England v South Africa, 2nd Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 2nd day July 16, 2017

Wood struggling to find his shock and awe

The Durham quick bowler, making his way back in Test cricket, has not been able to provide additional spark to England's pace attack

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Butcher: Wood's spot under scrutiny

There was a theory that did the rounds during the 2015 World Cup that the reason England's bowlers persisted with the slower-ball bouncer was that, when they attempted the delivery in the nets to their own batsmen, it worked a treat. It's just that when they tried it against almost every other side's batsmen, it was thrashed into the stands.

Maybe it has been the same with Mark Wood in the Test series against South Africa. Had Wood been bowling to his team-mates at Trent Bridge, he might have had a hatful of wickets. But as he was bowling against men who were prepared to graft through tough periods, men who were prepared to play the ball on its merit and who sell their wickets dearly, he has been left empty handed. The only wicket he has taken in the series has been that of JP Duminy - something of a mercy killing, really - and that was with a long-hop. His average for the series - 197 - is so ugly it only goes out under cover of darkness and wearing a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Wood hasn't bowled badly, by any means. While his speeds have not, perhaps, been quite what they once were - or at least what once was hoped of from him - he has still bowled the quickest delivery by an England seamer in the match (90.1 mph in the second innings; Ben Stokes was quickest in the first with a delivery of 88.6 mph. Chris Morris - at 92.5 mph - has been the quickest in the match so far) and, while he has been hit for more boundaries (22) than any other England seamer in the match, his lines and lengths have been reasonably good.

But Wood is meant to be a weapon of shock and awe. Not dull and bore. And as South Africa's second innings started to shut the door on England, it became increasingly apparent that Wood didn't have the keys to unlock it.

It wasn't the first time, either. Wood was relatively anonymous at Lord's. While he was, again, the quickest member of the attack, it was only by 0.1mph from Stokes. And that's not enough to count as a point of difference. And if he isn't offering anything different - anything explosive; anything that can threaten a breakthrough on flat surfaces - his value to the side is vastly reduced.

There are other bowlers - the likes of the injured pair of Jake Ball and Chris Woakes - who can offer control. And while Wood has gained a little swing in the first innings at Trent Bridge, it has tended to be early and predictable. Again, Woakes and Ball can probably provide that skill more reliably.

The man who Eoin Morgan turns to in white-ball cricket - the man who dismissed Kane Williamson with a snorter (albeit one that may have benefited from some assistance from the pitch) in a key Champions Trophy match in Cardiff - has regularly looked the most innocuous member of England's seam attack in this series. Instead, it was Stokes who produced the stand-out spell of the third day. A spell of nine overs for eight runs that included the wicket of Dean Elgar caught fending off a bouncer. It was exactly the sort of spell England hoped for from Wood. And if Stokes can provide it, England may well be better served looking for a bit of variation from another source.

There are several caveats to all this.

The first is that South Africa's batsmen have played excellently. Elgar and Hashim Amla in particular - Heino Kuhn, too - have demonstrated the discipline and patience that England's batsmen should have shown in their first innings. They have played the moving ball like experts and put a much higher price on their wickets.

Mark Wood's lone wicket for the series is JP Duminy at Lord's © Getty Images

The pitch has also slowed. Whatever moisture might have been in it at the start has long since departed and, while there is a little movement on offer, batting is certainly easier against an older ball. And Wood usually has to wait a while before he gets his hands on it.

It might well not be the sort of surface that suits him, either. Wood appears to be at his most valuable when the pitch is flat but offers some pace. He can, when conditions suit, gain dangerous reverse swing and he can, when conditions suit, generate pace and bounce from a length that few bowlers in England can match. This surface increasingly seemed to suck the energy out of his bowling. It will be interesting to see how Morris copes on the fourth day and it doesn't necessarily mean Wood won't be useful in Australia.

Wood is feeling his way back after injury. The Lord's Test was his first since late 2015 and, when a man has had three operations on an ankle within a year, it is only natural there is to be some hesitation, perhaps subconsciously, when he returns. He has admitted he thought he may never play Test cricket again. It may take a while for him to regain full confidence in his body.

The England camp also reported that he had a bruised heel towards the end of the third day. While they specified that there was nothing the matter with his much operated upon ankle, it seems fair to conclude that his performance may have been inhibited a little.

Is that last one a caveat? The worry remains that Wood simply doesn't have the frame for the rigours of Test cricket. Certainly back-to-back Test cricket. Or that those injuries have robbed him of that little bit of magic - that extra one or two percent - that gave him that point of difference. Either way, it might well be a mistake to consider him for back-to-back matches in future.

And while he might still have a valuable role as a squad player, it really does seem optimistic to the point of recklessness to expect him to be at his best in all five Ashes Tests in a few months' time.

There is some encouraging news for England. Woakes takes another step on his recovery on Tuesday when he plays for Warwickshire's Second XI in their Championship match against their Durham counterparts. But he is appearing only as a specialist batsman and, with Warwickshire not playing another first team Championship match until August 6 - the final Test starts on August 4 - he will have very little chance of gaining match-readiness before the end of this series. The window created for T20 cricket has some pretty obvious downsides.

