Today Mark Cohen suggests that England should balance their side at the Ageas Bowl by giving Chris Woakes more responsibility with the bat.
Yes, we might be getting carried away with the run chase heroics. Yes, Saturday’s victory against Pakistan included numerous slices of good fortune on what was a minefield of a fourth day wicket. And yes, Chris Woakes still only has a solitary test century to his name. But fate may have thrown England a chance to discover if they have a second world-class all-rounder in their midst.
One hopes that the tabloids will this time respect the privacy of Ben Stokes as he flies to New Zealand for personal family reasons. On a cricketing level, Stokes’ absence for the remaining two tests at the Ageas Bowl against Pakistan is clearly a blow for England. He wasn’t the hero with the bat in Manchester, but two quick wickets in a four over Friday evening burst changed what was beginning to feel like an inevitable march to a Pakistan victory. His bullish leadership will also be conspicuously absent, with the invigorated but more introverted Jos Buttler expected to step in as Joe Root’s deputy.
Aside from Stokes’ standalone value, his presence as an all-rounder adds an extra dynamic to the England team, with Root able to choose from a further four seamers (Anderson, Broad, Archer, Woakes) and spinner (Bess). The England captain and selectors must now decide whether they are to make some brave choices or play it safe.
The latter of these two options would most likely involve bolstering the top order by reinstating Zak Crawley, who had not done much wrong to be dropped after a second innings 76 in the first test against the West Indies. Crawley is a viable number 3 option, allowing Root to drop back to his favoured 4 spot.
As I say, this is the safe option. It might give England a better chance to amass more runs on what you would expect to be a flatter Ageas Bowl wicket. However, this will not improve England’s chances of taking 20 Pakistan wickets.
Chris Woakes is not Ben Stokes. Nobody is Ben Stokes. On a personality level, both men are akin to chalk and cheese. On a cricketing level, however, the next two weeks will reveal whether the ‘Brummie Botham’ is a genuine test all-rounder as well.
That nickname was coined during Pakistan’s last tour of England in 2016 and rightly suggests Woakes’ genuine qualities with both bat and ball. He was named man of the series on that occasion but had not made match-winning contributions with the willow since. Therefore his match-winning unbeaten 84 seemed to come as a surprise to many.
However, anyone who has watched England’s top order over recent years will have lamented the lack of quality and solid technique. Woakes, on the other hand, is orthodox and pleasing on the eye. Jonathan Agnew even suggested on TMS that Woakes could open.
Calls for the Warwickshire man and passionate Villa fan to move up the order should have grown stronger after his century at Lords against India in 2018. I was fortunate enough to witness this knock first hand and it was an innings of genuine class – a word his teammates often use to describe him too.
Fast forward another two years and Woakes is still languishing down the order somewhat. But he does not need to be hoisted from number 7 to the top 3. He should, however, be given the chance to prove himself at 6.
The naysayers will point to a test batting average of just 27 but this reflects the lack of opportunities he’s had to compile substantial innings in recent times. The equation was simple for him and Buttler on Saturday – bat until you have scored the runs – and Woakes showed he has more than enough ability and technique to warrant a chance in a genuine all-rounder’s slot.
Whenever a pundit discusses the Brummie Botham, they always seem to use the word ‘under-appreciated’. But if Woakes can score Stokes’ runs and take Stokes’ wickets during the remainder of this series than he could finally dispatch this label.
Although Sam Curran would offer variation with the ball and could replace Woakes at number 7 with some, (bingo), ‘under-appreciated’ batting, I would prefer England to pick Crawley and rely more heavily on their match-winner in the first Test to balance the side.
We don’t yet know when England will next play another Test match after this series, but when that time comes Ben Stokes should obviously be in the side. Until then, it’s time for Chris Woakes to grab his chance with the same level-headed determination with which he wielded his Gray-Nicolls bat on Saturday.