Chris Woakes: ‘The IPL is a one-off opportunity I can’t turn down’

Ali Martin
All-rounder Chris Woakes is one of eight England cricketers who will feature in this year’s IPL. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

Chris Woakes admits he squirms when driving into Edgbaston these days given his face has now replaced that of Ian Bell on the side of the famous old ground as Warwickshire’s most marketable cricketer.

Any awkwardness stems solely from the all-rounder’s self-effacing nature, however, and not the fact that while his county team-mates will be pondering tea in their season opener in front of a few hundred spectators against Surrey at The Oval on Friday, he will probably be stepping out to make his debut for Kolkata Knight Riders in the Bollywood-infused glitz and glamour of the Indian Premier League.

Following a soaring 12 months of international cricket on a personal level, and with attitudes having changed towards the IPL, Woakes is one of eight England cricketers to feature this year, with Ben Stokes, Eoin Morgan, Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Sam Billings, Chris Jordan and the short-form specialist, Tymal Mills, also missing from the opening exchanges of the English county summer.

For Stokes and Mills, signed by Rising Pune Supergiants and Royal Challengers Bangalore for £1.7m and £1.4m respectively, there are huge price tags to justify. But Woakes, himself the recipient of a £500,000 deal, claims he will put the cash to one side, with the cricketing gains outweighing the financial ones as he seeks to improve his game before this summer’s 50-over Champions Trophy.

“It does feel strange going away this time of year but at the same time I see it as a chance to improve myself as a cricketer and put Warwickshire on the map,” says Woakes, whose side open up against Gujarat Lions in Rajkot. “For a local lad who has come through the ranks to be playing in a huge tournament that’s watched around the world is a good thing. It’s a one-off opportunity I can’t really turn down.

“I hope to go to that next level and develop my white-ball cricket across the board really. Death bowling is an area of my game that has improved dramatically, I think, but to be considered a world-class death bowler you have to do it against the best players in the IPL in high-pressure situations. Even though I’ve come out on the right side of a few situations in the past there are things that I could do a lot better than I am at the minute.”

It was a high-pressure situation at the death in January that was probably responsible for his IPL payday – the proceeds from which, he jokes, will go towards paying off debts from his recent wedding – when India needed 16 from the final over of the third one-dayer in Kolkata. Woakes shut the game down despite his first two balls being smoked for six and four by Kedar Jadhav.

“To do it in Kolkata at their home ground in front of their home fans and with the owners probably watching must have helped,” says Woakes, whose prospects were doubtless aided further by a private endorsement from the franchise’s former head coach, England’s Trevor Bayliss, and the year-long doping ban handed down to their West Indies all-rounder, Andre Russell, 10 days later.

That Woakes, who has already been dubbed “the English Knight” by his new side, is riding so high at present is testament to his own transformation over the past year and one that he readily admits was unexpected when he left the tour of South Africa in January 2016 with doubts he would get another crack at international cricket.

But after a golden summer in 2016, the highlight of which was the 26 wickets in the Test series against Pakistan, including 11 for 102 at Lord’s, he says he feels a growing sense of seniority in the two England sides he is part of, despite curiously not being part of the Twenty20 set-up at present.

Naturally some of his thoughts are already turning to next winter’s Ashes defence under the new captain, Joe Root. Woakes has set himself the challenge of performing overseas, where his Test bowling average is three times the 22 runs per wicket he has returned on home soil.

Looking even further ahead is the prospect of featuring in the new regional Twenty20 tournament being staged in England from 2020. Birmingham-born and having been part of the furniture at Edgbaston for more than a decade that included being roped into groundstaff duties during the 2005 Ashes, there is little doubt which team he would want to turn out for.

He says: “It’s a tricky one because I’ve played for Warwickshire my whole career so to think of playing for someone else doesn’t seem right. But franchise cricket is a bit different and I’d still be part of Warwickshire and Birmingham Bears in the T20 tournament alongside it. If there’s a Birmingham team, and I hope there is, I’d want to be in it. But you need to be happy to play anywhere.”

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