Archer, Wood or Woakes? Bowling rivalry ramps up as England touch down in Port Elizabeth
Fitness, form and style will all feed into the crucial decision by selectors as to who should fill James Anderson's shoes for the third Test against South Africa on what can be an unpredictable ground on the Eastern Cape
Supposedly the worst time to bat in the nets is when fast bowlers need to prove their fitness. Three days out from the third Test, with one fast bowling position up for grabs between three, here was that time.
Monday at St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth, played host to perhaps the most rigorous session of the tour with all fit and available and Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer bending their backs to stake a claim for selection.
Prior to the session, assistant coach Paul Collingwood urged the trio to show “100 percent intensity”. Tuesday is a day off which meant encouraging the them to go at it, full tilt, was very much on the agenda, with Collingwood playing the part of neutral bystander fanning the flames in a tense pub stand-off. All that was missing was some mockney mucker hoofing the door down and yelling “I came ‘ere for a bowl-aaaaaat!”
Nothing about this is new, of course. As with all long tours, injury only rules a player out if he cannot return early enough to make an influence further along. That was the case with Rory Burns (ruptured ankle ligaments) and James Anderson (broken rib) which has presented this winner-takes-all scenario.
So, what to consider?
Firstly, that Port Elizabeth will play differently to the surfaces at Centurion and Cape Town. It can be a bit like those cereal variety packs: choice for every taste but not enough for satisfaction. As such, Joe Root will want his attack to be wide-ranging and that means leaning towards 90mph pace.
That brings Archer and Wood into contention. The pair had one intense spell of bowling in the early afternoon after two spells on Sunday, albeit at 80% for Archer. The onus on both was to build on that work and, by all accounts, that’s what they did.
Both occupied the same net which goes beyond the convenience of head coach Chris Silverwood keeping tabs on them. The very nature of their roles – to be the fastest on deck – puts them in competition, even when they are teammates as they were throughout last summer’s World Cup. Or rather, especially as teammates. Every second look was to the speed gun, every third towards the other man.
In the group match against Bangladesh at Cardiff, Archer refused to believe Wood had topped him on the speed gun. Then, in the Lord’s final, Wood repeated the feat – 95.7mph playing 95.6mph – and boasted about his numbers in the changing room while icing his torn side, troublesome ankle and flaring knee. Archer stared him up and down and said: “I think I’d rather be me.” Fair enough, replied Wood.
That was the last time they played together, and the last time the Durham bowler saw competitive action. Having turned 30 a few days ago, he still has much to give and the hardest thing for the rest of the tour, not just this fixture, is showing as much without any warm-up matches to speak of. A look into getting all three a stint in club cricket over here did not quite tally.
“Ideally you’d love Woody to go out and get some competitive games in,” stated Collingwood. “But I’ve got no qualms he could come in this week and be successful because of what he’s done in the past, what he can draw upon. He’s got the skills to go out there and make an impact.”
Archer’s predicament seems certainly more clear-cut but is more fraught with risk. The pro is he played the first Test, even if that was more than two weeks ago now. The con is just how much of an issue this right elbow might be.
England are understandably reluctant to go into another Test which could last five days with any whiff of a question mark on one of their seamers. While they have the measure of Archer’s elbow, it is an one that flared up last summer but was managed effectively behind the scenes.
There is a lot the coaching staff and management are still learning about the 24-year old. Some of it technical, some of it cultural. Similarly, Archer is still finding his feet at this level and in the team environment. The first four Tests might have gleaned 22 wickets at 20.27, but the last three – two in New Zealand and one in South Africa – have produced just eight.
The rigours of always being “on” and working with a less-than-helpful Kookaburra ball have been stumbling blocks to a cricketer whose X-factor comes from going full-tilt on top of his ample skill. It bodes well for him that everyone around him in the set-up is not losing sight of that.
“His main skill is bowling 90 mph-plus,” said Collingwood of Archer. “We have enough bowlers in and around the county circuit who can bowl at 82 to 85 mph and try to nip it around. You want the likes of Wood and Archer to give you that X-factor. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
But amid the talk of speed, the finger might be pointing at Mr Dependable Chris Woakes when Root decides on his XI. For it is Woakes who is the fittest of the lot, ever since he was able to recover from the bug that struck him down during the first Test. Over the last fortnight, he has returned to his fighting weight.
He does not offer the speeds of the other two but he is the more reliable in terms of batting and physicality. The one major blemish is an overseas record that has him taking his wickets at 54.86 outside the UK and an alarming 98.50 in South Africa. The latter, though, was from two matches four years ago: a very different time for a very different Woakes.
With two days and one training session to go, it looks to be between Wood and Woakes for Anderson’s spot. But as has been the way this tour, that could change overnight.