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Chris Woakes, from school prefect to bearded brawler

England's under-fire seamer adapts to livelier pitch and reaps rewards

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Chris Woakes hits his delivery stride, West Indies vs England, 3rd Test, Grenada, 2nd day, March 25, 2022

Chris Woakes picked up three wickets during his best day on the tour  •  AFP via Getty Images

How do you solve a problem like Chris Woakes? Not that you'd think there's much wrong with a fine, multipurpose cricketer and all-round good guy, a man capable of scoring a Test hundred and opening the bowling in a World Cup final. If he were a vehicle, Woakes would be a high-spec, low-emission five-door saloon that comes with automatic parking assist and plenty of room in the trunk.
Yet there is one element of his game where the reviews turn consistently negative: an overseas bowling average in the 50s. Contrast that with Woakes' heroics in home conditions, where he takes his wickets at a cost of 22.63 - better than the two classic roadsters left behind for this trip, James Anderson (24.20) and Stuart Broad (25.78) - and you have the central conundrum that England's hierarchy were hoping to address over the course of a three-Test series in the Caribbean.
Come the second day in Grenada, it's fair to assume that conclusions were already being drawn. Woakes had misfired badly with the spotlight on him in Antigua and things had not improved perceptibly since that ropey first spell. He might not have played here, had Ollie Robinson been fit, and had chipped out two wickets - Jermaine Blackwood and Kemar Roach - from two-and-a-bit Tests, that clunking away record continuing to hang around his neck like an albatross.
England may have thought that entrusting Woakes with opening the bowling would increase his cutting edge, but another tepid start set the tone in the wrong way. Kraigg Braithwaite and John Campbell calmly compiled their third 50-plus stand of the series, aided by a new-ball spell from Woakes and Craig Overton that carried all the menace of an offer of flowers and a foot massage. Half of the 30 deliveries Woakes bowled were left alone, and figures of 5-2-11-0 took his combined returns from initial spells across five innings in Antigua, Barbados and Grenada to 21-6-70-0.
All this on the spiciest pitch of the tour, one which had enabled West Indies' seamers to fill their boots in reducing England to 114 for 9 on day one. Perhaps conditions had eased - as they clearly did while Jack Leach and Saqib Mahmood were putting on their last-wicket salvage operation - but the comparison was not flattering. Jayden Seales, Roach and Co. had required a bit of time to get things right, England's openers surviving into the 13th over before wickets began to tumble - but up to that point, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball logs, the West Indies fast bowlers had induced 21 not-in-control responses; across the same number of deliveries, England managed just nine.
"I think in the first hour we probably could have bowled a little bit fuller," Woakes told BT Sport after play. "We were probably a little bit short, could have made the batsmen play a little bit more. But at the same time, I actually thought when we got the ball in the right areas, the ball didn't seem to offer a lot of what we saw yesterday. Maybe the roller wore off after an hour and then once we got the ball in those areas more consistently, we saw it was more difficult to bat."
Reasonably put but once again there was a sense that, no matter how many admirable skills he does possess, Woakes was lacking for something. Nasser Hussain wrote in his autobiography about how Duncan Fletcher, England's coach during his captaincy, rated Darren Gough for a quality he referred to as the "dogf*ck" - translated by Hussain as "the ability not to get fazed and to know what to do". Woakes, to put it mildly, doesn't come across as a prime "dogf*ck" candidate.
But one player in the England XI does undoubtedly have those Gough-like qualities of indefatigability and resourcefulness. If Woakes has been the de facto attack leader, in the absence of Anderson and Broad, then Ben Stokes was once again the ring leader as the tourists set about turning things around after a fruitless first hour.
Stokes crowbarred an opening by hitting the pitch hard, getting one to scuttle through and pin Brathwaite lbw; Saqib Mahmood found similar success against Shamarh Brooks, and when Overton dug one in short to produce a glove down the leg side from Campbell, England had their template for success on a surface that remained tricky to bat on if no longer the green mamba of Thursday morning.
None of which seemed to bode well for Woakes and his prim, orthodox approach when he was called back into the fray after lunch. But then you don't survive for more than a decade in international cricket, claiming almost 300 wickets as well as a World Cup winner's medal, if you don't have a bit about you. Maybe the "dogf*ck" was there after all, or perhaps it was simply a change of fortune, but Woakes had suddenly gone from school prefect to bearded brawler in the thick of the action.
Immediately he began to bowl a more attacking line, England reviewing unsuccessfully for an edge down the leg side off Blackwood, then seeing a similar decision given against Nkrumah Bonner only for the DRS to intervene again. But Woakes kept bashing away until he finally hit pay dirt.
His first wicket came via a skidding bouncer that left Bonner on his backside as it kissed the glove through to Ben Foakes. Three balls later, he again tested out the middle of the pitch to good effect, Jason Holder miscuing a pull to deep square leg. Blackwood was then pinned just above the knee roll and this time the umpire - and the technology - sided with the bowler. West Indies were 95 for 6 and, while not quite in the same stew that England had extricated themselves from 24 hours previously, the game was evenly poised.
"To pick up three today was really nice," Woakes said. "I always try to do a job for the team. That was quite an important spell after lunch, getting their middle order out. It's the sort of wicket, with the ball getting softer that they could have cashed in. As long as I'm doing a job for team I'm happy.
"Obviously I would have loved to have taken more wickets, but it hasn't happened. The most important thing is trying to do a job for the team and whilst I'm still selected I will continue to do that."
At the end of the day things were still in the balance, as another lower-order fightback edged West Indies in front on first innings. Woakes had bared his canines and claimed three or more wickets in an innings of an away Test for only the fourth time in 36 attempts - whether his efforts are to be remembered as a vital contribution to a gutsy Test win or a footnote in England's latest failure in the Caribbean is as yet unwritten.
It wasn't quite a case of Woakes saying "No more Mr Nice Guy" and tearing up all our pre-conceptions. But it might help prevent England from deciding "No more Mr Nice Guy" the next time an overseas tour comes around.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick