It was as though Chris Woakes had never gone away. That he was not the hapless guy who shared the taxi with Moeen Ali, who later tested positive for COVID-19, and then ended up spending the entire trip to Sri Lanka in isolation. That he was not the unfortunate guy who slipped down the stairs at home, injured his heel, and spent the best part of the summer re-grooving into prime bowling shape. That, he had existed invisibly, as he always had.
Woakes was England’s most deceptive bowler towards the backend of summer 2020. He could well end up their most lethal one towards the fag end of summer 2021. On a day when James Anderson looked a touch ragged, on his least favourite ground, Woakes, once touted as Anderson’s protege, ran India ragged, as if he had spent all those months in isolation and rehabilitation just sharpening his tools and brain waiting for his moment to strike.
It took him just five balls to strike in his comeback over — and he struck thrice more — and did all things Anderson would often do. He swung the ball conventionally both ways, coaxed seam movement into the batsman later on, bowled the wobble-seamer, and then dialled his limited-overs artillery, the slower off-cutter (foxing Rishabh Pant) and the cross-seamers when India’s lower-order used the long handle to good effect. He made Day One England’s.
He mostly bowls with a lovely upright seam position that hardly breaks in its path to the keeper’s gloves. It was one of the virtues that made heads turn when he was plucking wickets in the lower division. He presented a gorgeous seam when he had Kohli edge to the slip cordon, only to be betrayed by his captain Joe Root’s greasy palms.
When he was young, he was told by coaches to never let go of his two big gifts—the upright seam and the natural swing, both inter-related. And in his early international days, it was the rare virtue that swayed
But as his career unrolled, in his quest to stay relevant and straddle formats, change he did. He is not as extravagant a swinger of the ball as he once was, he had to swap some for extra pace. Nor do all deliveries stream out of his hands with an upright, classical seam. Some wobble, some are cross-seamed, some float. His new-age tools were to be as effective as his classical weapons.
The wobble-seamer for instance. He picked it from Anderson in the nets but did not ape it blindly. He tweaked the technique to his method. He holds the ball a little wider on the seam with his fingers slightly apart, holding it like an away swinger with the seam pointing towards the slip.
The wrist is slightly vertical like bowling an in-swinger, maybe a reason he finds more inward movement with the wobble-seamers. It’s a delivery he uses effectively against left-handed batsmen. One of them deceived Ravindra Jadeja, who did not account for the extra movement.
In his next spell, a similar ball induced the outside edge of Rishabh Pant, but the seam did not quiver. The seam was proud and straight. To bowl the same delivery with different methods is Anderson-like. He eventually snapped Pant, who miscued a slower ball off-cutter, wherein he runs his fingers down the right side of the ball and it pitches and turns like a conventional off-break.
It was one of the days when he bettered Anderson on certain counts. Like when hitting the shortish bandwidth of the good-length frequency. Like when he lured Kohli and induced an edge. But he did bargain for the wicket that must be more prized than the Indian captain’s this summer, that of Rohit Sharma.
He started with an out-swinger that fizzed past Rohit’s outside edge, followed it with a string of deliveries that wobbled this way and that way, before he shortened his length and surprised the in-touch batsman with extra bounce that he was not expecting. It’s not a length that usually troubles him, but Woakes caught him by surprise. It’s what Woakes at his best could make batsmen do—trick them to misjudge length.
His skill to swing the ball from that length was equally staggering, the sort of inch-perfect ball that if Anderson had bowled, the world would have penned at a couple of odes on his sparkling genius.
But then, Woakes exists invisibly.