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Analysis

Wood stands out as England tick all the wrong checkboxes

It's already feeling like a long series for Root's beleaguered men. And we're only two days in

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
09-Dec-2021
It took one over for Shane Warne to start lamenting Chris Woakes' lack of "energy".
It took five balls for Shane Warne to complain about Ollie Robinson's failure to slip the handbrake, despite beating the outside edge twice in his first over in Australia.
The first "worrying signs for England" came as David Warner drove his first boundary in the fifth over, to hoist Australia to a heady 10 for 0.
But then, within three balls of his arrival, Mark Wood pinged one down at 150kph, and just for a glorious missed beat of befuddlement, the sound of stunned silence filled the airwaves. "150kph … wow…"
Yak. Yak. Yak. Australia's cricket fans may be conditioned to the word soup that spews forth from Fox Sports' roster of former Australian pros, but for English viewers - including BT Sport's studio pundits, condemned to this sub-standard arrangement due to some Covid-justified penny-pinching from their bosses - it's been an oddly immersive experience, not unlike wandering into the wrong bar in downtown Brisbane (back in the days when Queensland's borders weren't dotted with watchtowers and swaddled in barbed wire, of course).
In the end, the collective doom-mongering all proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as injury, insult and ignominy stacked up like a Jenga-tower of English woe, on a day that flirted with some of the most desperate, cliché-ridden depths ever encountered by their forebears on an Ashes tour.
A wicket with a no-ball? Check. A desperate dropped catch from a batter still brooding over his first-ball duck? Check. A missed run-out from three metres with the victim sprawled bat-less on the turf? Check. A critical injury to a frontline bowler, caused by over-eager fielding? Check. A bout of savage mistreatment for the team's now-barely-serviceable spinner? Check. An 85-ball final-session century from a hitherto unheralded middle-order Aussie? Check.
Throw in the sight of Robinson limping in before the close for one final over of 70mph trundlers, as if to prove Warne's original point about his match fitness, and you could, as he put it, "stick a fork in it". From an England perspective, this day was cooked good and proper.
And yet, the manner in which Wood's tireless, unyielding hostility tamed the big beasts in the commentary box was an insight into the respect that his efforts were due on the field as well. Pace is pace yaar, as they say in Pakistan. And rarely has an England bowler brought it with such menace to the Gabbatoir.
You wouldn't know it to judge by Wood's stats alone - 20-4-57-1 is the very epitome of an anonymous analysis, and when Jos Buttler compounded those figures with a dropped inside-edge off Mitchell Starc in the final over of the day, all that was missing to cap England's efforts was a frustrated boot to the boundary for overthrows, just as Graham Thorpe reacted to his missed chance off Devon Malcolm at the WACA in 1994-95 (and that was another spell of serious pace that went seriously unrewarded).
Without Wood, England would have been sunk by lunch on day two, as their passable efforts in the opening two hours were ransacked in the final 30 minutes of a rain-extended morning session - in which Australia almost doubled their total, from 57 to 113, in eight manic overs of spin-murdering acceleration.
Instead they rallied either side of tea and threatened at one stage to keep their deficit to double figures, only for Jack Leach's inability to hold up an end and Ben Stokes' fielding-damaged knee to place an intolerable strain on the rest of a toiling attack. Weather permitting, England will be sunk by the end of day four instead, which may make Wood wonder why he bothered. But at least the team will be able to move on in the knowledge that they possess a weapon that even their pace-blessed foes might covet.
It remains to be seen whether Wood will have the stamina to back up these efforts once the adrenaline wears off and the stiffness sets in - despite Jon Lewis, the bowling coach, vouching for his good condition off the back of the T20 World Cup, it could be that the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne is the earliest England will risk unleashing him again, especially given that the pink-ball Test may favour the more subtle attributes of Stuart Broad and James Anderson.
But at least Joe Root showed he's learnt how to handle a bowler with extreme pace. In eight separate spells, none of them longer than a three-over burst, Wood bust a gut and hurried all comers - not least the charmed David Warner, who might have nicked any number of his hurried flashes outside off, as he snatched at Wood's wider ones with the same taut reflexes that he required to negotiate the bouncing bombs into his ribs and torso.
Safe in the knowledge that he could throw everything he had into each mini-burst, Wood's pace did not drop below 140kph even for his sighters. This sympathetic handling was light-years removed from boy-with-new-toy approach that Root took to Jofra Archer at Lord's in 2019 - the match in which Steve Smith was left with concussion by a 96mph bouncer and Labuschagne got his big break as a substitute.
Archer, lest we forget, had been 26 overs into his work by the time that moment came, and after wheeling through 44 overs all told in his debut Test, he tweeted a photo of a geriatric struggling to get off his sofa. That response should have been a warning, rather than just a meme, given the long-term elbow injury that didn't just wreck England's hopes of him leading their Ashes attack, but threatens his viability as a future Test bowler. But at least the message seems to have sunk in to help prolong his stable-mate's shelf-life.
With respect to England's other two specialist seamers - most particularly Robinson, whose two-card trick after tea was the first moment all series that England felt in control of their destiny - this was a day that needed a point of difference. Right-arm similar has all too often proven a toothless tactic in Australia, most particularly during England's 4-0 defeat four years ago, which was arguably even more anticlimactic than their 5-0 drubbing in 2013-14 precisely because it was such a predictable outcome. And precisely because Mitchell Johnson - much as Wood would hope to emulate - came snorting into that earlier contest with a series of displays that were simply too hot to handle.
Woakes, for his part, let noone down with his diligent, deck-hitting seam, beating the edge and keeping it tight in a manner that Anderson would have been satisfied with. But the fact that this was also his first overseas Test since January 2020, and only his third since the Boxing Day Test four years ago, rather confirms the impression that England have been winging their strategy since the shelving of their all-out pace approach.
Robinson, of course, is even more of an overseas tyro, but at least he confirmed the rich promise that had enabled England to countenance the omission of both Broad and Anderson. According to one of the few nuggets of insight that the Fox Sports witterers offered up (and which they in turn gleaned from Cricviz), Robinson currently has the third-highest release point in world cricket, and while he's certainly tall at 6'5", he's hardly a beanpole to match the two men who tower above him, Kyle Jamieson and Jason Holder.
Instead he owes his reach to a finely tuned action that - much like Angus Fraser, another English medium-pacer who found success in Australia - offers absolute extension at the apex of his delivery stride. And from that point onwards - regardless of what Warne and his fellow tub-thumpers may believe - it isn't desperately important that he's pushing the speed gun, so long as he consistently finds those mythical "good areas".
But yes, like the proverbial stopped clock, Warne proved to be as right at the start of the day as he was at the end… a bit more "energy" through to the close from England's bowlers wouldn't go amiss. It's already feeling like a long series for Root's beleaguered men. And we're only two days in.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket