Recognition this summer has finally come the way of Chris Woakes, and not before time. Even earlier this year, he was on his way back to England after an inconclusive tour of South Africa and having missed out on the World Twenty20 squad. Since then, he’s been irresistible. Three days after the end of the Pakistan Test series that made Woakes a star, Phil Walker headed to his hometown of Birmingham to meet up… over a game of snooker.
The scene: A wondrous dive no more than a flicked fag from the Bullring in Birmingham. Downstairs you’ve got your pool, booze, wideboys and widescreens, while upstairs: snooker. Here’s to the life of Rileys on a midweek Wednesday.
AOC had offered Chris Woakes options. A game of golf, a bit of lunch maybe, or perhaps just a straight chat at Edgbaston on one of the two days off he’s grabbed since becoming England’s Man of the Series against Pakistan. And what he’s chosen is this: a bostin’ best-of-three on the baize.
Woakes, of course, is unforgivably good at all sports. He has the right blend of shape, levelness and natural balance to basically excel at all of them. Walsall FC were ready with a contract for him at 16 (central midfielder, two good feet) but it didn’t quite take; he lands a tidy dart; he’s what’s known as a ‘serious golfer’, and, as we know – or more accurately as we know now – as a cricketer, he does pretty much everything right.
But here, fair play to him, he’s gone for cues, balls and stun-run-throughs. “I’ve got a confession to make,” he says over a pre-match eggs benedict. “I used to play a lot of snooker.”
A musty must-see of a place, the snooker room itself is completely empty and thrillingly quiet, save for a muted radio in the corner. Woakes chooses his “weapon” and sets up the balls. Just before the break-off, Walker unearths the trophy for which the two men will compete. It’s Woakes to break. A controlled disturbance of the pack of reds sees the white slink across the table past the blue and up towards the hallowed baulk. The Bullring Open 2016 is on…
CW: Ah, what a great sound
PW: I’m going straight into the reds here…
A catastrophic thwack into the bunch splatters the reds everywhere, leaving Woakes with his pick of the balls. The first red is pocketed, with black to follow
CW: So where did you learn your snooker?
PW: Just a club in Chelmsford. I spent a lot of my early life there, me and my mates
CW: Misspent youth, eh! Yeah, I used to play all the time at my dad’s working men’s club. Absolutely loved the game. You’re in trouble here, mate. I’m on for a 147 now…
Another red; that exquisite sonic trail of poke-clash- thud, and another black off its spot
CW: Oh, I tell you what…
Ferocious red, but the black’s closed off, so Woakes goes up for the pink; the 147 can wait
CW: Ah, that’s gone nowhere!
Out of position, Woakes eyes an impossible deadweight red on a 45-degree angle along the full length of the side cushion. It’s only just become clear what he’s thinking. He settles over the shot and sends the object ball ambling into the corner bag with shameful ease
PW: Knock it off. That’s obscene
CW: Haha! To be fair, that is obscene
PW: Twenty-six. That’s ridiculous
CW: [trying to control his joy] Aye, it’s a hell of a start…
Finally, a misdirected pink. The ball rattles the jaws of the black pocket, but now it’s doubling back on itself towards the middle bag and dropping neatly into its open corner
PW: What is going on here?!
CW: I can only apologise for that. That just shows how good my summer’s been…
Woakes’ break comes to an end on 32. It’s his first game of snooker in over a year
PW: So come on, talk us through this year you’ve had…
CW: Yeah, it’s amazing how things happen. At the start of the year I’d come back from a tour of South Africa – people remember the Centurion Test and see it as the Test where I didn’t perform well. People saw it as the end of my Test career: “Oh, they won’t go back to Chris Woakes…”
PW: Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff?
CW: It’d be silly of me to say I don’t. I try not to, but there’s no doubt about it, some of it you can’t not see or listen to. I’m not one that goes reading all the papers or articles. But I look at things like Sky Sports and even if you don’t click on the cricket page you find things coming through. The problem is, at Durban, two Tests before Centurion I bowled really well, but people forget that so easily. There are a lot of keyboard warriors out there. You have to ignore that. They just see the figures
PW: Were you worried then, when you came home?
