Mark Wood was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 2023. Ali Martin’s piece on Wood originally appeared in the 2024 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. The Five are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ excellence in and/or influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.

However much England were stewing after a febrile final-day defeat at Lord’s, the reality of a 2-0 Ashes deficit meant the tune had to change at Headingley. On the eve of the Third Test, in cahoots with Ben Stokes, Brendon McCullum sidled up to Mark Wood after nets. “Boss,” he said, his Kiwi lilt barely more than a whisper. “Are you ready to bowl some rockets?”

Was he ever! Wood had been Bazball’s human cannonball during the previous winter’s historic clean sweep of Pakistan, but a growling right elbow had delayed his summer lift-off. It required the latest pain-killing jab in his pincushion career – and now came the true injection England craved. Wood’s impact in helping draw the series went beyond figures of 5-34 on Headingley’s breakneck opening day, beyond two pivotal cameos with the bat in the tight victory that followed, and beyond his 14 wickets at 20 overall: it was the shock and awe whistled up by McCullum and Stokes.

The shift was clear from the outset, Wood’s first four overs in Leeds hitting Australia with a blast of defiance from the English north. A full house gasped at every thunderbolt in real time, then again as the speeds flashed up on the big screen. Never once below 90mph, and as high as 96.5, this sustained bombardment at first cast Marnus Labuschagne as the cat on the hot tin roof, then finished with a chef’s kiss of a delivery to Usman Khawaja: previously unprisable, he was pushed back, and heard his leg stump detonated by a full, swinging sucker ball.

“Everything feels in sync,” says Wood, explaining the frictionless sensation he had also experienced during high-velocity bursts in St Lucia and Johannesburg. “It’s like a ship dropping anchor, when all the links of the chain run smoothly one after another, with nothing out of place. Or maybe the perfect crack of a whip. And seeing the stump out of the ground, a split second before the crowd realises, well, that is just the best feeling.”

Just as telling was how Wood vaporised Australia’s lower order that day en route to a maiden home Test five-for – be it a rattled Alex Carey carving to cover moments after an almighty clang on the helmet, or a plumb Pat Cummins falling lbw to a ball in a different time zone. Pace does funny things, the old bowlers say. It had to be whispered in the county of Fred Trueman, but only a handful in history could have matched the pace of the joker in Stokes’s pack.

A Durham team-mate through the age groups, Stokes also knew what Wood would bring by way of personality: a serious, teetotal pursuer of pace who projects anything but seriousness. Even with the scoreline bleak, Wood had enlivened the Headingley dressing-room by hiding in a corner, barking as if a dog were loose, and sending Yorkshire’s dutiful attendant slightly batty looking for it. “It was a bit cruel,” he says. “But whatever team I’m playing for, I always try to bring energy and fun.”

The captain enjoyed Wood’s role in the tail-wagging on day two, emerging after a short-ball crash course in the nets at lunch, and swishing his way to 24 from eight deliveries. It was the first of two d’Artagnan-like ripostes. With England seven down in their fourth-innings chase of 251, and 21 still required, Wood joined his close friend Chris Woakes at the crease. “Allo, son. Nippyarse time?” Hardly: Wood raided 16 more runs, including his fourth six of the match, as the pair saved English backsides from the barrel of crabs.

His series became one of key interventions, plus a broader physical threat. A working-over of Travis Head with the short ball stood out at Old Trafford, where he passed 100 Test wickets. Even at The Oval, bowling with the “excruciating” pain of a bruised heel, Wood secured the momentum-shifting removal of Labuschagne on the second day. There was one final rocket to set up the denouement: when Wood bullseyed Khawaja’s helmet moments before rain ended the fourth, it brought out the replacement ball with which Woakes conjured victory. As he smiled through the pain of his latest injury, Wood quipped that he and Woakes – a fellow late arrival at Headingley – had won their personal Ashes series 2-0.

MARK ANDREW WOOD, born in Ashington on January 11, 1990, was not initially a fast bowler. Growing up in a former mining town in Northumberland, and gravitating towards the cricket club of his father, Derek, 50 yards down the road, he started out as a No. 3 bat who bowled “little medium-pacers”. It wasn’t until a growth spurt in his mid-teens that Wood began noticing how far back the wicketkeeper and slips were standing – not to mention a sharp decline in the number of front-foot techniques among opponents.

He was surrounded by a working-class community – as a youngster, he leafleted for the local Labour party – that put sport at its heart: “Good, honest people who look out for each other. We like to graft.” As well as being the birthplace of football’s Charlton brothers and their cousin Jackie Milburn, Ashington had already produced an England fast bowler in Steve Harmison, who served as muse and mentor for a prospect soon spotted by Durham’s Academy coach, John Windows.

Setbacks followed on his way into the First XI, as Wood persisted with a short sprinter’s run-up well past his Test debut in 2015, undergoing three ankle operations along the way. Indeed, while his first Test summer began with him dismissing McCullum, then New Zealand’s captain, and later included the wicket that secured the Ashes – Nathan Lyon at Trent Bridge – it wasn’t until he lengthened his run-up in late 2018 that his slight, 5ft 11in frame found its true rhythm. That was the catalyst for the consistent pace that underpinned English glory in the 2019 World Cup and its T20 equivalent three years later.

Test cricket has remained his pinnacle, and his performance in the 2021/22 Ashes was the one spark of English success on a rotten tour. But 31 caps out of a possible 111 by the end of the 2023 summer underlined the physical challenge of bowling fast. To that end, Wood – now 34, and with suitors hovering on the T20 circuit – agreed to the ECB’s offer of a three-year central contract. It was hard to imagine a greater compliment.

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