Wood, to his credit, has shunned the option of life as a limited-overs specialist. Even on the eve of this match, he spoke of his hunger to prove himself as a Test player and he doesn't seem the sort to change his mind after a tough few days at the office. The fact is, though, he had a relatively short window of opportunity in which to prove himself as a first choice and, right now, he hasn't been able to take it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Lloyd on July 19, 2017, 11:03 GMT

    I felt at the begging of the series that the team England selected was not their strongest. Having said that I still thought the balance of the team was admirable. A few selections I think are strange but perhaps it's because I haven't really followed the England squad since their last tour of SA. WRT the bowling, I can't understand why Finn is not in the team he caused absolute havoc in SA and the likes of Amla and Faf do not like facing him. He should come in for Wood. Secondly Dawson the number 1 spinner in England!? Laughable. Especially after all the time England have been investing in Rashid. Rashid should come in for Dawson and Ali will have to be a holding spinner if required to do so. But not forgetting that Ali has taken buckets of wickets this series so he can attack as well. WRT the batting, I still think England may have given up on Hales too early but another option is Malan, who destroyed SA attacks last month. He should come in for Jennings and Stoneman for Ballance.

  • gamont7503123 on July 19, 2017, 7:59 GMT

    When you bowl really quick, but pretty much all the time gunbarrel straight, Test batsmen find a way to ensure you are unsuccessful. Mark Wood , like the recent Indian test discard Varun Aaron will have to improve his ability to swing ( or at least seam OR reverse swing) the ball to be a Test success. That he is quick and physically threatening when fully fit is undeniable, that he's a quality Test bowling prospect remains doubtful.

  • cricfan5529333340 on July 18, 2017, 0:07 GMT

    How fickle are the England fans? A week ago they were cheering Joe Root and the England team after winning the 1st test, against South Afric the no: 1 test team in the world in a canter. This week the same team is lambasted for playing rubbish. What they are forgetting is that some of the players are not the finished article and are having difficulty in switching from one format to the other. Another thing they have to learn is the art of the referral system- I feel if they had referred Amla for a caught behind, the game might have taken a different direction. All I can ask is that we give Joe and his team an even break.

  • Bob on July 17, 2017, 17:02 GMT

    Wood has got to look at how Anderson became so successful and copy him. I remember watching early 2000's England tours to India and during the lunch break, Jimmy, being the 12th man and drinks carrier during the game, was always out on the pitch, bowling at a single stump. Just trying to hit the top of it repeatedly. He then went through a nightmare after having to change his action, and he basically did the hard yards. He grafted. Wood has also got to develop more of an edge; off the pitch Jimmy is the nicest guy you could meet, but on it he is like a rampaging bull. Wood needs to get batsmen to dislike like him more, and thereby force more mistakes. He needs an edge to his character.

  • Hashim on July 17, 2017, 14:11 GMT

    Wood has the potential to be England's leading bowler once Anderson goes. Though he will have to work extremely hard on his accuracy and swing which is necessary in the test arena. In my opinion, he has still got approximately 2-3 years to develop his bowling before Anderson leaves.

  • Mashuq on July 17, 2017, 13:34 GMT

    Whether or not Wood has the frame for test cricket is a matter of conjecture. What is beyond doubt is that he has the potential to be a test bowler since he is quick and skiddy and can reverse the ball and that counts as a point of difference with the likes of the tall timber like Ball, Finn etc. But atm he isn't offering anything sufficiently explosive that can warrant his place in the team. Woakes and Rashid for him and Dawson are no-brainers for the Oval, but Ballance needs to go as well. These selectors are something else: 3 lefties at the top was always going to be poor against the Protea opening bowlers! Go figure.

  • Stuart on July 17, 2017, 13:08 GMT

    I think that he and maybe Dawson won't get a game next time out. The worry is who to pick as a replacement seamer (Overton or Gregory from Somerset maybe), and I'd go with an extra batter in Lawrence or Westley from Essex, then move Ballance to 5 as i can't see England making too many changes.

  • davidr9715974 on July 17, 2017, 13:01 GMT

    It's being reported that Woakes will not take part in this series. If that's true then England is in some serious trouble because Wood is definitely not the answer and Jake Ball is not much of an improvement either.

  • michae7471641 on July 17, 2017, 9:52 GMT

    Wood appears far too genial to engender fear and he hardly ever bowls balls that are pitched up far enough so that they are actually going on to hit the stumps. This preoccupation with outright pace is flawed thinking, especially when it's they kind of bowling delivered to batsmen who predominantly play on hard wickets and are accustomed to it. Philander and Anderson have been the best bowlers in this match because they make the batsmen play more often than not. Pace has virtually nothing to do with it.

  • Olivier on July 17, 2017, 9:51 GMT

    Never understood the excitement around him in tests, seems like Chris Woakes 2012 with more pace and no movement off the seam or through the air. In limited overs his bowling is good as his pace and lower height will make it harder to hit and allow him more variations but in tests you need more than just raw pace, people have bowled 160km an hour but none of those deliveries were wicket taking ones yet you'll see Philander for South Africa barely touching 130km with a test bowling average of 22. I think I know who I'd rather have, not even mentioning Wood is probably the archtype number 10 from the 20th century.

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