The 2019 World Cup may be almost on the horizon, but Mark Wood is not giving up on his dream of playing Test cricket.
Bearing in mind how much has been invested in England winning the tournament next year – 50-over cricket has, since the 2015 World Cup, arguably become England’s priority for the first time – you could understand it if Wood or the England team management decided he should, for now at least, give up red-ball cricket. Adil Rashid and Alex Hales have already made that choice, after all. It would be understandable if a fast bowler went the same way.
Equally, given the potential riches on offer for embracing life as a T20 specialist – and the risks to that living that attempting to play red-ball cricket might present – you could understand it if Wood were to reflect on the dozen Tests he has played (a sequence that includes taking the wicket that clinched the Ashes in 2015) and conclude it was time to call it a day.
The reality of Wood’s speeds doesn’t always meet the reputation. But there are moments when it clicks and he offers England something different and dangerous. The most obvious example came in an important 2017 Champions Trophy match in Cardiff in which a set Kane Williamson seemed to be leading New Zealand to victory. While the rest of the attack were played with apparent ease, Wood suddenly persuaded a cross-seam delivery to burst off the surface, surprise Williamson with its pace and bounce and brush his glove on its way to the keeper.
It was a decisive moment in a game that secured England’s place in the semi-finals. Wood still describes it as “probably my favourite” international wicket.
But, put simply, it seems Wood’s relatively slight frame – and his left ankle, in particular – struggles to withstand the rigours of life as a fast bowler. So while his skills, and his ability to find life from a surface that looks flat for his team-mates, render him attractive to selectors for all formats, there is a danger of diminishing returns if Wood continues to try to play all three formats. And, given his importance to the World Cup dream, it could prove costly if he is below his best for the tournament.
But Wood is having none of it. Whatever the logic, whatever the temptations, Wood remains committed to the goal of playing more Test cricket.
“Test cricket is still the pinnacle for me to play and the moment I let that dream go I might not be the same cricketer,” he said. “In the garden, I always played Tests. I always watched Tests on the telly. I’m not saying there aren’t good players playing white-ball cricket but, if you’re regarded as a top, top player, it’s often through your Test performances. I want to play Test match cricket.”
It was that commitment to playing Test cricket that persuaded him to leave the IPL early. He was part of the Chennai Super Kings squad that won the tournament – albeit, he only played one game – but, knowing his selection for the Test series against Pakistan hung in the balance, he asked to return to England early in order to play Championship cricket and impress with a red ball.
“I came back early from Chennai because I wasn’t playing there and it made sense for me to come back early and push for Test career,” he said. “I’d just been in the New Zealand Test. With me not playing, Chennai were really understanding and said ‘yes, we understand you want to play Test cricket’ and allowed me to leave and come home. Then I managed to do well in that game for Durham and keep my Test spot.
“Unfortunately I didn’t keep it for the Headingley game but I’m raring to get back for at least one of the India games.”
That experience in the IPL – while brief – left an impression. Certainly he speaks with something approaching awe of MS Dhoni’s knowledge and charisma.
“I always thought he seemed so cool, calm and collected on TV,” Wood said, “and he literally is that guy: he’s so cool.
“His knowledge of the game is incredible. There would be times when we were watching and he would predict not just the next ball but the next three balls! There was a game we played at home and he said: right, look at the field here; that means the bowler is going to go yorker, but he will not nail it, so next ball he will go for a slower ball and then he will try the yorker again. He went four, six, four from those three balls and they were exactly what he had said they would be. Incredible.
“There would be times when we needed 70 off five overs and he would like nurdle one and we would be thinking ‘what are you doing?’ We would be trying to flay it out of the park.
“But his thing is to take it deep. And the longer the game goes, the more nervous the bowlers get. And when they miss, he will hit it for six. Imagine having the confidence to say that?
“He leaves it until people think he’s left it far too late. But nine times out of ten he knows that he will win in that situation. He is so calm.”
Despite the talk of wanting to play in all formats, Wood admitted he is at his best when fresh. And he comes into the ODI series against India well-refreshed having been rested for the T20 games.
“I’m sick of saying it but, as a fast bowler, you’re never going to be 100% fit,” he said. “But it’s true. I’ve been pretty good. My ankle has been fine. I’ve just been managing my body. It’s nice to say to people ‘I’ve been all right’ rather than people asking and me saying ‘yeah, I’m all right’ when really you think ‘I’m not all right’. But I actually AM all right.
“I’ve played a lot since November. So I’ve never been 100% fresh. In the past, I’ve had period of injury and then come back flying because I was fresh.”
England will anxiously hope that he is in such good shape going into the World Cup.
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