South Africa were 12 overs into their first innings and there was a sense of anticipation at St George’s Park as Mark Wood stood at the top of his mark.
There is always a little of that when a genuinely fast bowler is readying himself to bowl but this was different. There was more than the usual excitement and the intrigue was laced with tension as Wood ran in to bowl in a competitive match for the first time since the World Cup final.
The 30-year-old is an immensely popular figure, not only among his teammates but with the fans and the media as well, with his infectious personality and an ability to raise a smile in just about any situation.
So as Wood, after six months out of action and without even a warm-up match to prepare, approached the crease, the nerves were more how his body would hold up than they were about how he would actually bowl.
Fortunately, those concerns were soon allayed. His first ball was fired down at 89mph and by the fifth he was up to 92mph, although it was the slowest ball of the over – a mere 88mph – that caused the most discomfort for the batsman as Dean Elgar took a painful blow on the elbow.
Wood bowled three overs in his first spell back before bad light and rain-curtailed day two, topping out at just over 93mph and maintained speeds of around 90mph throughout the 27.5 overs he bowled during the match.
England know better than most that pace like that is precious, mainly because for years they have had to try and make do without it. At home, with the Dukes ball swinging well after it has lost its initial shine and nibbling around off the pitch, they have been fine with James Anderson and Stuart Broad experts in exploiting conditions.
Away from home, it has been a very different story. The Kookaburra ball, a lack of lateral movement and, for the most part, a lack of success.
Jofra Archer was heralded as the man who could change all that when he burst onto the international scene last summer with his ferocious spell to Steve Smith at Lord’s the oft-used example of what England have been missing.
There was plenty of reason to be excited by Archer and what he could bring, not least that express pace and how it might transform England’s fortunes overseas.
It was only a few months prior that Wood had shown exactly how that might look as he tore through the West Indies batting line-up in St Lucia. England had had no answer to the Windies’ four-pronged pace attack in the first two Tests but Wood gave the hosts a taste of their own medicine in the third and it turned out they didn’t like it either.
He ended up with 5-41 in the first innings, the first five-wicket haul of his Test career. A superb showing at the World Cup, where he and Archer had a friendly competition to see who could register the fastest delivery (won by Wood at 95.7mph), followed but prior to Port Elizabeth he had not played since sustaining a side injury in the final.
Therein lies the problem. At his best Wood would be an asset to any side, the extra edge he provides to the bowling attack was evident at St George’s Park where he had South Africa batsmen ducking and diving to avoid a barrage of fearsome bouncers. However, since making his debut in the summer of 2015, he has played only 14 Tests. Sam Curran, who has been in and out of the team since making his Test bow in 2018, has played 16.
So far, England have been unable to find a way to look after the Durham bowler in a way that allows them to benefit from having him fit and available for a sustained period of time and during the third Test, he was largely used as an enforcer, banging the ball in short time and again in a manner that would put the body of any fast bowler under considerable strain – let alone one with Wood’s injury record.
“That was six overs on the bounce and he has a real history of snapping and having injury problems, there’s no other way of putting it, and you’re going to have to look after him.
“Fast bowlers are like gold dust. But you have to balance that with a skipper who wants to win a series in South Africa – and he (Wood) will do whatever the team wants him to do all day long.”
Finding that balance has is easier said than done. One solution might be to follow the example of Australia during the Ashes last summer when James Pattinson, another fast bowler whose body has not proven quite as durable as he would like, was not used in back-to-back Test matches.
Rather than try and get him back up to speed in just three or four days, he was allowed – or more likely instructed – to let his body recover for longer, therefore reducing the likelihood of sustaining an injury and ensuring he was fresh and raring to go for the next Test.
Similarly, Josh Hazlewood was not picked in the Australia squad for the World Cup despite declaring himself fit for selection so as to allow him to be in peak condition for the Ashes. Of course, in both instances it helped that Australia have so many top-class pacemen to choose from.
S Africa vs England
January 24, 2020, 7:30am
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If England were to employ that approach, it would mean leaving Wood out for the fourth Test in Johannesburg, historically the quickest and bounciest wicket in South Africa and just the type of surface he would love to bowl on.
That would be a bold call and were England to take it but the result went against them, no doubt the decision to leave out their quickest bowler would be heavily criticised – everyone is keen for long-term thinking until it risks losing games in the short-term.
If Archer has recovered from his elbow injury and is back to 100 per cent then he would be the obvious replacement. More likely, and certainly the most tempting option, is to play the two speedsters in tandem – something England fans have so far only been treated to in white-ball cricket.
That would put Curran or off-spinner Dom Bess most at risk of missing out but whatever the make-up of the team, if Wood is involved, England must decide how to use him.
He showed in the second innings in PE that he is far more than just a bang-it-in bowler, the delivery to clean up Elgar a prime example. He can find movement off the pitch when he pitches it up and when the ball starts to reverse, he is a huge threat.
Would shorter spells, bowling a fuller length with the odd bouncer, allow him to operate at full tilt while still protecting those troublesome ankles? It seems very simply but quite possibly. It would certainly give the bouncers more of a surprise element.
Wood will run in and try to do whatever is asked of him, England need to figure out exactly what that is and for how long and how often they can reasonably ask him to do it.