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England v India

Chris Woakes can be so much more for England than he already is

chris woakes
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Chris Woakes was the man who opened the door for England on the opening day at The Oval, taking a four-for in his first Test in over a year. Yas Rana looks at an impressive comeback performance that is increasingly becoming the norm for Woakes in Test cricket.

It’s a fun, though theoretical, exercise imagining what a first-choice England pace attack looks like in home conditions. In 2021, all of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Sam Curran, Ollie Robinson, Olly Stone, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes have played at one point or another. That’s quite a few names. and with the possible exception of Curran, they have all made key contributions at one point or another.

In a year where there have been all sorts of availability issues, the potency of England’s seam attack has more or less gone unaffected. The lesser known members of the pace cartel have stepped up to the plate; Robinson has shown from the off that the considerable hyped that preceded his Test debut was justified, Stone was rapid and accurate in his sole outing in India and the early indications are that Overton is an improved bowler to the one who last played Test cricket in 2019.

Among all that, Woakes, in the prime of his career, has gone more than 12 months between Test appearances just as his game looked to have progressed to another level. In 2020, he was England’s player of the summer, taking 17 wickets at 20 as well as scoring a match-winning 84* in the Miracle of Manchester.

For so long he’s been England’s man-in-waiting. It’s been eight years since he debuted at this very ground at the back-end of the 2013 Ashes. He is older now than the man he was lined up to replace, Anderson, was then. He’s been England main man in ODI cricket, leading the attack that won a World Cup, but his Test career has never quite kicked off.

The 2019 Ashes – with Anderson injuring himself on the first morning of the series – should have been an opportunity for Woakes to permanently cement his spot in the side. But like the majority of the other World Cup winners who took part in the series, Woakes didn’t quite seize his moment. After the Ashes in Chris Silverwood’s first winter in charge, he was the wrong side of 30 and with Curran very much the coming man, Woakes looked to have dropped further down the pecking order just as he would have expected to be rising up it.

The following winter he played just two Tests, but there were signs he was becoming a more complete bowler, one who didn’t rely on favourable home conditions.

At the start of the first lockdown, he credited time spent with Darren Gough for furthering his game when not armed with the Dukes ball. “I feel like this winter was a little bit of a breakthrough for me,” he explained. “In the past I have probably been a bit safe and bowled a bit short whereas actually with the Kookaburra, you still have to give it a chance to move laterally and get it up there and try to drive it into that fuller length a bit harder than I have previously. It hasn’t been huge, drastic changes to the way I bowl abroad but it’s more of the mindset, trying to attack a bit more.”

He backed up those quietly impressive performances in the 2020 summer and then, for a few reasons, just hasn’t played. He missed 10 Tests in the prime of his career, four of which were at home. And with those initially below him in the pecking order stepping up to the plate and the return of Stokes still to come, you can be forgiven for wondering where, at 32, he fits in.

Woakes had to wait his turn on the first morning; Robinson, fairly, was handed the new cherry alongside Anderson. With the benefit of hindsight and how the day panned out, Root’s decision to bowl first at the toss looks like a simple one but it really wasn’t. The Oval is traditionally the best batting wicket in the country, with first-class scores at the ground consistently among the highest in the land. It was a calculated risk based on murky overhead conditions and a flimsy middle-order that England wanted to get their teeth stuck into.

Anderson was uncharacteristically loose first up, with Rohit and Rahul – comfortably India’s batsmen of the series – ominously pouncing on anything over-pitched. Robinson was typically frugal but in the first half an hour, England looked flat. The forecast expected conditions to improve markedly through the day and India’s stylist opening pair were in the mood.

Then Woakes, replacing Anderson, immediately extracted more from the pitch than the new-ball pairing could, getting the final ball of his first over to leap off a length and move away at the last moment to kiss Rohit’s outside edge. The door was ajar.

England stamped their authority on the innings from thereon in. Woakes, leading the way, finished with four but should have had more, with a relatively straightforward chance off Kohli was shelled in the slips. In his first first-class outing since August 2020, he was right on the money until Shardul Thakur’s blistering 57 salvaged India’s day.

Woakes is a peculiar cricketer. When he excels, he makes it look so simple that you’re almost oblivious to the immense skill at play. His action is robotically repetitive, his batting is unstirringly mechanical; both are disarmingly effective. Since the start of the 2018 English summer, he averages 26.60 with the bat and 23.42 with the ball in Test cricket; those are serious numbers over a spell that spans nearly half of his Test career.

Can he replicate that in Australia? It’s still an unknown, but he’s better placed than ever to do so. In England, though, when he’s fit he has to play. Performances like today are increasingly the norm for Woakes. He’s a diamond whose full potential has not been tapped into in Test cricket, but thankfully there’s still plenty of time for that to happen.

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