Using data, analysis and insight is key to performance in both investing and cricket. Here, Ben Jones looks at the performance of England’s fast bowler, Mark Wood.
There has been a lot of talk around English cricket in the last few weeks. Discussions of rebuilds, resets, frank declarations of discontent and frustration in a number of areas, from top to bottom. These conversations are necessary, given that without due attention to the reasons behind a failure, your planning and preparation for the next cycle, the next challenge, will be built on sand. As the saying goes: those who ignore history, are doomed to repeat it.
Understandably, people can push back when the importance of “taking the positives” comes up. It can feel, in the emotional aftermath of defeats, like a far too easy get-out, an escape from the tough questions and the introspection, bordering on self-flagellation, that fans can demand.
But sometimes, it is genuinely important to take the positives. Among the wreckage of any defeat, there will typically be achievements and moments from individual players which deserve praise and celebration. Michael Vaughan’s lone-effort in 2003, Kevin Pietersen at Adelaide, Steve Smith in 2019: some of the most iconic Ashes performances have come in series when the team haven’t had enough to get over the line, or even close to it. Read: Mark Wood, in 2021/22.
On paper, you might look at the bare bones of Wood’s figures on this tour – 17 wickets in four Tests, at an average of 26.64 – and think this was a good effort, but not necessarily an historic one. On the latter point, you’d be right, placed alongside what other nations have achieved on Australian soil, what other bowlers have managed. However, for an England seamer, it’s not quite the same story. Since 2000, only one English bowler has come to Australia – James Anderson, in the victorious 2010/11 campaign – and managed to take more wickets than Wood did in this series, at a better average.
But without question, what will endure beyond the straightforward statistics, is the way Wood bowled on this tour, and that point is twofold.The joyfulness with which the Durham man plays his cricket, the wholehearted nature of his approach, has always seen him held in great regard by England fans, and even the most diehard Australian support would admit to having been charmed by his exploits this series. Yet aside from the cheerful and genuine personality which manages the rare thing of humanising a top level athlete, there is another attribute which just makes Wood stand out from the crowd, and makes his performance on this tour all the more memorable: Mark Wood is absolutely rapid.
Since the start of 2020, Wood’s average speed in Test cricket is 143kph, the highest of anyone around in the game – he is, legitimately, the fastest bowler in the world right now. The number of times in history where the England Test team have arrived in Australia with that bowler – the quickest around – you can count on one hand, perhaps with a few fingers to spare. The absence of Jofra Archer was always going to dim English optimism going into the series, but in retrospect there was maybe too much diffidence, too much pessimism, with regard to England’s pace attack. Wood was always going to bring the heat.
And my, how he brought it. Since records began in 2006, only one bowler has come to Australia and been quicker across the course of a Test series, Jasprit Bumrah on his first trip to Australia back in 2018/19. The overall quality of the two performances sits rather differently – Bumrah’s all round excellence was matched with an Indian team operating perfectly in all aspects – but on the pure and brutal scale of pace, Wood has slotted himself in at the top of the list.
Similarly, if we return to the far more favourable comparison with other England bowlers, Wood is out in front to an almost hilarious extent. Of the 30 quickest spells delivered in Australia by English bowlers on the last five tours (from when records began), 26 of them were bowled by Wood on this tour. As the only genuinely fast bowler at Joe Root’s disposal, Wood has fulfilled his role about as well as could be imagined.
While his bowling was quick, his rewards were not. His Expected Average has stayed consistent throughout the series, hovering around the 26 mark while the harsh brutality of his scorecard average was much higher. Everyone watching could tell that Wood was being unlucky, and bowling well in plenty of different situations, but he wasn’t getting the reward – until this Test. His xAverage ended the series at 26.4, and his actual average fell to a much more forgiving (and accurate) 26.6.
Perhaps that was partly to do with a change of method, as well as an undeniable turnaround of fortune. Wood in white ball cricket is nose and toes, bouncers and yorkers, a game based on great execution of a simple plan. In Test cricket, he’s rarely found an identity which fits as easily. While he’s often been more effective in numbers terms when hitting a consistent line and length, just like any other bowler, his pace has often pushed him into the enforcer role. It’s not a style of bowling that always suits him, and one which places pressure on his fragile body. But in that final Test at Hobart, there was a man bowling to a plan, embracing a clear identity and nailing it accordingly. In one mighty spell on the morning of Day 3, his final effort of the series, he bowled 21 bouncers inside five overs, ‘bouncing out’ the bulk of Australia’s batting. Luck was there, every miscued hook shot landing in safe hands, but after a sorry summer in that regard it was well deserved.
As well as a general appreciation for his efforts, the other major story to surround Wood this series was around when he didn’t take to the field. After bowling just 25 overs in the Gabba Test, England opted to leave Wood out of the second match in Adelaide, the first pink ball Test of the series. It was much derided at the time, with England’s predilection for rotation an easy target, and deciding to “rest” your only genuinely quick bowler after such a limited workload felt like overthinking. It may well have been just that, but it’s also worth noting that the 20 overs Wood bowled on Day 2 in Brisbane, was the second most he’s ever bowled in a day of Test cricket. Across the course of a match, it was a meagre effort, but in terms of the toll it may have taken on Wood’s body on that day alone, it was not insignificant.
England’s reasoning for resting Wood was, according to Root, a recognition of the role he had to play across the course of the series, and of how important it was that come the fourth and fifth Tests, Wood was fresh and still effective. In a sense, England got what they wanted, given that Wood is into his fourth game of the tour and is bowling better than ever, and that isn’t usual; only twice in his career has Wood played more than two Tests in a series, the 2015 Ashes and this series. The way England handled Wood worked – the issue was that not much else did.
And in that, is the most important element of why “taking the positives” is not a fool’s errand. Other decisions may not have been justified, other pieces of the puzzle may not have fallen into place, but some did – and it’s a joyless way to live your life, to ignore them. Through weeks of poor results and individual disappointments, it can be hard to see the Wood for the trees when it comes to finding something to smile about. Well, the performance of the fastest bowler in the world is one emphatic, undeniable positive they can take all the way home.