For those that watch county cricket on a regular basis the way that Chris Woakes has been treated by the England selectors since he played his first ODI in 2011 has been something of a mystery. In first-class cricket his record is nothing short of exceptional. He has scored close to 5000 runs and taken over 400 wickets in that format of the game, doing so with a batting average of 37.14 and a bowling average of 24.62. That kind of positive difference between batting and bowling records is simply world-class.
Woakes finally made his Test debut against Australia in the final match of the 2013 Ashes at The Oval with the series already decided. He did okay in a bizarre match that saw Michael Clarke set up a chase and then bottle it. Woakes took a wicket and scored some runs, but it was on a flat pitch in a strange game and he didn’t do well enough to get a spot on the tour to Australia that winter. A narrow escape, you may argue.
The argument against Woakes at international level was that he did not have the pace to trouble the world’s best batsmen, and on that placid Oval surface at the end of the summer of 2013 he did little to disprove that. But when he was brought into the team to replace Ben Stokes during the Test series against India in 2014 he showed that he was more than capable of giving batsmen the hurry up. He took just five wickets in the two matches that he played but he looked the part.
He still remained a bit part player and didn’t get another Test until he played in two of the four matches on the South African tour last winter, and while he bowled well he was desperately unlucky to only end up with two wickets in those matches.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Woakes proved his worth, and from the point that he was recalled for the Sri Lanka series, once again replacing Ben Stokes, until the two Tests in Bangladesh, he has been every present in the side.
He celebrated that recall with a career-best first-class bowling performance for Warwickshire in May. Durham had reached 92 for one before Woakes put together one of the best spells that anyone has bowled for the midlands county. It was like he was delivering 90mph leg breaks as he took nine wickets for just 36 runs. Writing for ESPNCricinfo, David Hopps described Woakes that day:
“Woakes briefly was also a force of nature, at the top of his pace and swinging the ball with relentless accuracy. There was an unexpectedly severe tornado in Birmingham in 2005 and here was another one as rhythm fell upon him and he tore in, utterly attuned to his task.”
He continued that same form for England. In the six Tests he played against Sri Lanka and Pakistan this summer he took 34 wickets at an average of 17.2, while scoring 282 runs at an average of 40.28. His best performance came in an England defeat, where he took 11 wickets at Lord’s for the cost of just 102 runs against Pakistan. A Misbah-ul-Haq hundred saw Pakistan emerge victorious, but Woakes was a class apart in a match where he took six wickets in the first innings and five in the second.
While there were some serious doubts over Woakes ability to turn his success for Warwickshire into runs and wickets in international matches, they are no longer valid. He has proved that he is a serious player regardless of the format, and it is hard to think of an England squad without him over the next five years.
How well he will do in India is up for debate, as is whether he will be able to play five Tests in such a short space of time. The chances are he will be rotated out of the squad for at least one of the matches, especially when James Anderson arrives having recovered from his shoulder injury.
He struggled in Bangladesh in conditions that could not have been less suited to his back of a length swing and seam bowling, but he is a clever enough cricketer to learn from that experience. However, it would be foolish to expect him to generate the numbers that he managed in England this summer in Indian conditions.
Much will depend on whether Woakes can get some lateral movement in the early part of the innings while the new ball still has some shine, and whether he can get the ball to reverse once it has been roughed up. If he finds neither of those things his opportunities could be limited. As for every player in this England squad, this tour will be a serious test of his abilities.
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