Woakes hasn’t played a Test match for England since March last year when he took three wickets against the West Indies in Grenada. Since then, he missed the entirety of the 2022 home summer with a cartilage injury in his left knee, before returning to England’s white-ball squads this winter. He was part of England’s T20 World Cup winning squad in Australia, as well as their ODI tours of South Africa and Bangladesh.
Tongue was called up to the England squad last week amid several injury concerns for England’s fast-bowling unit. Jofra Archer and Olly Stone have both already been ruled out of the summer’s action while Ollie Robinson and James Anderson are both nursing injuries. Mark Wood’s workload is also being managed ahead of the high-intensity summer and he has returned home to spend time with his family after the birth of his second child.
Of the bowlers left in England’s squad to face Ireland, that left Stuart Broad, Matthew Potts, Tongue and Woakes from which England could make up a pace-bowling group. Of the three England selected in their starting XI, Woakes was the one to miss out.
On the face of it, the decision to leave out Woakes – who has a brilliant record at Lord’s – in favour of an unknown entity in Tongue could be seen as puzzling. While he has fallen out of favour in Test matches away from home recently, Woakes is undoubtedly a premier option in English conditions.
Since the beginning of 2021, he has taken 40 wickets at 21.70 in Test matches in England. At Lord’s in particular, he is a master. His career stats at the ground read 27 wickets in five Tests at an average of 11.33, with three five-fors and a ten-for. He also averages 61 at Lord’s with the bat, with his sole Test hundred coming at the prestigious venue. In the previous Ireland Test match at Lord’s, again preceding an Ashes four years ago, Woakes took six wickets as the visitors collapsed to 38 all out in the fourth innings.
But, while Woakes would undoubtedly have been an asset for England against an inexperienced Ireland side, scratch the surface and his exclusion begins to make more sense.
It’s not hard to imagine that one of Anderson or Robinson won’t be fit for the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston, and it seems almost a foregone conclusion that they will not be able to make it through all five Tests against Australia. It is also unlikely that Wood will play consistently throughout the summer. While Potts’ fitness seems more robust (currently) that leaves England with just Broad and Woakes left to rotate through. Taking all of this into consideration, Tongue playing at least a small part in England’s Ashes campaign looks increasingly likely.
Ben Stokes conceded as much in an interview with BBC Sport on Wednesday: “We see this as a great opportunity to see someone like Josh Tongue go out and play in a Test,” he said. “We might need someone like him throughout the summer. It gives me an opportunity to see what his character is like and what he is like to operate with as a captain. Woakesy completely understood that.
“We know Woakesy is a very experienced player and what he will offer this team when he plays.”
Woakes is a highly experienced Test and international bowler, who himself made his debut in a (dead-rubber) Ashes Test ten years ago. Parachuting Tongue in to make his debut in an Ashes series, without a Test already under his belt, is a different scenario than asking Woakes to play his first Test in over a year during a high-profile series.
In an effort to avoid Tongue becoming the latest in a long line of Ashes debutants consigned to scrapheap after a difficult initiation, the Ireland debut makes sense. Also, as Stokes said, a low-stakes game for both sides gives Stokes and McCullum a look at how good Tongue is at the minute, as well as what his ceiling could be.
So, while Woakes’ return will have to wait a little longer and there will be no magical Lord’s return for its maestro on this occasion, there is method behind what, on the face of it, looks like madness.