England’s Chris Woakes steps out of the shadows to baffle Azhar Ali

Around a quarter-to-12 Chris W … wait, did you see those three deliveries Jofra Archer bowled to Abid Ali? Two ripping short balls that pushed him back in his crease and a zippy full one that knocked his off-stump right out of the ground. So, around a quarter-to-12 Chris Woa … and how about that opening spell from Stuart Broad? Six overs, two maidens, 10 runs, he was starting up right where he left off after he won man-of-the-series against West Indies.

Anyway, around a quarter-to-12 Chris Woakes came on … and how about Jimmy Anderson? Is it just me or is his bowling beginning to lose a little of its edge? But, yes, right around a quarter-to-12, Chris Woakes came on to bowl.

Woakes isn’t a short man but he is the sort who is ever so easy to overlook. In fact, if Ben Stokes was fit to bowl, you guess England’s selectors may well have done exactly that when they sat down to pick the team for this match.

If Stokes was fit, they would not need a fourth quick, so they could bring Zak Crawley back in the middle order. The alternative to dropping Woakes, after all, would have been to stand down one of Anderson or Broad, England’s two most prolific bowlers, or Archer, one of their very fastest. It’s Woakes’s lot to be stuck, at the age of 31, playing fourth violin behind three virtuosos. Of course, being the man he is, he does it uncomplainingly.

Well, at quarter-to-12, Woakes was wonderful. He started with an outswinger that whizzed past Abid’s outside edge, followed it with a string of deliveries more that wobbled this way and that way, so that the batsmen were poking and prodding and grasping after them, scrabbling around for messy little singles.

In his fifth over, he got Azhar Ali for a duck with a delivery that slid in towards his pads and hit him flush in front of middle stump. Azhar reviewed it, possibly because he thought he had got an edge on it, or perhaps just because he was so baffled by what had happened he wanted to watch it back on the big screen.

That brought in the princely Babar Azam, sixth in the ICC’s Test batting rankings, maybe the best, certainly the most handsome, batsman on either side. Woakes’s first ball to him came beetling in along that same line towards off stump but straightened after it hit the pitch and whizzed away from him again.

Babar got himself in such a terrible tangle trying to play it he ended up square on and the ball only just missed his outside edge.

It was a brute of a delivery, in the middle of a hell of a spell, the sort that, if Anderson had bowled it, would have everyone purring about his wizardly skills and the way he moves the ball at will.

But it wasn’t Anderson. It was Woakes. The old joke goes that Ringo Starr wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles and Woakes maybe isn’t the best seam bowler in this England team but he is still a mighty fine one. In fact his record in England is better than the three men he is playing with here. He has taken 82 wickets in 22 Tests, at an average of only 22, and a strike rate of 43.

Among the English quicks who have taken at least 50 Test wickets in this country, only three have got them cheaper – Sydney Barnes, Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser – and only one has taken them more frequently, Barnes again.

He has already taken 12 wickets at 16 this summer. As Broad said at the end of the third Test against West Indies, Woakes is bowling beautifully: “He is in the best rhythm of his life.”

It was only fair of Broad to make a point of saying it, since he had just stolen all the headlines from him again. Woakes took his fourth fifth-wicket haul earlier that same day but then Broad’s four wickets had included his 500th, and, well, Woakes ended up a way down the page among the also-rans. It is Broad’s theory that Woakes has added “niggle” to his bowling lately, that “there’s a bit more aggression there” than there has been in previous years.

Woakes is, famously, such an affable and unassuming bloke that it is not immediately obvious exactly what form that “niggle” might take. Maybe he is developing a fine line in passive-aggressive chat. Possibly his “good morning” greetings are a little more curt, his “good shots” a little less frequent.

In the longer term, what he really needs to do is learn to bowl overseas, in conditions where his particular brand of fast-medium seam and swing has turned out to be a pretty blunt weapon. Away from England, he has taken 25 wickets in 14 Tests, at an average of 52. He is not the first English bowler to have that problem, there is another right alongside him in this side. Woakes says he has figured it out now, just like Anderson did, if he is right about that he may yet end up leading this attack after all and winning a few headlines of his own before he retires, too.


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