Match Analysis

Mark Wood finds relief in rare breakthrough as hard graft earns overdue reward

A solitary wicket in 44 overs in Sri Lanka was scant reward for some wholehearted efforts

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Mark Wood's methods are a subtle as a sock of wet sand in a broad-daylight bank heist. He's the bloke who walks straight up to the counter in defiance of the high-security arrangements, and slams repeatedly on the plate glass in the unfailing belief that it will break.
By contrast, Stuart Broad in the first Test and James Anderson in the second have shown rather more in common with those cunning old lags who drilled through several feet of concrete to break into Hatton Garden's vaults some years back. Years of game-craft and know-how, distilled into a faultlessly executed plan, and leaving barely a trace of their actions in the aftermath, as their current combined series figures of 45-24-58-6 amply attest.
But sometimes, frankly, subtlety has to go hang. Sometimes the only option is to send in the heavies and kick in the front desk, as Wood demonstrated on the opening day of the second Test at Galle with a gut-bustingly heroic display.
His figures, on the face of it, are an confirmation of his one-dimensional approach - so far in the series Wood has served up 44 overs for a solitary breakthrough at a cost of 117 runs, and it took him 234 deliveries to prise that one and only opening in his third innings in the field.
But what a crucial opening it could prove to be - the dislodging of Sri Lanka's captain, Dinesh Chandimal, to end a fourth-wicket stand of 117, in the midst of an unrelenting eight-over spell, Wood's longest single stretch of bowling since his Test debut at Lord's, six years ago.
And the manner in which he did the business, howling a reverse-swinging pad-thumper back into the right-handed Chandimal, was an indication of why England must surely persevere with Wood - both at the back end of this winter's Asia tour (when he returns from a spell of R&R during the first two Tests in India), and onwards into the Ashes at the end of the year.
By then he will be 32 - and given how brutally hard he has been made to work for his wickets in the course of an injury-plagued career, it's possible that the effort that another year of Covid-influenced combat may drain him of his Tigger-like optimism and bounce. But until that point comes, Wood seems committed to throwing himself bodily into every spell for which he's picked, and reaping whatever rewards he can glean - whether they are at his end of the pitch, or his team-mates'.
"We bowl in tandem, and we often talk about that as a bowling group," Wood said. "Passing on your spell to the next bowler, and trying to help them at the other end. If I can get the batter's beans going, they might play a rash shot against the spinners when they're not enjoying it from my end."
That cunning plan didn't always look like working out on an arduous opening day, with Angelo Mathews proving impressively resistant to Wood's hustle. "He's been a thorn in my side," Wood acknowledged. "I'm sure he's using a wider bat."
Chandimal, on the other hand, found the going far less chilled, wearing deliveries on the helmet, fingers and ribs in the course of his hard-worked half-century, before finally succumbing to Wood's best ball of the day, the sort of fast-bending reverse-swinger that Galle's baked outfield was liable to make feasible after more than a week of action already.
And afterwards, Wood admitted that his over-riding emotion was "relief", as he got his Test wickets tally moving once again after claiming just two in as many appearances in the best part of 12 months.
"I felt I bowled decent in the first game, and I bowled a good spell in this game, but I just thought it wasn't meant to happen," he said. "I joked with Jon Lewis, the bowling coach, we could be here in 2054 and still be bowling from that Fort End and not have a wicket, and have none for 3000. So it's nice to actually have a one-for. It might be one for 3000 now."
True, there is very little point in getting carried away about Wood's impact in this contest, or even in his career as a whole. A record of 51 Test wickets at 34.01 does not scream of the sort of impression that England would like to believe he's capable of making - and in spite of the infrequency of his selection, it's already approaching two years since his extraordinarily rapid onslaught in the St Lucia Test against West Indies - a spell that some observers reckon was the fastest ever served up by an England quick.
But in mitigation, Wood has not been looked after quite as well as a player of his selfless merits perhaps deserves. His selection for a solitary Test last summer - and that on the first and slowest pitch of the season at the Ageas Bowl - clearly rankles more than he lets on, as does his omission from England's list of ECB Test contracts, an oversight that feels ever more extraordinary the closer the 2021-22 Ashes draw.
For it surely cannot help a player of Wood's explosive attributes (and fragile ligaments) to feel he's on trial every time he takes the ball. In the build-up to the Test, all the talk had been of Olly Stone - another 90mph/145kph prospect, albeit four years Wood's junior, getting his first overseas call-up, while Wood's absence from the India Test will enable Jofra Archer to reaffirm the spearhead role that he held for five Tests out of six in the summer.
"I think I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said of his efforts building up to that cathartic wicket of Chandimal. "When you're in and out of the side, you're trying to cement your place, knowing there's people behind you, and people in front of you who aren't here.
"I didn't play much in the summer, so I wanted to try and make an impact," he added. "When you have no wickets you feel a little bit under pressure, so it's nice to get one on the board. I know it's not match-winning or a five-for, but it's a bit of relief and I can now relax into the game."
There wasn't much relaxation in prospect in his final onslaught of the day, however - an above-and-beyond display with an ageing ball, and one that ran counter to the measured approach that Joe Root had taken to Wood's spells in the first Test, in which two-, three- and four-over bursts had been the norm.
This time, however, faced with a Sri Lanka line-up who were determined to heed the lessons of their first-day meltdown in the opening Test, and armed with a ball that he alone was getting to move off the straight and narrow, Wood and Root both recognised the moment was right to go to the well. The short-term results may have been mixed, but after being handed a free pass into last week's first Test, the rewards for the toil were all the sweeter.
"I'm knackered," Wood declared at the close. "It was hard work. The conversation I had with Rooty was that I wasn't going to come back with the new ball, so rather than bowl three overs in that spell, and try to come back later, with the ball reversing, I was probably going to be the most threatening then.
"It didn't spin much for us today so we'll try to make inroads tomorrow. You need a bit of luck, but the thing we've got on our side is controlling the rate. It was great pressure from us as a group, so we'll keep that pressure on, keep hammering away and try and force that opening."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket