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News

Mark Wood: 'When I'm at full biff, it's like a catapult'

Extreme speed backed up by new-found subtlety as Wood makes his home comforts count

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
06-Jul-2023
Hindsight is a terrible tease, but where might this series be now had Mark Wood been fit to play the first Test at Edgbaston? To judge by his ferocious pad-thumper to a motionless Pat Cummins in the afternoon session, Australia's captain probably wouldn't have been quite so composed in that fraught run-chase, especially against a bowler with a proven ability to transcend the conditions on flat decks - see Wood's priceless performance on the final day at Multan for recent evidence.
But he's here now, all right, and after claiming his fourth five-wicket haul and his first on home soil, a sensational 5 for 34 in 11.4 overs, Wood was champing at the bit to make up for lost time in England's hour of Ashes need.
"I'm delighted," Wood told Sky Sports at the close. "Obviously I haven't played a Test match in a while, but to be able to come back fairly fresh and produce that was pretty special."
However, Wood was also keen to prove that he's learnt a few new tricks since he was last unleashed in a home Test, against India at Lord's almost two years ago. For pace may be pace (yaar) when you're playing on a road in Pakistan, but on one of the most helpful home surfaces that he's ever been unleashed on, Wood had a mission to ensure that his eye-watering speed was translated into wicket-taking success.
"I was really happy that I could show in home conditions that I can bowl as well," he said. "Movement, that's what's deadly I think. If you just bowl fast, these top players are just used to that. They face dog-stick guys [throwing the ball] off 17 yards, so they're used to facing quick bowling. So I the thing that helped today was the movement really."
For all that his day's work was done in the blink of an eye (or three-and-a-bit, to be exact - four precisely measured bursts of four, two, three and 2.4 overs, spread evenly across the innings) Wood's tactics were more carefully calibrated than his raw speed might suggest, as he explained in front of the Sky Sports replay screen at the close.
"In general the wicket felt to me like, when you went up there, it came onto the bat, it slid on," he said, referencing how David Warner had leant on Stuart Broad's first ball of the match and pinged it for four down the ground.
"So it was about trying to hold the good length to keep [the batter] on the crease and then I thought, 'right, this is the one I'm going to try and get the wicket', push it right up there with a bit of swing, and luckily it paid off."
No wicket was more spectacular in that regard than his first, a stunning stump-wrecker to Usman Khawaja that was clocked at 94.6mph - and given Khawaja's prior record in this series, 300 runs from almost 20 hours of application across the first two Tests, no wicket was more essential to England's cause, either.
"We were discussing it as a bowling group out there," Wood said. "At Headingley you think, 'full, full, full', but then you can get drawn in, so it's just that balance of when to attack the stumps and when to hold it in. It was more a case of bashing the top of the stumps on that nicking length, and then the odd one full rather than being full all the time."
A still image of Wood's point of release during that spell emphasised the extraordinary physical toil his bowling puts on his body, but also the remarkable rewards when his action is perfectly aligned, with a braced front knee, and fully loaded torso, compared to a fractionally buckled load-up for his second spell, when his speeds intermittently dipped below 90mph.
"When I'm at full biff, it feels like all my body's going towards the batsman. It looks like an awful position, but it's almost like a catapult sling that, when you let it go, all the chinks in the chain fizz the ball out."
But it was the subtlety that Wood brought to his performance that pleased him the most - especially knowing that, in the past, he probably wouldn't have been given first dibs on such a pitch.
"I'm usually on the flat ones, to be fair, and my record is much better away from home," he said, citing a record of 49 wickets at 24.18 overseas, compared to 35 at 40.71 prior to today, both from 13 Tests.
"On wickets like today, when the ball moves around, you're automatically thinking Anderson, Broad, Robinson, Woakes," he added. "They are your top guys who can trouble people in these conditions.
"For me, being able to move the ball today, it's really helped me, because that's not something that I've always done to be, to be brutally honest. I've tried to work hard behind the scenes on the wobble-seam, through speaking to the other guys and the bowling coaches.
"It's something I'm trying to get better at. I'm 33, but I'm still trying to get better and better, even though it's a slow progress. It doesn't just happen overnight.
"But I like bowling away from home, because it brings in reverse-swing. And the bouncer attack on flat pitches, I feel really that suits me, because they sometimes skid through and it's hard to play especially with the field."
The short ball at Headingley, however, proved a trickier weapon to get right, particularly when the WACA-born-and-bred Mitchell Marsh was climbing into his sensational run-a-ball counterattack in the afternoon session.
"If you bowled it too short, it looped over the keeper, and then if you didn't get short enough, it's in that Australian sweet spot, where they play it really well," Wood said. "It's about that happy medium you got to find.
"Mitch Marsh played fantastically well. He was difficult to bowl at in that period, when the ball went from having that zip off the wicket, and all of a sudden, it looked very different when he was in. But of course, when a new batter came in, it was tough again.
"I've had a good day. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, I've got to back it up. This is a must-win game, and we've got to back it up in the second innings. But the outfield is rapid and rock hard. We're gonna score quickly if the lads can get in tomorrow."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket