If Mark Wood had been able to play the first Test at Edgbaston
Extreme speed is supported by newly acquired subtlety as Wood uses his home comforts.
If Mark Wood had been able to play the first Test at Edgbaston, where might this series be now? Hindsight is a cruel tease, but where might it be? Australia’s captain probably wouldn’t have been as calm in that tense run chase, especially against a bowler with a demonstrated ability to overcome the conditions on flat decks – see Wood’s priceless performance on the final day at Multan for recent evidence. This is based on his ferocious pad-thumper to a motionless Pat Cummins in the afternoon session.
Wood was eager to compensate for lost time in England’s crucial Ashes match. But he is here now, all right, and after capturing his fourth five-wicket haul and his first on home soil, a magnificent 5 for 34 in 11.4 overs, Wood was raring to go. At the conclusion, Wood told Sky Sports, “I’m thrilled.” I haven’t played in a Test match for a long, so it’s obvious, but returning relatively unscathed and delivering was very significant. Wood was eager to demonstrate that he had picked up some new skills since he was last used in a domestic Test over two years ago against India at Lord’s. Wood aimed to ensure his eye-watering speed was converted into wicket-taking success on one of his most helpful home surfaces. Fast may be pace (year) when you’re playing on a road in Pakistan.
I was particularly thrilled that I could demonstrate my bowling ability at home, he remarked. “Movement, I believe, is what kills. These elite athletes are accustomed to bowling quickly. They are conditioned to fast bowling because they regularly face dog-stick people who throw the ball from a distance of 17 yards. The movement was what helped today.
Wood explained in front of the Sky Sports replay screen at the end that even though his day’s work was completed in the blink of an eye (or three-and-a-bit, to be exact – four precisely measured bursts of four, two, three, and 2.4 overs, spread evenly across the innings), his tactics were more carefully calibrated than his raw speed might suggest. He referred to how David Warner had leaned on Stuart Broad’s opening delivery of the game and pinged it for four down the ground. “In general, the wicket felt like, when you went up there, it came onto the bat, it slid on,” he remarked.
“So it was about holding the good length to keep [the batter] on the crease, and then I thought, ‘right, this is the one I’m going to try and get the wicket,'” says the bowler. “Fortunately, it paid off.” No wicket was more important to England’s cause than his first, a stunning stump-wrecker to Usman Khawaja that was clocked at 94.6mph and boasted Khawaja’s previous performance in this series of 300 runs from nearly 20 hours of effort over the first two Tests. “We were talking about it out there,” Wood recalled. It simply takes a delicate mix of knowing when to attack the stumps and when to hold it in because, at Headingley, you think, “full, full, full,” but then you may be lured in. As opposed to being full all the time, it was more common to bash the tops of the stumps on that nicking length.
When Wood’s action is perfectly aligned with a braced front knee and fully loaded torso, as opposed to a partially buckled load-up for his second spell, when his speeds intermittently dropped below 90mph, it is clear how physically demanding bowling is on Wood’s body.
“I feel like my body is moving toward the batter when I’m at full biff. Although it appears to be a terrible posture, it functions something like a catapult sling that, when released, causes the ball to fly out of all the chain chinks. But what particularly thrilled him about Wood’s performance was its subtlety, mainly because he probably wouldn’t have been given first choice on such a ground in the past.
He admitted, “I’m usually on the flat ones, and my record is much better away from home,” noting a total of 49 wickets at 24.18 overseas, as opposed to 35 at 40.71 previous to today, both from 13 Tests. “On wickets like today, when the ball moves around, you’re automatically thinking Anderson, Broad, Robinson, and Woakes,” he continued. They are your top players who can cause trouble when it gets tricky.
I can’t say I’ve always been able to move the ball, but today’s ability has helped me. Through talking to the other men and the bowling coaches, I’ve tried hard to work behind the scenes on the wobble seam.
It’s something I’m working on improving. Despite the poor development, I’m still attempting to improve even though I’m 33. It does not occur suddenly or overnight.
But because it encourages reverse swing, I enjoy bowling away from home. And the bouncer attack on flat surfaces fits me because they occasionally skid through and make playing challenging, especially with the field. At Headingley, though, the short ball proved to be a brutal weapon to master, especially when Mitchell Marsh, a native of the WACA, was launching his sensational run-a-ball comeback in the afternoon session.
“If you bowled it too short, it looped over the keeper, and then if you didn’t get short enough, it’s in that Australian sweet spot, where they play it really well,” said Wood. It’s all about finding that nice middle.
“Mitch Marsh performed incredibly well. He was challenging to bowl at then because the ball suddenly looked significantly different when he was in, having lost its zip off the wicket. However, it was more complicated when a fresh hitter entered the game. “Today was good for me. But before we move on, let me provide some support. We must succeed in this game, so we must do so in the second inning. However, the outfield is quick and hard. If the guys can get in tomorrow, we’ll score immediately.
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