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Feature

How does it feel to bowl fast? Mark Wood tells us

In his new book, one of England's fastest of all time gives us a sense of what it's like to be in his shoes

Mark Wood
12-Dec-2022
Rinse and repeat till you collapse  •  Getty Images

Rinse and repeat till you collapse  •  Getty Images

Nondescript whale music plays in the background amid the throng of chatter in the stands. As your captain hands you the ball, the Barmy Army start singing your name.
Let's start by taking a deep breath. Breathe in... and out. And once more, in... and out... You are now standing at the top of your mark. The ball is in your hand. Feel its seam in your fingers. You are relaxed. You are calm. The Barmy Army are singing your song. Your body is fresh, shoulders loose, spirit high. You are playing for England at home, and you have never felt more in your element. This is where you've always wanted to be.
You look up and survey the field. Slips, a gully, point. Someone in short because, hey, you're a fast bowler. You're the one they all came to see. All the expectation is on you to do what you do. A bit of pressure? Sure. That's to be expected. After all, you do something not many others in the world do. Quite a lot of pressure when you put it like that. But don't worry. It's fine. You've got this.
Your eyes then fix on the batter. This is the battle - between you and them. The wicketkeeper, the fielders, the umpire, the crowd, your family and friends who have travelled all that way to see you, everyone else in the ground, the millions watching on television, judging you - they are all irrelevant in that moment. Don't worry about them.
So, this batter. They've probably been in for a bit. Maybe they've just come to the crease. All you know is that you hate them. Perhaps hate's a strong word. Or it isn't, because all they want to do is make you look bad. They'll want to hit you for a boundary and if they do, a slow-mo of the shot will follow on the big screen to embarrass you even more. A commentator will say you bowled too full, too short or too wide and pick apart your technique. Twitter will go into overdrive and say you're s*** or something, and at the end of the day the captain will be asked in his press conference if you should be dropped for the next game. Later that week you'll be driving somewhere and switch on the radio and hear someone talking about how maybe you need to be rested because you can't play two games in a row. All because this useless batter hit you for four.
Sorry, no - calm. That's it. Remember the breathing at the start. Do that again. Heck, you've probably done it five times already and are getting lightheaded as you eye up this scumbag before you finally set off. Quickly. None of this jog stuff. You have to charge to the crease, making sure you get there just when you reach your top speed. Don't think about it too much. You've done this since forever. This is how you got to this position: all the overs in county cricket and ten thousand times more in practice. Don't fret. Seriously - stop fretting!
It's a straightforward run-up, marked along the way by the notches you painted earlier that morning when you were going through this all in your head. It seemed a lot easier then, didn't it? The stands weren't as full, you were having a joke with your team-mates. You might have even painted a smiley face at the top of your run-up along with your initials. This is fun, remember? Just a sport. With the wicketkeeper, the fielders, the umpire, the crowd, your family and friends who have travelled all that way to see you, everyone else in the ground, the millions watching on television, judging you. All irrelevant in that moment, of course.
As the crease gets bigger, your speed increases, while your stride remains consistent. Because as soon as you get in line with the standing umpire, a few feet away from the crease, you are going to need to leap into your gather. And as soon as you land on your right foot (left foot if you're bowling left-handed), you need to stomp your left foot down on the crease and send an incredible amount of force through it - seven times your body weight, in my case. On impact, you brace your landing knee and fling yourself over the top of it.
Internally, it's going to feel like you are the chain of an anchor that has just been dropped into the sea: all those connective links clicking into place one after the other. Each one needing to be in sync, else you don't bowl fast enough, accurately enough - or you seriously hurt yourself. For fans of medieval weaponry, think of yourself as a human catapult. The run-up and gather are the cranks, pulleys and chains being set up. And as you land to deliver, everything from your shoulder down is rigid to fling yourself forward into a whoosh! In the moment you deliver, everything is silent. All the external noises are blocked out. As you come over that front leg, even the batter disappears from view and, for a split second, your mind is empty.
By now, ideally you've let go of the ball. If you haven't, you've got a problem. Even if you have, there's still the follow- through to negotiate. Refinding your feet isn't particularly easy, especially as you need to ensure you don't run over the "danger zone" in the middle of the pitch, which is naturally where your momentum is taking you. If in doubt, do as I do and just fall over.
You pick yourself up and survey the end product. If you're lucky, it hasn't been hit for a boundary and your shame and career are safe. If you've got a wicket, why not go mental? Perhaps a section of the crowd have been giving you grief? Maybe even the batter? Feel free to rub it in their faces. If not, then get back to your mark. You've got five more to bowl to finish the over and five more overs to come after that. Not to mention the two other spells of all this you've got to get through before the day is over.
Oh, and don't forget those deep breaths.

