By Derek Pringle
If top-level coaches were to put forward their idea of the perfect cricketer, not just in terms of performance but low maintenance as well, then Chris Woakes would be that player.
Doing as you are told has become a way of life for modern cricketers as coaches continue to rule the roost, and nobody seemed more acquiescent, initially, than Woakes.
From the outside, this made him seem like the teacher’s pet (you wouldn’t catch him in dive bars), which was handy for getting picked in squads, but not much use for taking his game to the next level.
To achieve that players require a degree of self-determination, something Woakes has done with such success that he has achieved the one-day double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets for England in fewer games than Andrew Flintoff, Ian Botham and Paul Collingwood – the three other cricketers in that club.
His ODI record should be safe for a while, even from Ben Stokes, who would need to take a near impossible 43 wickets in seven games to beat him (having already scored 1,000 runs in the format).
So what did Woakes do? Well having languished on the fringes of England’s red and white-ball teams for a few years, he decided to bowl quicker – a yard and a half quicker. Sounds easy doesn’t it, but it ain’t. But from this seemingly modest change everything else – a regular England place, riches in the Indian Premier League, the setting of one-day records – has flowed.
Before he made the increase, Woakes was around the 83mph mark, the same niche as Jimmy Anderson but without the same skills for swing. Adding a yard and half, the units cricketers use when measuring pace, equates to an extra 6-7 mph.
Such an increase would barely be discernible in a car travelling between 60-70mph but to a batsman over 20 yards, roughly the distance between him and the bowler at delivery, it is significant.
When asked how he managed to bowl more quickly, Woakes claims he just ran in quicker and hit the crease with more intent, but he would have strengthened his side and trunk muscles first, and possibly his legs, too.
He would also have needed to push himself mentally, as adding pace can mess with rhythm, accuracy and the ability to swing and seam the ball as one’s wrist gets pulled around by the extra torque.
Many bowlers are allergic to change once they have reached the top, arguing that as their original skills were good enough to get them there in the first place, why tinker?
The argument has logic except that the game is fluid and both bowlers and batsmen need to keep evolving. My belief has always been that sideways movement, if and when it can be achieved, is the best skill for a bowler to have.
But it is mercurial, here one minute gone the next especially in overseas conditions. After that pace is best, something Woakes has come to realise.
In 1983, following an instructive Ashes tour, I tried to bowl a yard or so quicker simply by charging in faster. It was not very scientific but three things happened. My strike-rate improved, no-balls snowballed and I buggered my back to the point where I needed my sacroiliac joint manipulated under anaesthetic.
Mentally, I was not geared up to the extra pain and physical problems that might occur so the experiment was short-lived. After that, I concentrated on swing as per my earlier philosophy.
The extra speed Woakes can now supply means he can stop batsmen getting on to the front foot, especially desirable in white-ball cricket where bowlers need to exploit the slightest advantage, as there aren’t many.
Having enough pace to prevent a batsman from committing fully to his shot or footwork, at least in his mind, is a minor triumph, which is why fast bowlers command such a premium currently in the IPL, especially if they can bat as well, as Woakes can.
But do his new-found powers, and the record it has brought, mean he is better than the three England players he has bested, at least in figures? With my arbiters hat on, I would say Woakes is not as talented a batsman as any of the other three, but then it is difficult for him to compete, batting as he does down at seven or eight.
That said, England’s ‘play without fear’ policy means they need to bat deep and Woakes does find himself at the crease with more balls to utilise than many previous number eights. He has only four fifties though, which means he must have made a lot of worthy 30s, given it has taken him 72 ODIs to reach 1,000 runs.
The bowling is where comparisons get even more complex, the different roles played and the changing nature of batting having a big influence on runs scored and wickets taken.
Generally, runs per over should be the diamond metric when valuing bowlers, but that is difficult to measure across generations. When Botham played, an RPO or Economy Rate of 5.58, the one Woakes enjoys currently, would have been unacceptable even if you bowled both at the start and death of an innings. That figure rises with each generation and Woakes’ RPO is pretty decent by today’s standards. As a measurement, though, wickets are equally fallible, today’s batsmen taking far more risks than previous generations. As scoring-rates climb, wickets are easier to come by.
If pushed, I’d say Woakes is a more effective one-day bowler than Botham and Collingwood but not Flintoff, whose pace and ability to nail the yorker made him the go-to man at the death. And that can have a value beyond rubies.
Even so, we should salute Woakes as someone who had the foresight and courage to risk bold changes to his game when the fashion is to improve by small increments. And for that, as well as setting a new England one-day record, he deserves every credit for making the very most of what he has got.
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