’s reflexes, but it’s also something internal. Can you keep your heart rate down and your back foot in place as it’s cranked up ever further? Can you play each ball as it comes even if you can’t really see it? And can you do it over and over again, long enough to survive and make a hundred?

The threat of it never goes away. Even the most in-form player in the world can be rattled, as Usman Khawaja was here. When you reach the speeds that Wood can, there are few that aren’t. It made Mitchell Marsh’s assault all the more thrilling, for the total dismissal of a player who the rest hadn’t fancied facing.

That nagging sense with Wood, of what could have been and what can never be for too long, will never go away. What if he had lengthened his run-up before 2019, since when he has an average of 24 and a wicket every 7.2 overs? What if he could stay fit long enough to be not just an occasional flashbang, but a regular attack leader? What if?

But some bowlers aren’t built to take 250 Test wickets. Some are built to sprint in, wind up, let it go as fast as they can, and not worry too much about tomorrow. Wood’s career already contains plenty to be proud of. The last wicket in England’s last Ashes win. Vital roles in two World Cup wins. But that record in England needed correcting, reading 40 wickets at 36 before today, and never more than three in an innings.

For 14 balls, everything happens. It starts with Mitchell Starc. This isn’t just fast; it swings late, through the gate and into leg stump. This is the moment, and Wood seizes it. Pat Cummins is beaten for pace so comprehensively you wonder if forgot to play a shot. Todd Murphy squirts four. Alex Carey, in the maelstrom, is clanged in the head and cloths to deep cover point next ball.

Four wickets. Uncharted territory for Wood at home, but he wants more. The spectators inch forward in their seats as the fiery calm descends once more. Seven balls come and go without score. Scott Boland beaten three times and hit on the arm once, but somehow survives. Murphy makes contact, but isn’t so lucky. He drags on. Wood has five. A day that looked like deciding the Ashes has been wrenched back into the balance. And it’s pace, pure pace that has done it.

You can bet on the 2023 Ashes with our Match Centre partners, bet365.

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