CW: It was a long tour. I think the thing that made it a bit of a downer was I wasn’t picked for the World T20 squad, and that was announced three weeks before we went home. But I played in two Test matches and two ODIs, so I saw it as an exciting tour and quite a successful one. Don’t get me wrong I had doubts about whether I was going to be selected going forward, particularly for Test cricket, but I thought the one-day stuff had taken care of itself. The way the summer started, I wasn’t involved. Then Stokesy’s knee goes kaput, and I get an opportunity, and then I took those nine wickets against Durham just before the Test match. Timing is everything
Walker, meanwhile, has cocked up another implausibly difficult stun-run-through, putting Woakes back in the balls. The TV in the corner shows footage of Yorkshire’s quarter-final with Kent
Woakes mutters ‘useless’ as a pot misses its target, but for the second time in the frame the object ball careers off towards another pocket, willingly giving itself up
PW: You’re joking me!
CW: Sorry! That’s two of the scrawniest shots you’ve ever seen
PW: Your year…
Walker, returning to the table, wallops another one pointlessly hard. This time, it doesn’t not go in
CW: Shot! Looks like another hundred for Rooty then
PW: Is he the best you’ve seen?
CW: I think across all three formats you have to say yes. Because he just… it’s amazing, he doesn’t even change his game. He just goes through the gears. It’s only when he gets to 150 in a Test match that he starts bringing out all the skills. And he’s only 25!
A clatter of scudding spheres ping around the table amplifying the sound of defeat
PW: Argh! That was my game right there
CW: What did you score?
PW: Eight. OK, who’s your favourite player?
CW: Jacques Kallis. Everything he did was just immaculate
PW: Lots of professional cricketers cite him, but very few fans. He’s a cricketer’s cricketer
CW: And he had real style with the bat that doesn’t get the credit that it should. And yours? All time…
PW: Mark Waugh probably
CW: Mark Waugh?
PW: Yeah, he played for Essex when I was a kid. I adored watching him bat
CW: Strokemaker, right? And a good slipper?
PW: The best slip fielder, the most elegant batsman you’ve ever seen, and either bowled bouncers or off-breaks, nothing else
CW: And these days?
PW: I find Stokes electric in everything he does. Getting his jumper off the umpire, taking guard, even eating a banana he’s watchable
CW: His 200 at Cape Town was phenomenal. The thing that struck me about that knock: you expect punters and fans to go nuts for certain innings, but even our lads in the dressing room couldn’t believe what we were seeing. For a bunch of international cricketers to be watching, and shaking their heads in disbelief, that’s what really struck me. He just kept going and going and going…
Woakes peels off another long red
PW: Glorious. And was he different when he got back to the dressing room?
CW: Nah, exactly the same. It’s just the way he is. And that’s what’s so brilliant about him as a character. He’s a bit of a loose cannon at times and he’s got that red mist thing, but he’s so down to earth. He’s just a great lad
PW: And what about the red mist when it comes to you, Chris Woakes? What gets you going?
CW: I hate going for runs, mate. It really makes my blood boil. I might not always show it on the field but inside it’s barking at me
PW: And what gets you going away from the game?
CW: Ah, I don’t know. Sport is my passion, I really love any sort of sport. I’m not deeply into music, or films particularly. Whenever I get time off I just like spending time with my family and my girlfriend, because we just don’t get to see enough of each other…
PW: Do you live together?
CW: Yeah, we got engaged in April, getting married in February
PW: So that’s why you’ve taken all these wickets
CW: I need to mate, to pay for this wedding…
PW: Cricketing best man?
CW: Not as such, Warwickshire’s strength and conditioning coach [Chris Armstrong] is my best man
PW: Cricketing ushers?
CW: James Taylor is a cricketing usher, that’s it actually. I’m sure a lot of the guys will get invites. It’s quite tricky inviting people from cricket, it’s hard to invite certain individuals without inviting the whole team, especially in my position, I’ve basically got four teams to invite! There’s 25 people on the Warwickshire staff, coaches, physios, then you’ve got England, the ODI team, the T20 team, it’s crazy
PW: How long have you and your fiancée been together?
