Mark Wood's Advice: Bowl Fearlessly, Attack!

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Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are proponents of simple and clear messaging in cricket. The sport itself can be complex, and the English cricketing environment is already filled with pressure, so introducing anything that may breed doubt is unnecessary. Especially now, when England needs to eliminate distractions to overturn their 2-0 deficit.

Ahead of the third Test at Headingley, Chris Woakes received a straightforward instruction: “you do you.” And he did just that, displaying his usual accuracy and movement off the pitch to claim three crucial wickets in Australia’s first innings, dismissing Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head, and centurion Mitch Marsh.

Mark Wood’s instructions were even more concise. Even before he took the ball for his seventh over from the Pavilion End, even before he went to sleep on the eve of his first match of the English summer and his first Test since December 2022 against Pakistan, Stokes conveyed a simple directive to him: bowl with sheer pace and don’t worry about conceding runs. This uncomplicated message yielded devastating results as Wood tore through Australia, finishing with remarkable figures of 5 for 34.

His performance was not solely about taking wickets, although they were truly spectacular. Khawaja lost his leg stump to a delivery that consistently exceeded 91mph throughout Wood’s four-over opening spell. Furthermore, the entire Australian tail was dismantled in just 16 balls, leading to their dismissal for 263. Yet the true impact of Wood’s heroics lay not only in the wickets but also in the emotions he stirred.

Undoubtedly, today was the best day of the series thus far. It echoed the pattern of the past 11 days of play: whenever one team seemed to gain an advantage, the other swiftly pulled them back. Currently, Australia holds the upper hand, with a lead of 195 runs after dismissing three of England’s top-order batsmen.

Much like the English bowling attack, the standout performer was a player who charged in and delivered fiery pace that made the heat emanating from the Western Terrace feel like a refreshing breeze. Mark Wood was the chosen weapon to unleash against Australia, following the recent discontent among the English camp after the events at Lord’s. In the end, he became a captivating distraction, keeping spectators on the edge of their seats.

Stokes utilized Wood in short bursts: four overs, then two before lunch, followed by three in the middle session and 2.4 overs towards the end. Considering his workload this year, with his last competitive outing in the IPL back in April, it was the only way he could be utilized. Wood responded by producing his best performance, consistently clocking an average speed of 90.7 mph across his 11.4 overs. He compensated for four dropped catches that allowed Australia to recover from a precarious 85 for 4.

There were moments when Wood faced challenges, particularly in the middle session when Mitch Marsh dispatched him for a six in front of square. However, even that period carried a sense of a showdown. As Marsh himself acknowledged, growing up on fast Perth pitches had prepared him for this make-or-break moment. Wood proved to be the only bowler who pushed Marsh to such limits.

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Watching Wood bowl is to witness a player charging towards the crease as if each delivery could be his last. The surgeries on his ankle and elbow, along with the toll fast bowlers endure for our entertainment, will eventually test his spirit. But based on his performance and outcome today, we are not as close to that breaking point as previously feared.

The ferocity of Wood’s deliveries was such that they went beyond simply striking gloves (of both
batsmen and Jonny Bairstow) or hitting the timber (bats and stumps). They obliterated the context of the game with the brutality of flesh being ripped off the bone.

In the stands, a routine developed among spectators for every delivery in Wood’s first four overs. They would exchange glances with those around them to confirm they had witnessed the spectacle, then quickly check the big screen to confirm the speed of the delivery. The initial “whoops” and “ooohs” for each reading eventually turned into thunderous roars when Khawaja’s leg stump was emphatically dislodged, marking the climax of that spell.

People often reminisce about how pace bowling was superior in their own era, as if the current
generation is burdened by external factors that hinder their ability to appreciate or master this lost art. The truth is, few appreciate it more than the spectators witnessing this generation of cricket. Partly because the game itself is slowly unraveling, but mostly because bowlers have never been faster.

