In another era, an era in which England didn’t have one of the best all-rounders or swing bowlers in their history, Chris Woakes may have played a hundred Tests and be something of a household name.
He’s won more World Cups than Sir Ian Botham, after all. He’s made more Test centuries at Lord’s than Sachin Tendulkar, taken more 10-wicket hauls in Tests than Bob Willis and more five-wicket hauls in Tests than Andrew Flintoff. He recently reached the landmark of 1,000 Test runs and 100 Test wickets in fewer Tests than Ben Stokes or Sir Garfield Sobers. His bowling average, in England, is better than James Anderson’s or Stuart Broad’s.
Yet, when the summer’s Test season began, his omission from the England team warranted hardly a mention in the media. And, despite having been England’s best bowler in the final Test against West Indies, there was never much thought to him taking the new ball here. As a bowler he’s overshadowed by Anderson and Broad; as an all-rounder he’s overshadowed by Stokes. Even now, leaving Emirates Old Trafford as player of the match, his place in England’s first choice XI isn’t absolutely certain: when Stokes can bowl, who of Anderson, Broad and Jofra Archer can be left out?
Over the last couple of games, however, Woakes has provided a compelling reminder of his qualities. He’s gaining more movement than Anderson, he’s hitting the pitch harder than Broad and he’s more consistent than Archer. He’s taken his 15 wickets this summer at a cost of 15.80 apiece. If England were selecting purely on merit – not promise or reputation or with a need to rest and rotate – for the next game, Woakes would be the first bowler picked. He’s 31 now, but he may still be the man to ease the transition towards life after Anderson.
Here, though, he impressed with the bat at least as much as with the ball. He came to the crease with the situation apparently hopeless: he’d just seen Ollie Pope dismissed by a brute of a delivery that reared off a length and admitted his own recent form – he had averaged 5.22 in his previous six Tests – had left him questioning where his next run was coming from. England needed 160 more with only Dom Bess and the tail to come. On this pitch? Against this attack? They might as well need a unicorn.
As he had mentioned the night before, Woakes knew that attack would be the best form of defence. For one thing, on this surface, he didn’t want to wait for “a ball with his name on it”; for another he didn’t want to give Pakistan a chance to benefit from the second new ball.
So he went on the attack. Instead of attempting to get into line against the short ball, he gave himself room to hit through the off side. And if his first boundary was more slashed than cut, he was soon into his stride with some imperious driving through the covers. His half-century took only 59 balls and contained eight fours. The ball became softer; Pakistan became quieter; the impossible target moved into sight. His partnership of 139 with the equally admirable Jos Butter turned this game on its head, but it was Woakes who saw his side home.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. Woakes has 10 first-class centuries to his name and holds the record score for a No. 8 (95 not out) in ODI history. He was a good enough batsman to make his Test debut as a No. 6 in 2013. But that was only three or so months before Stokes’ debut. And with Moeen Ali also joining the team the following year, the scope for middle-order positions diminished. Combined with the enduring excellence of Broad and Anderson, he found himself squeezed.
He’d always been highly rated. Ashley Giles, once his coach at Warwickshire and now his boss at the ECB, has said previously that Woakes was the cricketer he would most like to clone of all he had worked with. In an era when rather a lot of his contemporaries seemed to view training as an unnecessary evil that interrupted their pursuit of a great night out, Woakes had the attitude and work ethic to make the most of his ability. Giles tells a story of popping round to Woakes’ house one Friday night and finding him wearing compression stockings with his feet up on the sofa. He understood very young that you earn days like this not just with training and skills but with sacrifice and discipline. As a role-model to young players, he’s hard to beat.
If there was a fault of Woakes previously, it was that his bowling was just a bit pretty. Yes, he had a beautiful seam position. Yes, he could swing the ball both ways. And yes, he could bowl at a sharp pace. In English conditions and armed with a Duke’s ball he was highly dangerous.
But batsmen who faced him would talk, in some conditions, of a certain predictability. The manner he ran in, with the ball held perfectly in his right-hand, allowed batsmen to line him up and see exactly what he was attempting to bowl. Ahead of the 2019-20 overseas season, he averaged 61.77 in 12 away Tests compared to 23.45 in 19 Tests at home. It looked as if the Kookaburra may be his nemesis.
He kept learning, though. Over the last year or two, he added the wobble seam to his armoury and he uses it, in particular, against left-handed batsmen. It was noticeable here, too, that he used his left hand to hide the ball just before his delivery stride, too, robbing the batsman of any hints of the seam position.
Perhaps more importantly, he has added some aggression to his game. The intervention of Darren Gough, who was briefly employed as a consultant bowling coach over the winter, persuaded him to adopt a more aggressive approach to his bowling. Instead of running in, kissing the ball off the surface and attempting gain swing, Gough encouraged him to thump it into the surface in an attempt to generate seam movement. He only played two Tests over the winter so the sample size is too small to reflect much improvement but he claimed seven wickets at a cost of 25.71 including that of Kane Williamson on a painfully flat pitch in Hamilton. Given the opportunity, he may yet put right his disappointing record in away Ashes series: a bowling average of 49.50 and a batting average of 16.28.
“He’s Mr Dependeable,” Joe Root said. “He’s so consistent. On and off the field. He’s someone you can always trust to deliver exactly what you want. Over the last couple of years in particular, he is improving and he’s become even more consistent.”
There’s something old-fashioned about Woakes. Something of Jim Laker, perhaps, who famously celebrated his 19-wicket haul on this same ground by stopping for a sandwich on the way home and, unrecognised, watched the highlights of his performance in the corner of a pub. In an age when many with no discernible talent gain fame, Woakes is remarkably anonymous despite his excellence. You sense he’s happy to keep it that way, too.
But that modesty may have counted against him. While some of his team-mates might take to their newspaper column or a TV interview to bemoan their lot when they’re left out, Woakes has shrugged and kept his disappointments to himself. Maybe that has, at times, made him just a little easier to leave out than others.
Days like Saturday will provide a timely reminder of his qualities. He’s low-maintenance, he’s low-ego and he’s happy to allow others the spotlight while he bats with the tail or bowls the tough overs up the hill with the older ball. He’s a fine all-rounder and a fine team man. England are lucky to have him.