CW: Nine years. Since I was 18 and she was 16
PW: Does she like her cricket?
CW: She puts up with it. But she hates me watching it at home. She’s like, “Really? Why the hell are you watching cricket at home?” I can understand that…
Woakes is seeing off the last of the colours; his opponent having long since written off the frame
PW: Come on then, finish it
CW: Ben Stokes style!
The black is sunk
PW: Yep, well played. That’s a drubbing
PW: So you’ve had this dream summer, Man of the Series, more wickets than any Englishman ever in a Pakistan Test series, runs, you’re getting married. What hasn’t gone well?
CW: Ha! The most frustrating thing about my summer – don’t get me wrong, it’s gone well – but I got caught and bowled against Sri Lanka at Lord’s on 66, and the same way at Old Trafford on 58. I was over the moon with the way I bowled but frustrated with the way I’ve batted, I could have gone on and got two hundreds this summer. I know I’m capable of it
PW: Jimmy Taylor keeps saying you could bat at No.6 in Tests
CW: He’s a good lad! I believe I’m good enough. It’s tricky because in any Test side you’ll have six genuine batters with a keeper, so to bat No.6 with Stokesey in the team won’t ever happen, but I believe I can bat No.7
Improbably Walker has clambered into an early lead with a break of 17 [SEVENTEEN]
CW: Shot! Tell you what, you’ve found your range here. It could go to a decider here… Right, I’m gonna pot that red
He pots that red
PW: OK, here’s a question, I bet you don’t answer it. What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?
PW: I asked this to Jimmy Taylor and he refused to answer
CW: Yeah, but that’s because he was a rebel when he was younger! You always find it with these public schoolboys…
Woakes mutters “useless” under his breath as an attempted pot rattles the jaws
CW: I’m thinking! I guess it would be taking a holiday in term time with my mates. We just thought, “F*** it, let’s go to Newquay for a week!” The head of the sixth form found out, from someone with a big mouth. “Woakesy and his mates have gone to Newquay for a week.” So he rang our parents. My best mate’s mum lied and said he’d been ill. Then the teacher rang my mum, and she buckled and said we’d gone to Newquay!
PW: Apart from the odd seaside bunk, were you a decent student?
CW: I was keen to do well. People would say, “Oh, you’re bright, you’re clever, you should do this and that”, but then you see other people around you and you think, “Actually, I’m just middle of the road here…”
PW: You went to a comp, right?
CW: Yeah, just a normal state school
PW: Which is interesting, because lots of cricketers don’t these days. They go to the big fee-paying schools
CW: Yeah, occasionally the conversation comes up in the dressing room and we ask who went to private school and who didn’t, and then the state lads are all like, “Yeah, poshos!” But you can generally tell, and obviously it’s not a judgment on anybody where they went to school, but it would be terrible if people thought you had to go to a private school to become a professional cricketer. And that isn’t the case, obviously…
Walker, who’s frankly found some form, connects with a tricky pink, scudding the object ball into the guts of the middle bag, and triumphantly consults the scoreboard
PW: It’s 40 plays seven, so you can win if you take a high colour with the final red and all the colours. And there’s still time for my standard sporting meltdown
Woakes rifles in the red (“Needed that”) and a blue. He now needs all the colours to tie the frame. An absurdly brilliant screw-back on the yellow puts Woakes in perfect position on the green
CW: [under his breath, to himself] Imagine you’re at the Crucible, Woakes…
He sinks it. And then the brown. But it’s a difficult blue, and a violent kick on impact sends it off line. Walker steps up and promptly gives away a foul via a shot of such brainlessness that the five-away feels criminally lenient
CW: Oh, what have you done!
PW: Told you…
CW: Like the last over of a T20 final, this!
With the blue having run safe, Woakes misses the tough long pot but finishes up laying a fluky snooker. Walker escapes, but leaves Woakes a makeable blue. He misses!
CW: Don’t want it, do I?
Walker shovels away the blue and pink to clinch the frame
CW: Well played, well played. Right: decider!
