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Arise, Chris Woakes, England’s greatest ODI bowler

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim pays tribute to Chris Woakes, a World Cup winner with more than 150 ODI wickets to his name.

It was a thought that crept up on me.

Chris Woakes was gliding to figures of 4-18 off 10 overs against Sri Lanka, barely breaking sweat as he did so. On his way there he passed the milestone of 150 wickets in the format, and so I went off in search of numbers to burnish the hunch.

Just five men have taken more ODI wickets for England. No-one has as many five-wicket hauls. There have been two six-fors and, since the start of 2017, 83 wickets at 24.86. In that period only Rashid Khan, that whirlwind of a leggie from Afghanistan, has taken more at a better average. No Englishman with more wickets has as good a strike rate as Woakes, who takes one every 32-and-a-bit deliveries.

Then the question smacked me right in the face: Is Chris Woakes actually, when all is said and done, and we’ve stretched past the immaculate lines and self-effacing manner, England Men’s greatest-ever ODI bowler?

The surprise came not from the bowler, but the persona. Woakes is famously The Nice Guy of English cricket, the consummate professional from Birmingham who flashes a Hollywood smile, never kicks up a fuss, revels in new-ball nip and bats as if he reads the coaching manual before bed. But while he does everything with a touch of class, he can still go an entire winter without playing for England after ending the summer as the PCA Men’s Player of the Year. He can average more than 25 with the bat and still fall short of being England’s best all-rounder – Ben Stokes is forever somewhere, winning an unwinnable match and stealing the show. It feels odd to attach the tag of greatness to a cricketer who’s always fallen short of being his country’s headliner.

Yet the case in 50-over cricket is undeniably strong, even when you look beyond the stats. England’s four leading wicket-takers in the format are illustrious names – Anderson, Gough, Broad and Flintoff – but Woakes is the man who starred in a World Cup win. On his home ground of Edgbaston, he set up a semi-final thumping of Australia by squaring up David Warner and bowling Peter Handscomb inside seven overs, eventually securing figures of 3-20. “It was comfortably the best day of my career,” he later told Wisden Cricket Monthly. Three days on from his Player-of-the-Match performance and hours before Lord’s went berserk, Woakes finished up with 3-37 off his nine. In the tournament, he took 16 wickets at 28.13. He came to the fore when it mattered most, at the pinnacle of the 50-over game.

Woakes’ current teammates merit consideration in this debate too, but the upper hand is still his. Adil Rashid has given English leg-spin genuine self-belief – and taken four more wickets than Woakes – but we didn’t see the best of him at that World Cup as he managed a troublesome shoulder. Jofra Archer was the man entrusted to bowl the Super Over, but he’s still got a lot more games to play and an illustrious record to build. Give him a few more years and we’ll talk.

There’s been little flash in Woakes’ path to 155 ODI wickets at an average of 29.30. A specific dismissal fails comes to mind – there’s no Starc to Stokes yorker at Lord’s, no one particular ball you can point to for the whole story to reveal itself. The beauty has been about the small things: a bit of swing in the first over, a desire to hit the top of off when the white ball quickly stops misbehaving, and some experimentation with cross-seamers and off-cutters. It’s not magical but it’s done the job for quite some time – only a supremely skilled and endlessly resourceful practitioner could have lasted so long in the format.

The key point in the ODI timeline can probably be traced down to the summer of 2016, when Woakes took the first over against Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge, returned 2-56 in the innings and then hit an unbeaten 95 off 92 balls to help tie the match. He’s never bowled first or second-change since, claiming both ownership of that new ball in Eoin Morgan’s famed white-ball revolution and a sense of responsibility that has never really come his way in the Test set-up.

But let’s leave the red ball out of it for now. Chris Woakes can lay legitimate claim to being England Men’s finest-ever ODI bowler, his greatness hiding in plain sight.

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