Ben Jones looks at what Broad being rested says about where English cricket is headed.
We have all experienced something similar. You’re away on a summer holiday, the sun blaring down as you saunter along the beach, the sand beneath your feet. You settle into your chair, and take a sip of the coldest, freshest beer you have ever tasted. You look at the label, some exotic brand you’ve never seen before, and commit it to memory. It’s bliss.
“But when you source it six months later, in the drizzly grey of England, it’s not quite the same. You can’t quite recreate the magic.
For some, it’s not beer. It might be a particular meal, a song or a film. For England, it’s Mark Wood.
In St Lucia, Wood bowled like few have seen from an Englishman. Scyld Berry, longtime Telegraph correspondent who has seen more cricket than almost anyone, declared it the fastest spell he had seen from an England bowler; with Wood clocked at 152kph, it may well have been. A year later, Wood tore up South Africa, averaging 141kph over the series. No England bowler has been quicker over a series, since such data has been recorded.
Yet back in the grey and gloomy of the English Riviera, Wood’s selection takes on a different tone. Particularly when placed against the de-selection of Stuart Broad.
Since Wood made his debut in 2015, he has only sporadically played in England. Six of his 10 appearances on these shores came in that first summer, the rest scattered over the following seasons. But in that time, his average in English Tests is a slightly concerning 44.00. Purely for the purposes of comparison, Broad’s is 25.91. Away from the sun on your back, home is as it was.
It’s funny, that the general phrase is ‘Broad and Anderson’, because few would have that as the actual hierarchy. Anderson, the General; Broad, the fiery deputy. That’s far closer to how most see it.
And yet, in the last two summers, Broad and Anderson have been almost identical in quality. Our Expected Wickets model – built from ball tracking data – says that the deliveries Broad has bowled in that time should have averaged 23.4, while Anderson’s deliveries should have averaged 23.3. Broad’s actual average is a tick over 24, while Anderson’s is just under 19. Broad, despite his consistently strong performances, has actually been enduring a streak of slight misfortune. Given England seem to have chosen this moment to ease from one era into another, it is a rather poorly timed streak, you would have to say.
Wood’s speed is alluring, no question. He is responsible for the quickest spells bowled in an England shirt we have seen over the last decade, and pace does matter overseas. In Australia, your bowling average drops from 33 to 29 when you rise above 140kph. England have fielded too many attacks of military medium in Australia. They need to cultivate pace, and alongside Jofra Archer and Ollie Stone, Wood is a key part of that.
But in England, that pattern isn’t the same. There, your average actually rises from 27 to 30 when you’re above 140kph. In part that’s down to the work of Broad and Anderson operating at those speeds – but that’s sort of the point. In England, you can achieve that level of excellence in the mid 130kphs, the low 80mphs. There’s a reason that you drink the beer you drink at home, eat the dinner you eat, sing the songs you sing. Home doesn’t change. As Philip Larkin put it, “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left / Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back”.
In reality, England aren’t throwing Broad on the junk pile. The circumstances they find themselves in – three back to back Tests, after almost zero match preparation – is clearly exceptional. Managing the fitness of a pack of bowlers, plenty of whom are injury-prone, is vital to any success England will have, and one they are probably unprepared for.
To adapt a classic Shane Warne-ism, you have to be prepared to lose (at home) to win (away). England will know that Broad is a bowler perfect for these conditions, a better bowler for these conditions than Wood. But they seem to believe that they need to build for overseas tours, where the balance switches, and Wood is the preferable option.
Yet Wood’s body is fragile. He has managed only eight red ball matches in the last two years, and only four Test matches. His new run-up has seemingly taken his game to the next level – on top of his St Lucia and South Africa excellence, he was superb in the World Cup win – but it has not removed the fact he has still suffered significant injuries in the last 12 months. England will be monitoring his every movement, and there is no reason to assume they are pushing Wood beyond what he can do. Whether they are pushing him beyond what he should do, is another question.
There’s a precedent for a different tactic, a different approach to that overseas planning. When England went to Australia in 2010/11, they bombarded Australia with the medieval trebuchet that was Chris Tremlett, but they hadn’t seen fit to practice their aim beforehand. When he bowled at Perth in the third Test, it was Tremlett’s first appearance in an England shirt in more than three years. Wood has already shown that he does not need regular cricket to make an impact. We have seen that in St Lucia, and South Africa. He is a man who does not so much hit the ground running as slam his front leg into it with his entire bodyweight.
Whether that is the correct tactic is up for debate. Whether it is a sacrifice that needs to be made, is not clear.
Is putting miles into the legs of Wood, who will be almost 32 by the time England rock up at Brisbane next year, a good use of his finite efforts?
Does getting Joe Root better used to handling a fragile bowler such as Wood outweigh the benefits of keeping him fresh?
Ultimately, England will live or die by the results on this one. Not the results this week, particularly, but those in 18 months time, on the other side of the world in the middle of the night. If things go their way at that point, then hopefully we’ll all remember back to this moment, and praise them accordingly. Short term pain for long term gain is not an easy sell to the public, and those who opt to try should be admired. If they are right.
If they are wrong? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.