Mark Wood has done a lot of watching in the past six months, waiting for his elbow to heal. By Thursday evening and the second T20 between England and Pakistan he reached breaking point. That night Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan marmelised England’s six-man attack. Wood sat on the sidelines thinking about how he would bowl to them.
“I was watching Babar’s movements, watching Rizwan’s movements, to see if I could spot their tells, and I was trying to analyse all the time what we could do better, could we have bowled around the wicket? Could we have bowled bouncers? Were the slower balls holding up?”
Twenty-four hours later Wood had his chance to find out. On Friday he played his first game since the first Test against West Indies in Antigua in March. His presence meant that for Azam, Rizwan and the rest of the Pakistan batters England’s attack was all of a sudden a very different proposition.
Wood’s first delivery, to Rizwan, went for a leg bye; his second, to Azam, was driven past mid-off for four. At this point Wood’s captain, Moeen Ali, came over from mid-on to talk to him. “I need you to be more aggressive against Babar here,” Ali told him. “That was it,” Wood says. “I let it fly.”
Azam saw the next ball coming for his head and swayed out of the way. Wood, running through the possible next moves, decided to try another on a wider line. “I didn’t think he would duck two in a row. The first one was a surprise. For the next one I didn’t want it to be at him because he might try to help it to leg with the pace. So I tried to get it a little bit wider, thinking he might try to fetch it.”
The ball was clocked at 95mph, the fastest ball in the series. And Wood was right, Azam did play it, up over the slips, and down to third man. On another day, he said, it might have gone for six. But not this one. It was caught by Reece Topley. Karachi, one of the loudest, most raucous grounds in the game, fell quiet as a library.
Wood’s next over was even quicker. It’s hard to get reliable measurements because the records only go back twenty years or so, but it peaked at 97mph, one of the fastest overs delivered by an Englishman, or any man for that matter. They are well used to playing pace bowling in Pakistan. The PSL is renowned as one of the fastest leagues in the world but Wood was something else. Haider Ali tried to pull him but the ball was on to him before he had even made it halfway through the shot and he was caught at square-leg. Wood had two for eight at that point and finished with three for 25.
“It’s easy to bowl quick when you’re fresh,” Wood says. Right now he is exactly that because he is coming back from that long layoff. “I’ve done so much running and gym work but there’s nothing like playing and the intensity of it. The crowd was loud as well.
There were nerves before the game too, which was good. It had been going well in the nets but you have an extra gear when you go into a game because you have all the adrenaline. You feel like you are in a battle. It was good. I enjoyed it.” Wood felt it afterwards, though, he says he felt shattered by bowling four overs.
Wood’s pace is so important for England’s prospects this winter that they are going to shepherd him through this tour. He will probably miss Sunday evening’s game. England may call up one or other of Olly Stone or Tom Helm in his place, then play two of the three in Lahore next week, so Wood is ready for the World T20.
“I want to peak in Australia and not blow a gasket now,” Wood says. Beyond that he has an eye on the Test series here in December. He says there will come a time when he has to choose between formats, but it isn’t here yet. “I want to play Test cricket.” And franchise leagues can wait. “Maybe one day. But for me England will always come first.”
Wood says his plan is to work his way up to speed during the World Cup. One knows he is talking figuratively. He surely could not get any quicker.