It would be easy to paint Chris Woakes as an underrated England cricketer but the truth is, it rather depends where you look and who you listen to. And, perhaps, those days are in the rearview mirror now anyway.
On the drive back from Manchester late on Saturday evening I passed Edgbaston and for a good few years now the side of the stadium has been adorned with a huge photo of the Brummie Botham/Sutton Coldfield Sobers (delete as per taste – both if you have any).
Chat to league players in the area who encountered Walmley in the Birmingham Premier League 15 years ago and they recall a dedicated, fresh-faced kid among the men who batted top four, sliced and diced with the new ball – “you could hear the seam whizzing down” a former opponent said on Sunday – and was destined to soar.
Speak to the Warwickshire players, support staff or members and you’ll only get the image of a selfless and talented professional. The operations manager, Keith Cook, has seen hundreds of players come and go during the 47 years at Edgbaston that earned him a British Empire Medal last year and places him in his all-time Bears XI.
“Without a doubt he’d be in there,” says Cook. “He’s a match-winner but a fantastic human being as well. The world would be a better place with more Woakesys around.”
And then there are his England colleagues. Before last year’s World Cup, for example, a video circulated online in which teammates were asked to sum up Woakes. Words like “perfect”, “pure” and “classy” abound – so too a few nods to the impeccable hair – while Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler reference the unflappable temperament.
Jason Roy sounds envious of “the best cover drive you have ever seen” and though seemingly devoid of ego off the field – my league cricketer friend describes a player only interested in what he is up to when paths cross these days – England’s one-day opener notes “an element of get out of my face” when Woakes is in the heat of battle.
Over four days in Manchester these attributes – not least the shot Roy covets – all came to the fore, with top-order wickets, 103 runs over two innings and ice in his veins during a run chase that saw him seize the initiative with Jos Buttler and deliver on a plan to stay a touch leg side, use his eye and be proactive.
It was not the first Test match where his all-round game has aligned. Pakistan received a dose on their summer here in 2016, while his maiden Test century against India was a match in which he knocked over Virat Kohli. But perhaps, belatedly, it was the performance that hammered home what a valuable red-ball cricketer England have here (something Morgan’s white-ball set-up realised a good while back).
Because there is still a question to be asked as to how the Test brains trust view him at times, beyond talk of “Mr Dependable”. A generous assessment of Woakes bowling just five overs in Pakistan’s second innings, during which he dispatched Azhar Ali and Babar Azam, is that Joe Root was saving his energy for the impending job of batting at No 7.
The tourists were rolled regardless but it still looked slightly odd, so too when, having tested front pads and both edges more than anyone, the captain asked him to deploy a bumper plan on day two despite Jofra Archer being similarly fresh.
Michael Vaughan, who by Saturday evening announced he was intending to set up a Chris Woakes appreciation society, questioned on TMS 24 hours earlier how much he demands the ball. Root will know the answer but, either way, he is the one charged with spotting who the force is currently with, not just who is badgering him the most.
Then for all this praise, some will bark, what about his overseas bowling average? And yes it’s true that 51 is more than twice the 22 at home that, among English seamers with more than his 85 wickets, is bettered only by Alec Bedser and Fred Trueman.
But think back to his showing in Hamilton in the winter – a true heartbreaker of a pitch for the bowlers – or Johannesburg. There is evidence of a corner being turned with the Kookaburra, after advice from consultant Darren Gough to smash the surface harder for more movement. He is 31 now and, believe it or not, players can get better.
Woakes didn’t start the summer, to far less noise than Stuart Broad’s omission, yet with two Tests to go it is hard not to wonder if it is time Root harnessed the wave he is riding more.
The news of Ben Stokes leaving the camp increases Woakes’ all-round value but he can still be afforded greater access to the new ball and the clutch moments. Rather than just admiring the form horse, England should empower him further.
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