Woakes, humming along to the background UB40 (“If it happens again, I’m leaving”) as he plays, breaks off perfectly, the cue ball nestling in behind the green
PW: So who are your heroes in life? Apart from your dad, Jacques Kallis and your missus
CW: Being a big golf fan I love Rory McIlroy, but Tiger in his pomp, I was just in awe of him, how good he was
PW: Strange man though…
CW: Yeah, and I was really disappointed when all that stuff happened. His golf’s gone tits-up since then. Such a shame for the game
PW: And what about mentors in cricket, people who have helped you along the way?
CW: In the early days when I was coming through the academy at Warwickshire, the people I worked with a lot were Neal Abberley, who was a brilliant batting coach, and Steve Perryman, the bowling coach, who taught me how to swing the ball properly and to get it going both ways
PW: When we first saw you, you were an outswing bowler. What do you attribute to developing the one that goes the other way?
CW: I’m not sure exactly. To be honest not a lot of bowlers get it going in and out. Jimmy Anderson, and one or two others, but a lot of guys have either an away-swinger or one that goes straight on. But for me now, I don’t have a massive in-swinger. It comes in just enough, and to be honest with you, part of my success this summer has been with that ball that just runs in, rather than the big booming in-swinger. The one that holds its line is often the one that batsmen end up nicking
PW: And what about the famous ‘Chris Woakes extra yard’. Does it get on your nerves?
CW: It does a bit, yeah, because that extra bit of pace has been there for a good couple of seasons. It’s not a new thing. The pace is good, I’m obviously pretty pleased with how it’s coming out, to be pushing late 80s mph and getting up around 90
Meanwhile Walker has amassed a 15 break. Woakes steps up to the table but misses his pot
CW: God’s sake, so bad! I’ve lost it! First frame I was phenomenal as well…
After Walker puts him back in, Woakes comes back into it with a flurry of low colours. Walker responds with some wild blows, three of which find their designated bags
CW: I’m surprised you took that last shot on, I thought you would have rolled up behind the blue or yellow
PW: It’s do-or-die at this stage. You can’t die wondering
Triumphantly, Walker marks up five on the scoreboard – red, green, red – and moments later he’s in again, and this time with a ‘break of note’ – three reds, a pink and a black. Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come plays on in the background. Only the colours remain. We have reached the ‘business end’. Bang on cue, Walker goes in-off. Foul four. Woakes sinks the yellow and green to cut the deficit to 19 with 22 on the table. Cigarettes & Alcohol comes on
CW: You’ve got to, haven’t you? You can’t not
Woakes sinks the brown, and in playing safe to the next shot, leaves the blue partially obscured. Walker moves into position. It’s an easy route off the top cushion to avoid the pink and make contact with the blue. It’s an easy route, it’s an obvious route. It’s a route he fails to take
PW: NO! What have I done THERE? Check-side for no reason!
The oblivious cue ball, meanwhile, drifts unimpeded towards the corner bag, as if for something to do
CW: Get in! Is this one of those meltdowns you mentioned?
PW: Oh, Philip. Philip Philip Philip
Woakes retrieves the white, lobbing it up, imparting backspin by rolling his fingers across the top of it – his trick with a cricket ball. He pops it in the D and sinks the blue
CW: Screwed it back too far!
It’s a mid-to-long pot. The pink is positioned in mid- table, on a manageable angle. Woakes takes it on with full force, stunning the white on impact and sending the pink crashing towards the yellow pocket. It’s surely hit with too much power to withstand any jaw-rattling deviation from the heart of the bag. Yet it does catch the knuckle, and clap its hands and rattle its jewellery, and dart and dance around the lip for what feels like an age. But just at that very moment when by any reasonable measure the object ball simply steps back from the precipice, pausing obligingly for the next man to stick him away, a damn sporting miracle takes place and the thing just dies into the pocket
PW: It’s his year! A year ago that wouldn’t have gone in… Go on then, finish it off
The black is perched near the corner pocket. It’s the match shot, but after the pink, there is no doubting its destination. We shake hands. Woakes clasps the trophy close
CW: Tell you what, that’s why I love snooker…