****

So you're probably thinking, yeah, bowling quick sounds like an awful lot of hassle. But let me tell you, when you're in the zone, there's nothing like it. You can't feel the grass beneath your feet. Your legs feel light. You don't even really feel like you're sprinting. All you can feel is that build-up, build-up, build-up, build-up, build-up... and then WHOOSH! That release. I felt like that on Finals Day at Edgbaston for Durham against Yorkshire in 2016. I was out of the England team and was coming back from injury on a big stage against England players. I got big wickets - Gary Ballance, Jonny Bairstow, Liam Plunkett, Tim Bresnan - and I bowled well at Rooty, all top players. It reinforces your self-belief like nothing else.
Similarly at the same ground, I bowled well against Australia in the 2017 Champions Trophy, with 4 for 33 off my ten overs. I got David Warner, Steve Smith, Glenn Maxwell. That was the first international tournament I felt like I belonged, and to get them players out, in a big game, felt good. I felt like the difference-maker. Maxwell was the most satisfying. Eoin Morgan had asked us to "bomb him" - bowl a load of short balls at him - and he swatted it to deep midwicket where Jason Roy was. Jase took the catch right on the boundary, close enough that they had to review it. He was a dangerous player, it was a brilliant catch and the plan had come off. If he hits that a tiny bit more, that's six and I'm under pressure.
The first time I felt like that in Test cricket was in St Lucia, where I picked up my first five-wicket haul. It was also the first time I ever felt like the fielders were irrelevant. I was bowling where I wanted, at pace, not thinking about my run-up, where I was landing on the crease or where they could hit it. It was the first time I felt like an England cricketer, not just a player who played for England.
It makes all the other bad spells worthwhile. The spells where you don't necessarily bowl badly, but you feel it more. Those times when you're walking back to your mark and your body is reminding you of the toll you've put on your bones and joints. You feel like you're sinking into the ground, through your legs. You ache. When you set off to go again, you still have that build-up, build-up, build-up, build-up... WHOOSH! But it's just not as fresh. It might not be as explosive when it's your third spell of a Test match day, but that's something I have got better at over the years.
I think that's the aspect of fast bowling that surprises a lot of people, including fast bowlers. The relentlessness of it. The expectation and responsibility of doing it three times a day, five days in a row, for years. It's why the guys at the top are adored by everyone else, especially other fast bowlers. My favourite at the moment has to be Pat Cummins. I think he's immense, and not just because he owns half my foot. Just consistently fast as well as accurate and keeps turning out performances spell after spell, day after day, match after match. It's remarkable really.
Because every time you do it, it takes that little bit out of you. Bits you don't get back. You're never as fresh, you're never free from pain, never as explosive as the first time, whether in a day or even in your career.
But I suppose all the things that are worthwhile in life are earned. I'd love it if fast bowling came easier to me. I can't tell you how much I envy someone like Jofra Archer. Now that man is a Rolls Royce of a fast bowler. Throughout the 2019 World Cup we had a great partnership that bordered on a friendly rivalry. We'd gee each other up to bowl quick and it was so much fun.
He was convinced they never put his speeds up on the board, all this kind of stuff. But then mine would come up all the time and I'd get him to have a look. But whenever it was under 90, he'd shout, "Oh, you just warming up?" So I'd be like, "Right, I'll show you next, pal!" The next one might have been short, wide and a pile of rubbish - but it was never slow!
At the innings break of that World Cup final, our analyst came to me and told me I'd officially bowled the fastest ball of the World Cup at 95.7 mph. He also told me my 18 wickets were the second-highest of our team, but there was only one stat I cared about.
As soon as Jofra came through the door, I couldn't help myself.
"Jofra!," I shouted, desperate to tell him the news (and leave out that his 20 wickets were the most for our team). "You'll never guess who got 95.7?" He looked at me and he was not impressed.
"Look," I offered, "you tried, mate. Keep your head up. It happens. Live and learn, eh? Maybe you'll get to 95.7 one day." He furrowed his brow and looked me up and down. I had ice packs on my ankle, knee and side. I was barely able to stand and grimacing in between smiles.
"Look at me," he said, pointing down at his whole body, sleek, comfortable, barely a drop of sweat on him. "And now look at you."
I looked at myself, like an extra out of Band of Brothers, and thought, "Yeah, fair enough. I've had to rip my body in half to get anywhere near you."
Unfortunately, Jofra has endured his own tough times with injuries recently, which goes to show how tough fast bowling can be even for someone as smooth as him. I can't wait to bowl with him again.
Excerpted from The Wood Life, A Not so Helpful How-To Guide on Surviving Cricket, Life and Everything in Between, by Mark Wood, Allen and Unwin, 2022, available now