A prime example of Mark Wood’s exceptional pace was evident in his opening four overs, averaging an impressive 92.90 mph. This performance secures him the second-fastest spell in an English Test since 2006, only surpassed by his own record-breaking feat against India at Lord’s in 2021. In that memorable Test, Wood claimed four of the top six spots, with Brett Lee occupying the third and fourth positions. Wood’s remarkable figures of 3 for 51 in that match remain his best on home soil. Although he was on course to surpass the fastest recorded speed of 93.41 mph, the last two deliveries of that sequence prevented him from achieving this milestone.

Furthermore, Wood holds the distinction of delivering the fastest four-over spell in T20 World Cup
history during a group game against Afghanistan in 2022. While the gaps between his appearances can be frustrating, the unparalleled potential he possesses compensates for the waiting. Hailing from Ashington, a place known for swing, seam, and hard work, Wood’s journey is a testament to his remarkable endurance. When discussing the greatest speedsters of the past two decades, he undoubtedly merits a prominent position.

Nevertheless, Wood humbly acknowledges that his case may not be as strong as others’. Although his opening burst surpassed Brett Lee’s 92.4 mph record during the 2005 Ashes at Old Trafford, Wood understands that true worth lies in achieving notable wicket-taking feats: “I’d rather have his wickets.”

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While surpassing Brett Lee’s impressive tally of 310 Test wickets seems unattainable, Wood is still five wickets away from reaching the coveted three-figure mark. Nonetheless, his performance on Thursday marked a significant step towards rectifying his peculiar tendency to be more effective away from home.

Despite Test cricket’s popularity in England, it still faces challenges related to geographical distance and varying time zones, which can affect its overall relevance. Wood’s remarkable performance during the previous Ashes tour, where he claimed 17 wickets and delivered a remarkable 6 for 37 in the final Test at Hobart, went somewhat unnoticed by the broader cricket community due to the isolated timing of those matches and England’s disappointing campaign. Even Stuart Broad attempted to erase that tour from memory.

As Wood walked off the field with the match ball for the first time in England, raising it towards his
parents, Angela and Derek, it felt like a deeply personal moment for him and a collective sense of relief for the entire team.

Mark Wood’s memorable contributions in the Ashes extend beyond his remarkable spell at Headingley in 2022. His pride in taking the winning wicket against Australia at Trent Bridge in the 2015 Ashes is evident through the prominent display of a photo capturing Nathan Lyon’s dismissal in his home. However, his journey has not been without challenges, as he missed the entire 2019 season after sustaining a side injury during the World Cup final. Adding insult to injury, his attempt to secure the winning run with a dive at the nonstriker’s end resulted in further damage.

Wood was determined to play in the first Test of this series at Edgbaston, but Ben Stokes made the decision to save him for the second match. Leading up to Lord’s, Wood faced swelling in his right elbow, which had undergone two surgeries the previous year. Thankfully, the additional week’s rest allowed him to deliver a potentially game-changing performance for his country.

Throughout his career, Wood’s unwavering commitment to representing England has always taken
precedence. His dedication was evident even during his time with the Lucknow Super Giants in the IPL, where he hesitated to reveal too much about his England teammates, Stokes and Moeen Ali, to their opponents, Chennai Super Kings.

During the current Test at Leeds, Wood’s impactful display has helped cover up some of England’s
previous shortcomings. Despite a few dropped catches, including those of Steve Smith, Travis Head (off Wood’s delivery before lunch), Mitchell Marsh, and Alex Carey, these mistakes have not proven as catastrophic as the 13 missed opportunities in the previous two defeats. Despite being a bowler short after Ollie Robinson left the field due to a back spasm, England managed to contain Australia, with the exception of Marsh.

The essence of breathtaking pace lies in its ability to transcend the context of the game, uplift
teammates, instill fear in opponents, and most importantly, provide a fighting chance. This is precisely what England needs throughout the remainder of the Ashes series.

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