- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Chris Woakes is often called an English specialist. At last, Down Under, here was a situation to remind Woakes of home.
The mild temperatures and green tinge at the Bellerive Oval, Australia’s southernmost ground, resembled that found 10,000 miles north in England. And, just as so often at home, Woakes arrived in the attack with England’s new-ball pair having claimed early scalps.
England’s finest passage of play in the series – admittedly, an accolade up there with being Henry VIII’s favourite wife – had seen Ollie Robinson and Stuart Broad reduce Australia to 12 for three. By the time Woakes was entrusted with the ball, in the 16th over, that had inched up to 41 for three. Yet it still allowed Woakes the chance to convert England’s early advantage from promising to match-defining.
Broad and Robinson had displayed simple mastery of line and length, allowing seam movement from the new ball to do the rest. It is a task for which Woakes ought to be supremely well suited. And yet his very first ball served up a wide half-volley outside off stump, which Travis Head scythed through the off side. Three more half-volleys in his opening spell were treated with the same disdain. England never truly regained the ascendancy.
It is possible to feel some sympathy for Woakes. Just as at Adelaide, he was deprived of the new ball in conditions that he would have expected to exploit. Even by the time he came on, the ball was going a little soft, and swinging and seaming much less.
And yet such are the perils of bowling with the Kookaburra ball, whether it is red or pink. In essence, Woakes is a classical new-ball bowler – but in England, where the ball often generates prodigious swing and seam throughout the innings, you can be a new-ball bowler with the old ball, too.
Bowling in overseas climes demands very different skills. In England, bowlers with Woakes’s precision can pound out a full length just outside off stump, and trust in lateral movement to do the rest. In Australia, once the new-ball swing dissipates – often it lasts barely an hour – it demands a slightly shorter, more attritional, length.
Consistency needs to be married with creativity. Consider how Pat Cummins makes up for the lack of seam movement by varying his release point from ball to ball, generating a different angle to challenge the batsmen. Or how Mark Wood bounced out Cameron Green in the final throes of the opening day in Hobart.
Woakes has ceaselessly tried to expand his repertoire away from home, notably by learning the wobble-seam delivery from James Anderson and developing his bouncer. And yet this has not quite translated into notable improvements overseas. In three Tests this series, Woakes has snared only four wickets at 69.5 apiece.
The upshot has been to cement Woakes’s hold on a curious record: the highest difference between his averages home and away of any seamer with 100 wickets in Test history. Like Janus, Woakes has two faces: almost a prototype of a model Test cricketer in England, and yet ineffectual abroad.
He averages 22.6 at home – a superior record even to Anderson and Broad – but 54.1 in 17 Tests away. And so his travails on the opening day were little surprise: over seven Tests in Australia, Woakes has to wait 17 overs for each wicket.
The enfeeblement of Woakes outside home shores has even extended to his batting, where bouncier pitches abroad have often exposed his susceptibility to the short ball. His Test batting average of 36.6 at home tumbles to 20.1 abroad.
There are two ways to view this discrepancy. The first is that Woakes is soon to turn 33, is bowling slower than on the previous Ashes tour and should now be viewed as an admirable Test cricketer who England are best served moving on from. As England seek players who can win in all climes, Woakes is unlikely to be part of the solution. And yet using Woakes to fulfil the need for Ashes scapegoats would surely amount to a waste. If Woakes’s limitations as a Test cricketer have been exposed, they should not obscure quite how magnificent he has often been in England: not since Fred Trueman has an English seamer taken more wickets at a lower average at home.
Only a very few Test cricketers can thrive the world over; it is no shame that Woakes is not quite in this category. But, as England attempt to cope with their saturated schedule, this also presents an opportunity. By moving on from the idea of selecting Woakes overseas, like a spin bowler considered an Asian specialist, England could prolong his Test career, making him fresher – and even more effective – at home.