2021 hasn’t been kind to Chris Woakes but it could yet be the greatest year of his career.
Cricketers spend their lives chasing the sun. Hopping from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern and back again all via a net here and a match there, those at the top of the game can go years without truly experiencing the cold of winter.
And yet in the early stages of 2021, as snow was falling across the UK and Chris Woakes was in the baking sun of Sri Lanka and India, he experienced his coldest winter of all.
Voted as England’s Player of the Summer in 2020, Woakes would go over a year before playing a Test for his country again. In January, he was forced to isolate during the Sri Lanka series having been a close contact of Moeen Ali who had tested positive for Covid-19 and then after the bowlers impressed in the 2-0 series victory he was unable to make a case for selection for the four Tests in India.
Without even bowling or striking a single ball in anger, Woakes had been demoted from being the player that his contemporaries had voted as the best among them to the one running drinks for them. He was the champagne player turned waterboy.
Speaking in June, Woakes revealed that the ECB had apologised to him for their role in his winter that wasn’t. Given that the Sri Lanka series was being played under bio-secure conditions, the ECB admitted that players should not have been asked to share a taxi en route to the series, as had happened with Woakes and Ali.
“I vented my frustration at the time,” said Woakes. “No stone has been left unturned but that’s the one thing we didn’t get right and I paid a price for that.”
Woakes would next turn out for England during the home white-ball series against Sri Lanka in June, nine months after his previous appearance in international colours. Two ODIs and two T20Is brought seven wickets at less than ten runs apiece and a scarcely believable economy of 2.56. It was also his first call-up to the T20 squad in six years, which, in a World Cup year, is pretty good timing.
But just as summer was finally threatening to return for Woakes, things came tumbling down again. With the home Test series against India looming, Woakes suffered a freak injury as he fell down a flight of stairs in his own home and would be out of all cricket for a further six weeks.
It’s a quirk of sport that players are often considered better than they actually are when out of the team. And as England struggled against India at Trent Bridge and then Lords, the clamouring for Woakes’ return grew and grew. Here was the answer to all our problems in a neat and very well groomed 32-year-old package. As it happened, with the series tied at one apiece and Woakes finally back in the side at The Oval, England lost. But on an individual basis, Woakes reminded us all that he was indeed the player we had built up in our minds.
A wicket in his first over of the match was accompanied by a half-century with the bat and six more Indian wickets in total. It had been over a year since Woakes had last played Test cricket for England, but finally the sun was shining once again.
But, his critics will say, it always does for him in England. Woakes has become a victim of his own success in that his home record is phenomenal. A batting average of 35.25 is paired with a bowling average of 22.63, which compared to his away figures of 19.00 and 51.68 paint him as a home track bully incapable of performing with the Kookaburra ball used in some other nations, namely Australia.
However, to caveat the caveat, Woakes has played just two Tests away from home in the past three years which have brought seven wickets at an average of 25.7. Yes, a small sample size, but it hints at signs of improvement and also that to hold his away record against him would be to judge Woakes on the player he was in 2017 and not the one he is now.
“I haven’t played a huge amount of overseas cricket since [the 2017-18 Ashes]”, Woakes said earlier this week, “but when I have, I feel like I have improved. I feel like I am bowling a better length more consistently and actually I have to been able to get that Kookaburra ball to move a bit, when I haven’t previously.
“I am four years older [than in 2017], I have played more cricket, I’ve got more experience under my belt, and I believe I am a better bowler now than I was then. I have played a lot more frequently since then and I feel a bit more at ease at that level.”
Having been the victim of so much misfortune over the past 12 months, Woakes now finds himself in a position where he could be performing a major role for England in both a World Cup and an away Ashes series in the space of a matter of months. Having not been a part of the T20 set up for six years, the World Cup in particular is an opportunity he didn’t expect.
“I certainly hadn’t given up but at the same time I thought maybe that ship had potentially sailed. I’d be lying if I said I thought I was probably going to get another go.”
And yet, from doubting he would be in with a chance for the squad, Sam Curran’s injury opens the door to the XI for Woakes if England wish to pick a seam bowling all-rounder. Furthermore, the absence of Stokes and the retirement from Test cricket of Moeen Ali means it is not inconceivable that Woakes may bat at seven in the Ashes as England’s premier all-rounder.
Cricketers spend their lives chasing the sun. Hopping from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern and back again all via a net here and a match there, those at the top of the game can go years without truly experiencing the cold of winter. And yet, through a combination of personal performances and the absence of others, 2021 could well be the winter of Woakes.