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Chris Woakes takes one chance and lets another go

by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 6 minute read

Yas Rana reports on day three of first Ashes Test at Edgbaston, where Chris Woakes enjoyed himself with the bat, but less so with the ball.

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Ten balls after Chris Woakes strolled to the crease this morning, England were 300-8 and in real danger of not making the most of the position they were in after the hard yards put in by Burns and Co. on day two. First, Moeen Ali, a man without an international half-century in 16 innings, left a Nathan Lyon delivery that held its line and cannoned into off-stump. While his bowling has gone from strength to strength in the last 12 months, he’s clearly a man with a frazzled mind with bat in hand.

Following him back to the pavilion five balls later was Jonny Bairstow. In his 35 balls at the crease, Bairstow was given a serious working over from Peter Siddle. It was an innings reminiscent of Rory Burns’ pair of failures at Lord’s against Ireland last week. Needlessly attempting to defend unthreatening balls well wide of the stumps, his mode of dismissal felt inevitable. Bairstow, a scorer of two clutch World Cup hundreds just weeks ago, was ­finding out – like Burns yesterday, albeit in a contrasting manner – that your fortunes can change remarkably quickly in international cricket. From 282-4 to 300-8, the England we’ve become accustomed to in recent years were back.

With a lead of just 16, Stuart Broad, someone who hadn’t batted for more than 65 balls in a single Test innings for six years, walked out to join Woakes, the Test in the balance. A one-innings shootout was on the cards.

Chris Woakes is 30 years old. He made his Test debut six years ago. His numbers are good; in England, they’re world-class. He was the leader of the attack that won England its only ever men’s World Cup, but he is yet to truly establish himself in this Test side.

Somewhat surprisingly, this is only the second time Woakes has played the first Test of a multi-game home series. The only other occasion was in the 2016 Lord’s Test against Pakistan when both Ben Stokes and Jimmy Anderson were missing through injury. Every time he plays in England whites it feels like Woakes is on trial, his spot perennially under the spotlight despite him now averaging more than 43 with the bat and less than 23 with the ball on home soil. No English all-rounder has a better average difference at home.

His partnership with Broad – who applied himself and trusted his ability more today than perhaps any other time since he was hit on the helmet by a Varun Aaron bouncer in 2014 – could potentially be game-defining as they combined to stretch England’s lead by 65 crucial runs.

In a way, Woakes’ 95-ball 37 was comparable in its effect to Sam Curran’s considerably more eye-catching 63 on the same ground against India last year. Stylistically, the two innings couldn’t be further apart ­– Curran’s an expression of a mind unscarred by failure, Woakes’ more careful, one more aware of the percentages. Who knows what the long-term effects of that extra session Australia spent in the field may be come the end of the series on the likes of James Pattinson, who bowled the most overs he’s bowled in a first-class innings since 2014, and Pat Cummins, whose impact was waning towards the end of the World Cup anyway.

With credit firmly in the bank, Woakes would have walked out onto the field for Australia’s innings knowing that he had a real opportunity to make his spot his own in this England XI. But after Broad’s first innings five-wicket haul and with Jofra Archer, Curran, and Olly Stone waiting in the wings, literally minutes after his salvation act with the bat came to an end as he ran out of partners, Woakes was on trial again.

On his home ground, the scene of his Player-of-the-Match display in a World Cup semi-final against the same opposition less than a month ago, and with a brand new Dukes in hand due to Anderson’s calf injury, the scene was set. A couple of early wickets and he could do what he’s threatened to do for years and finally nail down a spot in this England side.

But it wasn’t quite to be. He didn’t bowl badly, but he didn’t bowl great either. Like all of England’s bowlers, bar Stokes, he was a bit loose. He didn’t join the dots and he generally bowled a couple of stumps too wide to constantly test the batsmen’s temperament and technique. Even after a knock that shifted the balance of power in the Test, the day ended with a tinge of disappointment.

His innings won’t get the headlines that Curran’s generated last year and if Archer and Anderson are fit for Lord’s (with Anderson, that’s a very big if) Woakes will once again be the man most likely to miss out. Despite having a far superior batting record in recent Tests to the aforementioned Bairstow and Moeen above him in the order and having taken 6-17 and 3-58 in his last two outings with the ball, it still feels like Woakes has it all to prove tomorrow morning as England look to bowl Australia out on day four to stay in this team.

At 30 and with winter tours to New Zealand and South Africa in favourable conditions on the horizon, it feels like Woakes has come to a crossroads in his Test career. A match-winning spell and he could become Anderson’s heir apparent. Another loose effort, and he could slip to being England’s fourth, fifth or even sixth choice seamer.

It doesn’t quite seem fair. Maybe it’s the price you pay if the way you go about your business isn’t particularly sexy. Maybe if he hit 37 off 25 and England were bowled out for a lower score, his innings would gather more attention. But with seven Australia wickets still to take on day four, one more opportunity presents itself tomorrow for the man who rarely lets them go by but rarely gets the credit for doing so.

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