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Match Analysis

Mark Wood gets his rewards before England blow their victory shot

Indefatigable fast bowler channels spirit of Larwood to end frustrating tour on personal high

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Mark Wood jumps for joy after claiming his fifth wicket  •  Getty Images

Mark Wood jumps for joy after claiming his fifth wicket  •  Getty Images

Mark Wood targeted two things in the build-up to this Hobart Test, over and above the helmets of Australia's batters: "wickets and wins". Thanks to England's miserably frail batting, the latter notion proved to be a pipedream, but thanks to the former, it had been a whole lot more plausible in this contest than any other stage of this series, after one of the most richly merited five-fors in recent Test history.
It's rare to be able to say definitively that a bowler has "deserved" better rewards - how often has an English seamer, in particular, beaten the outside edge time and time again, only for their pitch map to suggest that they were half a yard too short to truly challenge the bat? That was arguably the defining theme of England's loss in their last pink-ball match at Adelaide - which also happened to be the one match of this series in which Wood was an absentee.
For Wood, by contrast, it's been a case of the shorter, the nastier, the better - and now, at the very last gasp of an indefatigable campaign, his efforts have earned him his very own step on the way up to the Bellerive pavilion, after he produced the best figures by a visiting bowler in Hobart's brief but proud Test history.
England have not dispatched a quicker bowler to Australia since Devon Malcolm's two tours in 1990-91 and 1994-95, and like Malcolm - whose career average of 37.09 did little justice to the raw hostility that he brought to his best spells - Wood looked set to depart with the admiration of his foes, but nothing tangible to show for it.
Prior to this match, his eight wickets had been bludgeoned at a Malcolm-esque 37.62, but in a hint of what might have been feasible with better support and more England runs to defend, five of those scalps had been a combination of Australia's big three: Steve Smith, David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne, all of them extracted before they had reached 30, and in Labuschagne's case, three times in as many innings after his ascent to the No. 1 Test ranking.
Wood's speeds, meanwhile, have been heroically unyielding - he's busted a gut to push 90mph in every spell, no matter how dog-eared the ball or tattered the match situation. And in that respect, he's emulated another lion-hearted performer of yesteryear, Darren Gough - whom Mark Taylor memorably said he would take as Australia's 12th man in that 1994-95 series, given how ebullient he had remained in the midst of another traumatic Ashes tour.
There were concerns, however, that even Wood had finally run out of steam in the opening exchanges of this contest - his third Test in a row, after years in which he had rarely been risked even for back-to-back encounters.
In a profligate first-innings display, Wood's first ten overs were panned for 74, including 31 in three pressure-releasing overs straight after the morning drinks break - and given that Australia had been 12 for 3 after the first ten overs of the match, it turned out to be a critical passage of play.
But the reality was that the conditions on that seethingly green first day called for a subtlety that Wood - to his credit, more often than his detriment - does not possess. Like New Zealand's Neil Wagner, Wood is a man with sledgehammer attributes, but the conditions that morning demanded a scalpel that he is not accustomed to handling. Had James Anderson been available, he surely would not have been used as first-change; had Jofra Archer not been broken before the series had started, he too might have possessed the versatility to thrive on that fuller, more forensic length.
Wood tried to oblige - he has not wanted for trying all tour - but instead, he was punished for his probing, most particularly by Labuschagne, the man over whom he had previously exerted a hold unlike any other bowler in world cricket.
According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, Wood bowled 46 balls on a good length or fuller across the two innings, and got clobbered at an economy rate of 7.69, with just the wicket of Australia's No. 10, Pat Cummins to show for it. In the first innings alone, half of the balls in that first spell were full: 21 out of 42. They vanished for an eye-watering 36 runs.
However, once he made the decision to drag that length back, for his post-tea spell on the first afternoon, Wood's returns were transformed - 3 for 41 in his remaining eight overs of that innings, all of them caught on the pull, and 9 for 78 in his final 24.3, with a succession of battered batters finding no answer to his line, his lift, and most of all, his stamina.
In that respect, Wood's methods have evoked another indefatigable Northerner - his near-namesake Harold Larwood, whose exploits were not exactly cheered to the rafters while he was zoning in on Don Bradman's forehead during the 1932-33 Bodyline series, but who came to be appreciated in hindsight, not least when he emigrated to Australia after the war. It's a stretch to suggest that Wood might set up a new home in Hobart after this performance, but he'd certainly be welcomed.
As for the Aussies in his sights, they may be grateful that, at 32, this is probably Wood's final appearance in a Test in Australia. Usman Khawaja may well suffer flashbacks from the bouncer that all but decapitated him as he gloved one off his throat, while the sucker-punch pull that Steve Smith hoisted to fine leg on the third morning was not only the moment that England truly knew they were back in with a chance, it was also the moment that Smith's average dipped below 60 for the first time since 2017.
Such pyrrhic victories have abounded in this contest - Warner's pair being another case in point - but Wood's refusal to let up at any stage of a desperate campaign has been a rare and precious joy for England's success-starved players and public. Thanks to his wickets, that win seemed, ever so fleetingly, to be a realistic prospect.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket