In the absence of England’s other high-profile seam bowling all-rounder, Chris Woakes has had arguably his finest Test. Ben Jones analyses the remarkable relationship between England’s two all-action stars.
For football fans, this weekend marks the first day of the Premier League season. It’s the start of a new era – Wayne Rooney, England and Manchester United’s record scorer, will not play in the English top flight this season for the first time since 2002, having completed a summer move to DC United. The league has not really mourned his move, as Rooney’s powers had long since waned, his devastating power and pace long since diminished by starting his career at an almost comically young age.
Tomorrow, in the city where Rooney ended his career in England, James Milner is likely to turn out for Liverpool. Born just three months apart, Milner and Rooney are oddly tied together. Square of jaw and firm of shoulder-barge, they look remarkably similar, but have differing reputations. Many have observed that Rooney’s magic was that at his peak he appeared the perfect blend of rugged Britishness and more traditionally European flair; for all the similarities in physique, the sense they were from a similar mould, Milner always had just slightly less flair, less spark, less magic.
Both have had fantastic careers, winning league titles and many international caps, but few are likely to remember much of Milner. Yet here he is, still turning out, still contributing, still making a difference, after Rooney has burnt out and upped sticks.
That particular dynamic is in some ways rather relevant in English cricket right now, given that it almost perfectly mirrors the relationship between Chris Woakes, England’s Lord’s centurion, and Ben Stokes. Both are, on paper, the same sort of cricketer – seam bowling all-rounders – but the suspicion has long been around that Woakes just lacks that little spark, that yard of pace, that bit of chutzpah, that makes Stokes so special.
Whilst Woakes’ batting technique is built on solid alignments, high elbows and crisp footwork, Stokes’ is built on sublime hand-eye co-ordination. Woakes’ finest bowling performances have come with the typically English new ball swing, whilst Stokes’ finest efforts have come with the more characteristically Asian reverse-swing. For all Woakes’ correctness, in the popular imagination, Stokes burns brighter, louder, and stands taller.
Woakes is the kind of cricketer you’d create in a laboratory; Ben Stokes is the kind of cricketer in a cartoon that’s the result of a laboratory accident.
However, in terms of output, of what they contribute to the scorecard and not to the spectacle, they are almost as similar as their surnames. Stokes has the slightly preferable average with both bat and ball, but we are talking small differences. If you told Ben Stokes that he averages 34 with the bat and 33 with the ball, I doubt he’d correct you.
The resemblance between their bowling details is borderline odd, given the different sensations induced by watching them in action. However, it helps to see why the England coaching staff were not overwhelmingly worried about replacing Ben Stokes for this Test – or rather, replacing his runs and wickets. That tangle of intangibles (Stokes’ leadership, his sense of occasion, his talismanic status) may be tough to replicate, but it would be foolish to assume Woakes couldn’t match Stokes on the scoreboard.
Yesterday, he stood up and was counted with the ball. The 2.4°of swing he found on Day Two was the most he’s ever managed in a Test innings, but few were surprised – swinging the ball is what Woakes does. Today was different. Woakes’ precise, correct batting technique has always given him excellent control with the bat in hand, and he rarely looks in real trouble. Yet at Lord’s, his perfect, textbook alignments have allowed him to cope with the conditions like nobody else; no batsman in this series has played and missed more rarely than him.
To bat with so little risk is impressive, particularly given the conditions, but this wasn’t a delicate, prodding around sort of innings. Indeed, today was Woakes’ best impression of a Stokesian counter-attack. He played 31% attacking shots, the most he has ever played in a Test innings of more than 15 deliveries. He scored at over 5rpo against the seamers, his batting today highlighting the skill involved in his bowling yesterday.
However, he did so with classic adherence to technical convention, playing 29% of his deliveries off the back foot, 2% below the average for Tests. His drives against the spinners were authoritative, swaggering competence at its finest. He scored all around the wicket, heavily behind square on the off-side but also throughout the leg-side in its entirety. His correctness gives him options. Nowhere is off limits.
Yet in many ways, disregarding their batting and bowling reveals the best impression of these two all-rounders. Chris Woakes has never dropped a catch for England; Ben Stokes has a catch success rate of 77%. Yet even mentioning the words “Stokes” and “catch” in a sentence together is making you think of that effort at Trent Bridge, isn’t it?
That, ultimately, may be the difference between the two. Woakes’ efforts with bat and ball here have arguably had as much impact on the result as Stokes’ did at Edgbaston, but the swirling human drama, good and bad, that surrounds Stokes’ career gives his performances a dramatic backdrop that in truth, Woakes’ lack. However, one suspects that Woakes may well play more Tests, take more wickets, and perhaps even score more runs. Woakes is two years Stokes’ senior, yet it would not surprise many if the Warwickshire man’s career at this level lasts longer.
A brighter flame might draw the eye, but a campfire made of embers will provide more warmth.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.