Is Woakes getting 2019 vibes for England’s Headingley chase?
Eng vs Aus: The allrounder is ready to play the Jack Leach role if more Ben Stokes heroics are needed for England to win the third Test. The skies are “Stranger Things” dark above Headingley. The moisture in the air has combined with the beaming floodlights to create some kind of anti-batter alchemy in a pitch that has, so far, given everyone a bit of something. Now it is skewed towards the bowlers. England’s, to be precise.
Fans had packed together under what little shelter there was in the concourses for the morning and afternoon rains. Some ventured onto the high street. Some even back into Leeds proper. Most had returned to the ground by the 4.45pm restart, and all were in their seats and strapped in for the evening by the time play recommenced at 5.04pm after a brief shower. Judging by the noise in the ground, not just the Western Terrace, it was clear how they passed the time.
The context of England needing to beat the elements and then Australia to begin an outlandish overturning of a 2-0 scoreline crystal clear. And here was the stage, set for demonic acts. Perhaps a devilish allrounder who gives his all for the team might provide them. In he walked, chest pumped, eyes focussed, arms bristling with tat… hold on, is that Chris Woakes?
Yep, it was. And how. In England’s most important session of the series so far, corresponding with the most crucial two hours of Woakes’ career, the 34-year-old summoned a display equal parts guile and guts to drag England towards victory in this third Test. There is still much to do, of course, but the hosts rest on Saturday night with 27 chipped off their target of 251 without loss. Where they would want to be.
Eng vs Aus: There have been five chases greater than 250 on this ground (insert mention of 2019) and this team under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have managed bigger successful fourth-innings shifts on five occasions. What optimism there is of what is to come tomorrow is because of what Woakes did today.
The wickets of first-innings centurion Mitchell Marsh and Alex Carey opened up the tail, both undone with surprise bounce off the surface. Marsh gloved through to Jonny Bairstow just as it looked like he was accessing his day one form, before, and not for the first time this week, Carey’s glove took out the stumps at the striker’s end.
All that came during a nine-over spell largely out of necessity. Neither Stokes nor Ollie Robinson were able to bowl, and despite Moeen Ali’s prudence on Friday evening, turning to spin would have been a risk and a waste given runs needed to be capped and the clouds still reigned up above. The wane at the end was understandable, as he found himself in the firing line of Travis Head’s one-man army with 17 taken from his final two overs.
Eng vs Aus: Tagged on to his first innings 3 for 73 from 17 overs, it has been a remarkable return to action for a player who thought he might never don Test whites again. The entirety of the 2022 summer was missed with a knee injury that eventually required surgery. He only returned to red ball action this summer with three County Championship matches for Warwickshire, sending down 76 overs.
The last of those came against Hampshire on May 7, and yet he has been able to summon the accuracy and nibble of old. This, by the way, was his first Test at home since September 2021. The consistent pace, the fact he swung the ball more than any bowler in the match so far, was a testament to his skills given the gap and the injury.
Maybe that should not come as a surprise. Woakes has a steel masked far too well by a geniality that constantly has him ranked as “the nicest man in English cricket”. Even if you did not know him, there’s a good chance if you called him up to ask for a lift to the airport, he’d oblige and probably offer to water your plants while you’re away.
Even the end he bowled from today – running in with the Rugby Ground behind him – was seemingly out of politeness to Mark Wood, who had gravity on his side from the Pavilion End, dismissing Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins with searing pace.
“It’s not actually an end I particularly like having bowled quite a bit here for Warwickshire and England,” Woakes said. “I much prefer to come down the hill, but I found a bit of rhythm from that end and actually it makes you snap into the wicket a little bit harder, whereas coming down the hill you can kind of go with it a bit.”
The “good guy” tag undersells the spirit and commitment to England across all formats. It’s worth noting that following last summer’s surgery, he went and won the T20 World Cup, becoming a dual World Champion in the process.
Woakes seems to suffer from the drawbacks of “Good Blokeism” rather than its benefits of nepotism and longer grace periods. It has seen him exist largely in this unfortunate limbo as a Test cricketer; one who is both easy to drop and easy to chuck a hospital pass.
Eng vs Aus: Only nine of his previous 45 caps have come in a row, back in 2016, partly because Stokes only made two Test appearances that summer. The last of Woakes’ Test appearances, in March 2022, looked like being the end of him. Broken after a draining Ashes series, he was sent to the Caribbean to operate as the leader of the attack after James Anderson and Stuart Broad were dropped. After a month of lifeless pitches, he returned more broken than before.
Of the wickets taken in this match, not a bunny among them in Marnus Labuschagne, Marsh twice, Head and Khawaja, it was the first on the list that elicited the biggest reaction from a usually measured individual.
“It’s just emotions, isn’t it?” said Woakes, almost apologetically. “The emotion of a Test match and with it being an Ashes Test match. Being on the sidelines watching for the last few weeks. And then getting the call, it shows that backing from the coach and the captain and a little bit of a relief that you’ve been able to get a big scalp like Marnus and put your faith in the decision to play.
“Also the gap in the fact I haven’t played in front of a crowd in England for a couple of years. You realise when you hear that roar it brings out that emotion in you which is easy to kind of forget how good it is when you haven’t played for a while.”
Saturday ticked Woakes over 100 wickets in England, which feels significant given the conversation throughout his career is his ineffectiveness overseas. Especially in Australia, where he has a bowling average of 51.68 and batting average of 20.00. At this stage of his career, it is something he will have to stomach. The broader away bowling average of 51.88 and 21.90 with the bat, along with the perception of him as an allrounder are too far gone.
And yet here he is, answering a mayday call from a captain who happens to be the greatest allrounder English cricket has produced, to help his country in their hour of need as the Ashes threaten to slip away. The players rate Woakes as high as anyone and, while he may have a part to play with the bat on day four, even the brief amount of play on day three underlined that to everyone else.