Chris Woakes is having a summer to remember in the England Test side. Since returning to the team for the second Test against Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street, the Warwickshire all-rounder has scored 221 runs at an average of 55.25 and taken a remarkable 26 wickets at just 13.84.
His previous Test appearance before his renaissance was a chastening experience in Centurion. Posting match figures of 1-144 and making little impact with the bat as England went down to a 280-run defeat against South Africa, Woakes appeared to be running out of chances to convert his undoubted talent into significant contributions at the highest level.
So what has changed? His pace, for one. Often seen in the early part of his international career as something of a military medium pacer that batsmen found relatively easy to deal with, a couple of extra clicks on the speed gun appear to have been crucial in increasing the threat that Woakes poses with the ball.
During the second innings of that Centurion Test, Woakes was bowling at an average speed of 81.93mph with his quickest delivery clocking in at 86.9mph. Since his return to the side in Durham, that has been upped to 83.48mph and he has even broken the 90mph barrier on two occasions this summer. He has consistently been the quickest of England’s seamers and has also picked up that happy knack of taking a wicket in the first over of a new spell.
On six separate occasions, Woakes has struck immediately after being brought into the attack this summer; and it would have been seven had it not been for Jonny Bairstow dropping Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne at Lord’s. For a captain, it is such a key weapon to have a bowler in your ranks whom you know to have this uncanny ability. Andrew Strauss had it with Graeme Swann and now Alastair Cook has it with Woakes.
Woakes has also made subtle adjustments on the crease to alter his angle of delivery. Blessed with a natural bowling action – Shaun Pollock even went so far in the winter as to describe it as “too good, perhaps too predictable, so that the batsman knows what is coming” – Woakes needed to find a way to add variety to his bowling. He has achieved that by moving wide of the crease on occasion and it has brought him reward, most notably at Lord’s with the dismissal of Asad Shafiq in Pakistan’s second innings. The wider angle of delivery cramped the right-hander for room so that he could only divert the ball onto the stumps via the inside edge.
It is testament to Woakes’ improvement as an all-rounder that England have been able to deal with Ben Stokes’ injury problems with minimal fuss. A little over a year ago, during the 2015 series against New Zealand, Stokes was smashing the fastest hundred at Lord’s before taking the key wickets of Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum in successive balls during the visitors’ run chase.
At that stage, at what felt like the start of England’s brave new era that Stokes is such a key part of, an injury to him would have been deemed catastrophic to the balance of the side with both bat and ball. That is not to say that Stokes is not still seen as a talented and integral part of this England side, merely that his absence was not so keenly felt as once might have been feared; and that is all down to Woakes seizing his opportunity with both hands when it came along.
While Woakes’ bowling feats have been more eye catching, his steady improvement with the bat has been equally impressive. A well compiled 66 at number 8 against Sri Lanka at Lord’s hinted that he was getting the hang of batting in Test cricket before his 58 at Old Trafford formed part of a 103-run partnership with Joe Root and helped England to their highest total for five years.
That innings against Pakistan might one day be looked upon as a breakthrough knock for Woakes – batting at 6, nominally as a nightwatchman, his strike rate of 55.76 meant that the visiting bowlers were unable to attack his end as they might have been tempted to with Root batting so serenely at the other end. Pakistan bowled shorter to him than to any other batsman who faced 20 balls or more, but Woakes was particularly strong square of the wicket, with 19 of his 28 scoring shots coming through cover and midwicket including four of his eight boundaries.
With Stokes once again ruled out for the third Test at Edgbaston, Woakes might get another opportunity to bat higher up the order, depending on who the selectors decide to bring into the side. It is perhaps too early to say exactly where his future lies in this flexible, multi-faceted England side, but it is certainly a nice problem to have at this stage.