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Will England really miss Mark Wood?

Last updated on 20 Aug 2021 | 09:43 AM
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Will England really miss Mark Wood?

Six years on, the tearaway is far from a reliable weapon at home

As a captain, there are pros to having players who give their absolute 200% everytime they are on the field. Such individuals keep the overall intensity of the team high and also keep the opposition constantly on their toes. If the player in question is a fast bowler, there is nothing better. There is nothing more intimidating than fast bowlers who are willing to sacrifice their body during the time they’re on the field. 

But there are also cons to having such players, as Joe Root found out at Lord’s. His Mr. 200% Mark Wood, who takes to the field every time with an i-will-die-for-the-team attitude, injured his shoulder during the closing stages of the penultimate day in an attempt to save a boundary. Or, to put it precisely, Wood sacrificed himself in an attempt to save one run.

That act of Woody courage has now put the fast bowler in doubt for the third Test at Headingley, starting August 25. England are already without three of their premier seamers - Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes - and should Wood not recover, it would mean that the hosts would be taking to the field with an anything-but-fresh Anderson and Robinson and a greenhorn, most likely Saqib Mahmood.

Debates and discussions about Wood’s actions - whether it was a passion-induced act of bravery or mere stupidity - can be reserved for later. But with the real possibility that the tearaway could miss the third Test, it is time to revisit a topic that, last summer, was hot: How good exactly is Mark Wood the seamer in English conditions? And do England really need an enforcer like him at home, where pace is NOT king?

The pandemic-affected summer of 2020 saw England take a highly controversial decision in the very first game of the season, dropping Broad for Wood. Head coach Chris Silverwood had stressed that, specifically on the bowling front, England were looking at home Tests as a platform to explore Ashes options, and thus on a not-too-spicy Southampton wicket, it was Wood - who’d run riot in South Africa at the start of the year -  that got the nod.

The decision backfired: Wood finished with unremarkable match figures of 2/110 off his 34 overs, leaking runs at 3.2 an over. Windies won the game and though Wood was not to fully blame for the defeat, it was he who bore the brunt - the Durham man did not play a game again all summer.

A year on, England’s perspective of Wood clearly seems to have changed, evident by the fact that he’s played three of the first four Tests of the summer, but it is worth delving into his record and exploring whether there is actual merit in the Three Lions putting their money on him to make a difference.

For starters, it is important to acknowledge the fact that Wood the fast bowler outside England is an absolute monster. He’s bowled England to a series win in South Africa, has two five-wicket hauls in just eight Tests and has a remarkable overall average of 23.93 despite having played 50% of his away matches in Asia. These are numbers that are truly outstanding. But his record at home, however, is a bit curious, to say the least.

After 13 Tests, Wood’s average at home reads an ordinary 40.71, with him striking only once every 70.4 balls. Weirdly, these numbers have worsened since he’s become a regular part of the Test side. Since the start of 2016, Wood has averaged 45.93 in Tests in England, with his strike rate worsening further (82.3). 

In six years the right-armer is yet to take a four-wicket haul at home, with his best home figures extraordinarily coming in the previous Test at Lord’s, the 3/51 in the second innings.

Even in isolation, these numbers are bog-standard, but putting them into a larger context depicts just how much Wood has struggled at home.

Since the turn of the century, Wood is only one of two seamers in England to have averaged over 40 having taken at least 30 wickets. No English seamer this century (who has taken at least 30 wickets) has averaged over 36, with Liam Plunkett (35.57) being the closest. Wood’s strike-rate at home of 70.4 is also the worst for any seamer who has taken 30 or more wickets in England since 2000.

From a purely English perspective, too, Wood’s numbers at home are worryingly bad. Since 1970, Chris Lewis is the only English seamer to have taken more wickets than Wood at a worse average.

So, then, what exactly makes England keep going back to Wood, despite his numbers clearly indicating that he is far from being the ideal choice? For one, he is like no other seamer in the side. He can crank up the pace at will and clock between 90-95 mph consistently, throughout all five days. Not even Jofra Archer has an engine like him. 

Secondly, it is the tantalizing prospect of what he could produce that is too enticing for the management to ignore. At Lord’s, albeit only in phases, Wood showed that. With the pitch flattening out, he dismissed both the Indian openers in typical Wood fashion, before breaking the Pujara-Rahane partnership with an absolute snorter. Perhaps if he hadn’t hurt his shoulder diving, England might still have saved or won the match.

But with Wood - specifically at home - it is always the consistency that lets him, and ultimately the team, down. Sure you will get a spell like the one on Day 4, but you will also get plenty like the one in the first innings where, prior to dismissing Pant, he conceded a staggering 75 runs off the first 19 overs he bowled, often releasing the pressure in his quest to pull off the extraordinary.  

So what exactly is ailing Wood in English conditions? Is it lack of clarity with his approach? Is it his over-enthusiasm to ‘eff it, bowl fast’ or does he not merely possess the skill set to be successful in conditions conducive to conventional swing and seam bowling? Perhaps a combination of the three. But for starters, it is worth looking at the lengths he bowls at home.

As attested above, Wood has a pretty underwhelming record in England, having averaged 40.71 in 13 Tests. The right-armer's pitch-map data reveals that he's vastly straddled between ‘good length’ (45.2%) and ‘short’ (38.2%) overall at home, landing only 16.1% of his deliveries full.

His figures have significantly worsened since 2016 (with his average inflating to 45.3) and it is clearly evident that, across the past five years, there has been an urge to bowl a greater portion of deliveries ‘short’.

Why he has done so is understandable. ‘Bowl short and bowl fast’ has been Wood’s mantra in Tests away from home, and it is a tactic that has earned him enormous success outside England, evident by his away average of 23.93. As the graphic below demonstrates, a staggering 53.1% of Wood’s deliveries outside England have been short of a good length.

But there can be an argument that, ultimately, Wood’s tendency to bowl short is proving to be counterproductive at home. Perhaps what he needs to do is pull his lengths back, particularly when there is movement in the air and off the wicket. 

James Anderson (19.53), Stuart Broad (24.18) and Chris Woakes (23.23) have all been near-unplayable in English conditions in the past four years, and data from their pitch-maps during this timeframe (since 2017) shows that each of the three bowlers have found success at home by pitching the ball up.

Granted they’re not as pacy as Wood, the pitch-maps above depict how none of Anderson, Broad and Woakes have bowled more than 24% of their deliveries short at home in the past four years. Compare this to Wood, whose figure stands at 43.7%. Notably, each of the three seamers have also landed more than 50% of their deliveries in the ‘good length’ that often draws errors from batsmen, particularly in English conditions against a Dukes ball. 

Curiously enough, there was a phase in Wood’s career - when he first emerged into the international scene - where he did precisely that: land a good proportion of his deliveries in the ‘good length’. In the summer of 2015 - first against New Zealand and then in the Ashes - Wood landed exactly 50% of his deliveries on a good length. And sure enough, it yielded him good success, at least by his standards. Wood, at home in 2015, averaged 36.31, still underwhelming but a significant improvement on his numbers since, which is 45.3.

So, what went wrong after the summer of 2015? What we speculate will be mere conjecture, but there is a good possibility that Wood the seamer at home has suffered from the success of Wood the seamer away. Post the summer of 2015, Wood featured in just three Tests at home in the next five years, partly due to injury and partly due to the quality of the competition he was up against. During the said time frame, however, the Durham man played twice as many Tests away from home (six). 

Perhaps owing to the success of the tactic that worked so incredibly well outside England - bowl short and bowl fast - Wood got carried away and tried replicating the method at home. That could be a possible explanation for the discrepancy in his lengths of late. Or perhaps the tendency to bowl short crept into Wood’s game without his knowledge. For all we know, playing a hefty amount of white-ball cricket - where he, again, largely bangs the ball into the wicket - too could have had an adverse effect on his bowling in home conditions with the red-ball. 

What is clear, though, is that, despite now being into the sixth year of his Test career, Wood the pacer in England very much still remains a work in progress. Unlike his compatriots, he is still in search of a method that works for him and, much like Archer, he is still coming to terms with the fact that his biggest strength (pace and aggression) can sometimes be a bane.

Continuous game time is what will ultimately aid him in his quest to crack the English code, but the untimely shoulder injury has now reopened the risk of him going back to square one, an occurrence that has been far too frequent in his career. 

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