'Important we focus on the here and now' - Chris Woakes parks Ashes talk, targets T20 World Cup
Allrounder says England hoping to do "something special" in Australia, but World Cup comes first
Chris Woakes says that England's multi-format players must find a way to put the Ashes phoney war on the back-burner, and focus instead on their immediate challenge at the T20 World Cup, after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling finally resulted this week in the naming of a 17-man squad for next month's tour of Australia.
Woakes was one of the players with young families to have expressed serious reservations about the England touring party's quarantine restrictions, both in the lead-up to the first Test at Brisbane on December 8 and potentially thereafter as the series moves across state borders. And while their stance has attracted some criticism, notably from Ian Botham, who last week questioned whether the players "fancied the ultimate test" of an Ashes tour, Woakes was adamant that the post-Covid world fully justified their refusal to put up with less-than-sympathetic conditions.
"We all realise the world is a different place to what it was 18 months ago, before the pandemic happened," Woakes said. "So I don't think there's any hiding behind Covid. If we were living in a normal world, this wouldn't be the case. We would be champing at the bit. But quarantine is a big thing. We've done a hell of a lot of it and so the thought of having to do 14 days of it with families is quite a big thing for a lot of people."
Woakes admitted he does not yet know the precise travel arrangements for his family, given that the multi-format players are due to link up with the Test specialists in mid-November, at the conclusion of their campaign in the UAE.
"There is a small thing of the World Cup first, so obviously I have my eyes firmly on that," he said. "It's good news with regards to Australia and the Ashes tour. There was never too much doubt that everyone was keen to go and play but obviously there are things happening in the world right now and people want securities around what life is going to be like once we are there."
While England's selectors have managed to pull together their strongest available squad, with Jos Buttler confirmed as Joe Root's deputy after his own concerns about the tour conditions, there is a notable lack of firepower compared to the plans laid out by the ECB this time last year.
With Jofra Archer and Olly Stone both injured, and Ben Stokes still unavailable despite tweeting on Monday that his latest finger operation had allowed him to grip his bat handle properly for the first time in six months, the selectors have opted for "Plan B", with a reliance on accuracy and discipline to back up the squad's sole out-and-out quick in Mark Wood.
And that's where Woakes hopes to come into his own this winter. By his own admission, his experience in Australia on the 2017-18 tour was a chastening one, as he claimed 10 wickets at 49.50 in England's 4-0 series loss. But, at the age of 32 - and after two years of stealthy improvement on overseas campaigns - he believes he now has the skills required to perform a key role with the Kookaburra ball, and give the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson the back-up they will require to compete this time around.
"Obviously, I toured there in 2017-18 and it didn't go as well as we would've liked as a team, so I'm really hoping we can do something special this time round," Woakes said. "Going Down Under is never an easy tour, they play really hard cricket there, and tradition and history suggests we don't go there and win too often as an England side. But the opportunity to compete and win an Ashes is something that doesn't come around too often for players. So of course we are excited about that prospect."
England have not won in Australia for more than a decade now, since Andrew Strauss's men prevailed 3-1 in 2010-11. And yet, that bowling attack - led by Anderson, with the likes of Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan playing key roles after Broad's tour was cut short by injury - was also light on genuine 90mph-plus bowlers, and was instead notable for the manner in which it "bowled dry" to frustrate Australia's batters in the course of three innings victories.
"We do have Mark Wood as one bowler with express pace," Woakes said. "By no means do we have anyone bowling above 85[mph] after him, but teams have had success there by being relentless, putting the ball in the right area, and moving it off the straight and having good plans.
"We have to come up with plans to get their best players out, and to try and take 20 wickets to win Test matches. We have to draw on the experiences of teams that have been there and won. Not only the 2010-11 England side, but more recently India and South Africa before that, and try to replicate how they did it."
Given his primary focus on white-ball skills in the UAE, Woakes said that he had not yet been practising with a Kookaburra this winter. However, having gone (for a variety of reasons) more than a year between Tests, he can take some confidence from his relative success in his two most recent overseas appearances, with a total of seven wickets at 25.71 in New Zealand and South Africa in 2019-20.
"I haven't played a huge amount of overseas cricket since [the 2017-18 Ashes], but when I have, I feel like I have improved," Woakes said. "I feel like I am bowling a better length more consistently and actually I have to been able to get that Kookaburra ball to move a bit, when I haven't previously.
"I am four years older [than in 2017], I have played more cricket, I've got more experience under my belt, and I believe I am a better bowler now than I was then. I have played a lot more frequently since then and I feel a bit more at ease at that level."
For the time being, however, Woakes' primary focus is on his return to the T20I squad - and the prospect of adding the 20-over World Cup to the 50-over crown that he played such a key role in winning in 2019. Despite playing just ten T20I matches in more than a decade of international cricket, Woakes' exploits for Delhi Capitals in the IPL have earned him another shot in the shortest format, and one that he is eager to seize.
"We have no choice [but to compartmentalise]," Woakes said. "We have a big World Cup in front of us, you don't want to get to the end of the World Cup and think 'I wasn't fully engaged'
"We have to give this our full attention - what is going on with the Ashes is on the back-burner and there are people dealing with that on our behalf. You can't get too fixated on that - it is important we focus on the here and now. It is a great opportunity to lift some silverware for your country and, to be honest, I think this T20 World Cup could pretty much be won by anyone."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket