Ben Jones analyses the work of England’s tearaway.
There’s no point messing around here. This is a piece about speed, and in keeping with the subject matter, let’s cut to the quick.
Mark Wood is fast. Seriously fast. Historically fast.
His average speed on England’s 2019/20 tour of South Africa was 140.88kph. That is the fastest average speed by an English seamer for any series in our database, dating back to 2006.
There are some fast bowling greats in there, to compete with. Steve Harmison hit the heights of the world’s number one ranked bowler, Simon Jones charmed a nation at 90mph for one glorious summer, Andrew Flintoff was speed-of-light quick for half a decade; in recent times, Steven Finn and Jofra Archer have set up camp at the top end of the speed gun, albeit affected by injuries in ongoing careers of varying length. Certainly not as often as other countries, but English cricket has had some impressive pace merchants in the last 15 years.
And yet, at times in the last week, Wood has been able to crank it up to a level almost unheard of from English bowlers. In particular, he bowled a very short spell in Johannesburg that caught the eye; at the end of Day 2, Wood sent down a three-over burst at an average of 146kph. Only two spells of that many overs or more by an English seamer in our entire database have been quicker.
Only Harmison in the 06/07 Ashes, and Flintoff in the 2009 edition, have bowled quicker spells than Wood managed.
Of course, that particular fact is more trivia than anything substantial. Being able to turn up the heat for short periods of time is flashy and fun, but sustaining it over longer periods – that’s where real success lies. It’s also where, in the first part of his Test career, Wood struggled. While plenty around county cricket knew he had potential to bowl quick deliveries and even spells, there remained the question of whether he could come back and be threatening time after time, late in the day with an old ball. The idea of him doing it in back-to-back matches felt alien.
The most telling point on the chart below is at the top. Wood’s first Test, the barnstormer at Lord’s where Stokes made that astonishing century and England bowled New Zealand out in the final session, was a fantastic arrival to international cricket. Averaging nearly 140kph, Wood looked prepared to take on the world. A week later at Headingley, he’d dropped by almost 4kph, and looked far from the same bowler without that speed.
Which is why the bottom of that graphic is so encouraging. The best part of five years later, we have seen him actually get quicker in the second of two back-to-back Tests, his average speed at Johannesburg faster than at Port Elizabeth. That’s a very, very good sign — and a huge win for the technical expertise behind lengthening his run-up.
Of course, speed isn’t everything. Wood doesn’t do a huge amount with the ball through the air, with only four of the quicks in this series finding less swing than the 0.6° Wood has found this winter. He is not a fix-all for England’s Kookaburra conundrum. But he’s a big part of the solution.
Part of the reason that conundrum exists in the first place is that English cricket has an odd relationship with pace. The county system produces lots of a slower, more accurate seamers, but very few of the brutal, white-light quicks seen elsewhere around the world. Genuine fast bowlers are then treated with, if not suspicion, then a kind of nervous intrigue. The ECB and the county structure have grown used to a sort of compromise, where it accepts that anyone bowling at this pace can’t be the complete package. They’re either injured all the time (Simon Jones), too expensive (Steve Finn), or end up specialising in white ball cricket (Liam Plunkett).
Up until now, Wood has slotted into the tradition of the Injury Prone Quick very easily, and — without undermining the tenacity and drive it takes to keeping coming back from injury setbacks — at times it has played in his favour. As the old adage goes, you’re never a better player than when you’re out of the side. Wood has built up huge support by being so likeable and charismatic, and appears to have a relationship with the crowd that many players with more Tests to their name would envy. That goodwill has built over time, over Tests missed, over grimaces and hamstrings pulled in training, over near misses and against-the-odds returns.
The real challenge starts now. In playing and backing up performances like this with more highlights, and undoubtedly some lows. Wood has been incredibly unfortunate in many physical ways, but he has enjoyed plenty of goodwill and sympathy, much of which you imagine he’s trade for Test wickets in a heartbeat. Moving from loved outsider to hardened insider isn’t easy, but it’s what he needs to do. His challenge is to dodge the trajectory of Simon Jones, Harold Larwood, and the other names with less myth and legend surrounding them. Wood’s task is to put together a career, not just a highlights reel.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.