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Sri Lanka v England

Mark Wood and the vexing value of fast bowling on slow wickets

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 3 minute read

Mark Wood has claimed just one wicket in Sri Lanka so far, but, as is often the case, has bowled better than his figures suggest, writes Ben Gardner.

It’s two-thirds of the way through the first day of the second Test at Galle and, even through the prism of a stuttering Sky Go stream on a cracked iPhone screen in a living room in gloomy south London, the sapping Sri Lankan heat is making you question everything you ever thought you knew.

Mark Wood, by now, is into his tenth over of the day and his 37th of the tour, and, despite doing pretty much everything asked of him, he still doesn’t have a wicket to his name. He has bowled as quickly as he ever has, rattled helmets and bruised fingers. In the first Test, you’re tempted to credit him with half of Dilruwan Perera’s wicket, with the No.9 stumped after being roughed up just as his partnership with Angelo Mathews had threatened to nudge over from pesky to worrying. But intangibles and moral victories can only count for so much. A hair-raising none-for is still worth less than a filthy five-for.

This, in a way, has been the story of Wood as a Test cricketer so far. Aside from two barn burners on a pair of surfaces that couldn’t be further removed from those overlooked by the fort, he has generally been tasked with bowling fast and credited with performing better than his figures suggest.

The logic of picking him on slow, low wickets is that he can make something happen when nothing is, can prise an opening where none should exist, finish with 2-80 having turned the game England’s way. But as the hours and days pass, it’s hard not to wonder whether that thinking might not be based more in hope than reason. Could England be being too clever in asking their fastest bowler to crack the game open on the pitch that helps him least?

You start to think the other way might be better. Sit in. Bowl dry. Wait for the game to come to you. Stuart Broad and James Anderson have six wickets for next to nothing between them, conceding barely a run an over. Would another bowler in their mould, perhaps even just both of them together, not better suit England’s purposes?

It’s then, of course, that it happens. Wood bowls a searing, sizzling inswinger, Dinesh Chandimal is beaten for pace and movement, and the partnership is broken. It’s the ball of the series, and probably its biggest wicket too. The stand is up past a hundred, the two batsmen at the crease are Sri Lanka’s best, and these are the kind of conditions where a century stand can soon double up and a game can spiral out of reach.

Had Wood not intervened, the hosts might have been 250-3, each just either side of a ton, and aiming for 500. Instead, England have to get through a wicketkeeper with a tendency to throw it away, a debutant, and the tail. Getting them out for anything under 400 should count as a success. It’s the type of scalp that will be even more valuable when England face India, whose batsmen are less likely to offer quite so many gifts, even if Wood is slated to miss the first two Tests.

A just reward, then, for Wood’s toil and a vindication of England’s plan and faith. Maybe, but also maybe not. Wood now has an average on tour, but it’s an average that stands at 117. How important must a bowler’s wickets be to be satisfied with them coming once every two and a half innings? Whose to say one of England’s many other fine bowlers on this tour might not have broken through then with a ball just as good, or just by boring out an opening?

Wood’s role is always likely to attract some slightly unsightly stats. It’s the lot of the partnership breaker, bowling to set batsmen when the ball is old and the energy is low. Reaching past three figures is higher than England would want, but two more cheap ones and it will be down near an acceptable level. Concede more without another breakthrough and it will get hairier still. That’s how numbers work.

It’s normally at this point, with both sides set out, that you’d expect an opinion one way or the other, a bow tied on the article to tell you what I think. Something that you can either take on board as your own or log on to Twitter tell me I’m wrong for ever thinking it. Sorry to disappoint, but none will be forthcoming.

Wood’s work in Sri Lanka is simply another hard-to-evaluate effort from a bowler never lacking it, a chapter in the all-too-short story of a 31-year-old quick that nonetheless contains more event than most. He has the worst average of any of England’s current seamers, and also a better record than Broad and Anderson after they had played the same number of Tests. He might bowl England to victory in India or he might not play a game there.

We might actually never know if fighting flat with fire here was the right way to go, and we won’t know for a while what the career of this beguiling, likeable speedster will actually amount to. But then that’s what make all this fun, isn’t it?

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