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Feature

Mark Wood: 'My role isn't to try and go for five, six an over, it's to try and get good players out'

Two elbow surgeries and a frustrating year later, the England fast bowler is finding his stride, and pace, again in time for the T20 World Cup

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
19-Oct-2022
'You want to give a good account of yourself in Australia. It's the fiercest atmosphere you can be in as an Englishman'  •  Getty Images

'You want to give a good account of yourself in Australia. It's the fiercest atmosphere you can be in as an Englishman'  •  Getty Images

Mark Wood is lying in a hospital bed, still under anaesthesia after undergoing elbow surgery. "Is my shoulder meant to be sore?" he asks in a video filmed by England physio Ben Langley. "That's weird, that. I've had elbow surgery but my shoulder's aching. Whatever. I'll still bowl fast. F***ing hit 'em in the head."
Seven months later he is in Australia doing just that. Wood has only bowled 12 overs in T20 internationals since his return to fitness but in that time has re-established himself as one of England's key players, taking three wickets in three consecutive games and hitting a top speed of 156kph in Karachi last month.
It has been a frustrating 2022 for him. He felt discomfort in his elbow during the Ashes last winter and it flared up on the tour of the West Indies, prompting surgery to remove bone and scar tissue. His first attempt at a comeback was unsuccessful and he went under the knife again at the end of July so that a ligament, which had been getting trapped in the joint, could be cut off.
"I changed my run-up three years ago and since then, things have been going really well," Wood says. "I've played a lot of games, found some form and done okay, I think, for England. So this was a setback. I had the first surgery but I could sense that it just wasn't getting there. This time, it's been sorted straightaway."
He is returning to Australia with his stock at an all-time high. Wood was England's standout bowler and leading wicket-taker in the Ashes last winter and was one of the few players to enhance his reputation during a gruelling 4-0 series defeat. "It's great to be going off the back of feeling like I bowled well there last time," he says. "You want to give a good account of yourself in Australia. It's the fiercest atmosphere you can be in as an Englishman."
His performances earned him praise from several greats of the game working in the media. "I would be texting one of my best pals back home, like, 'Brett Lee just came up to me' or 'Ricky Ponting just spoke to me.' We used to write their names down in a book as kids and pretend to be them in the back garden. It's amazing, really, to think that, one, they know your name, and two, they respect you as a cricketer."
This time, Wood will have his family in Australia and has plans to visit Palm Beach Currumbin CC on the Gold Coast, where he spent three seasons playing club cricket. "I'm hoping they can meet my son, Harry," he says. "At the minute, all he's into is tarantulas. He must have mentioned going to Australia to see the snakes and the tarantulas about 150 times. The zoo could be on the cards, on a down day."
Wood has quickly become one of the first names on England's T20 team sheet, despite a spasmodic short-form career to date. He has only played 44 T20s, more than half of them for England. His World Cup team-mates have toured the world playing for different franchises but he has only played one game in an overseas league, for Chennai Super Kings in the IPL in 2018.
But Wood possesses something no other England bowler has, with the exception of the injured Jofra Archer: genuine pace. Matthew Mott, England's coach, calls him an "X-factor bowler", and Jos Buttler has made it clear to him that he has been picked to take wickets. He has taken one every 14.3 balls across his T20I career, the best strike rate of any England bowler in the format.
Since returning to fitness, he has hardly bowled a slower ball, instead trying to "whack the wicket as hard as I could". Buttler has used him in every phase of the game and will continue to give him short bursts throughout the innings during the World Cup - most notably as a middle-overs enforcer.
"I think wickets are vital in T20 cricket," Wood says. "My role isn't to try and go for five, six an over. My role is to try and get good players out. It'll be to disrupt the sequence of the attack, so it's not just spin, spin, spin through the middle, or to try and make something happen, maybe for the guy bowling at the other end. If I can do that, it'll help the team later down the line.
"T20 can be a strange game, where you feel like you're bowling on the money and you get hit all over. Other days, you're off it, but you get four or five wickets. It's a strange game, but that's something that, as I've got older, I'm getting better at. I have a bit more perspective and I've become a bit more level in understanding that sometimes you can bowl well and still go the distance, or that you might just have an off-day."
This tournament will be Wood's second T20 World Cup and he is still looking to get off the mark with a record of two games, two defeats and no wickets in 2021. "I went in under a cloud, going in with a niggle and trying to get over it," he recalls. "When I came back, I was a bit off pace.
"I've played in the Champions Trophy and World Cup and done well, so this was the first time in a world tournament where I struggled. I thought I bowled okay in the semi-final but I didn't get a wicket. To leave with two games played and no wickets was a huge disappointment. I've got to do better this time."
Wood's relative inexperience in T20 cricket has been a product of his chequered injury history and England's non-stop schedule. "I have to be careful, being a multi-format player," he says. "I've made my choice to be ready for England more than franchise cricket. As a kid growing up, England was my dream.
"There will probably be a time in my career when I've got to look at a different avenue and I don't know how far away that is - hopefully a long time yet. I feel like an experienced cricketer but maybe not an experienced T20 bowler. With my injury record, I can't exactly just be like 'I'll play everything', because it's not sustainable."
He retains aspirations to return to the IPL - not least after having to withdraw from a Rs 7.50 crore (approx US$ 900,000) contract with Andy Flower's Lucknow Super Giants this year. "I'd love to try and prove myself out there. I'd love to win there but I'd love to develop as a player as well, then come back to England as a more rounded bowler."
Wood is one of six men involved in England's squads for both the 50-over World Cup in 2019 and this T20 World Cup (along with Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Adil Rashid). He is clearly determined to make his mark as they attempt to unite the white-ball belts, a prospect he describes as "f***ing unreal."
But he is also reassuringly down to earth, a quality that has endeared him to England supporters and one which shines through in The Wood Life, the "not-so helpful self-help book" he recently wrote with ESPNcricinfo's Vithushan Ehantharajah. "Back home, not a lot of people from my background get opportunities like this," he says. "I'm very lucky to do this.
"Obviously you work hard to get in this position but I could be doing something a lot different - something tough. You get looked after and treated fantastic, you stay in great hotels… who wouldn't want that? And you get to play cricket for England, which is the dream."
He adds with a grin: "It's just amazing to think how good it is to play for England." No matter how the next four weeks pan out for Wood and for England, one thing is clear: he'll still bowl fast.
The Wood Life: A Not So Helpful How-To Guide on Surviving Cricket, Life and Everything in Between by Mark Wood is out now

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98