Chris Woakes: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone

Today Michael Wood pays tribute to one of England’s finest, if least exciting, team men of recent times.

As our white ball bowlers book their neck massage appointments after getting carted into the stands during the ODIs series, the absence of England’s “Mr Dependable” was painfully obvious to all. Oh how we missed the beautifully boring Chris Woakes to kill the Indians’ fun.

I love Chris Woakes but let’s admit it. He’s about as exciting as renewing your car insurance. He walks onto the pitch with as much swagger as Mark Ealham. And without the bulging muscles and tattoos of modern cricketers, he doesn’t even look like an international sportsman. He looks more like a health and safety inspector.

It’s not even as if he has anything interesting to say. You look forward to Mark Wood’s sparky comments for example, but Woakes seems to have memorised a staff handbook, ready to regurgitate its finer details at the drop of a hat.

With a whole colour chart at his disposal, the Warwickshire all-rounder picks grey every time. Winning the PCA Men’s Cricketer of the Year in 2020 was “nice”. His baby daughter returning home from the hospital – “nice”. He says “I don’t always get the limelight which I’m perfectly happy with”. I mean, come on man! You just want to shake him. I can see a lucrative post-playing career where he just chats with James Milner for one of those apps that helps you get to sleep.

You would not consider Woakes a superstar in any format so it always a good to remind yourself of what he has achieved. He regularly plays both white and red ball cricket for England, is an Ashes (one Test at the end of the home series in 2013 still counts!) and World Cup winner, and won the aforementioned PCA award last year. And whilst he has not played a T20I since 2015, he was still good enough at the format to be picked up by the Delhi Capitals for the October 2020 IPL, before pulling out due to the birth of his daughter. Nice.    

Yet despite all those achievements, what he excels at most is his commitment to avoid the limelight. After all, even his best performances are overshadowed.

His best Test performance based on match stats came in a poor team loss to Pakistan at Lords in 2016. Yasir Shah won man of the match having spun Pakistan to victory. But look at how Shah and Woakes matched up: Shah took 10 for 141, Woakes 11 for 102. Both had an economy rate across the game of 2.35. Woakes scored 58 runs to Shah’s 41. But Pakistan won and so did Shah.

Similarly, in the ODI series with Australia in 2020, in the second match Jofra Archer won the Man of the Match award, taking 3/34. Woakes took 3/32 and added a valuable 26 runs.

In the World Cup in 2019, our unsung hero kept getting better as the tournament rolled on, clocking up an economy of 2.5 in the semi-final and 4.1 in the final. He took 3/37 in the final, a much forgotten contribution compared to the drama of Ben Stokes. And yet everybody soon forgot. How England could’ve used that economy rate in India.

That PCA award last year was no fluke either. In 2020 he took 17 wickets at 20.47. His home Test record now stands at 87 wickets at 22.87. Outstanding numbers.

Those directly involved clearly appreciate him. “He’s class, he’s so pure. He’s probably got the best cover drive you’ve ever seen” purrs Jason Roy. “His skill level is immense. He is one of the best players in our side” added Buttler in a promotional video the ECB released before the World Cup, presumably to remind fans that Woakes was a player rather than the team’s financial advisor.

I have watched Woakes play live in eight Test matches but cannot really remember anything he did. He’s almost too orthodox to remember. Take his conventional bowling action – none of the windmill arms of a Steve Harmison, pumping knees of Steven Finn, or the stuttering approach to the crease of a Jasprit Bumrah. It’s just a get in, get the job done, and go home for a cup of tea approach. Utterly forgettable but effective.

His batting is the same. It’s absolutely textbook. Yet even when he scored that lovely Test hundred, you’d do well to remember any of it.

But that’s not to say that Woakes isn’t as worthy or important as any other member of the team. I love him just the way he is. And I want him to be exciting about as much as I want my account to tell me about his sexual conquests.  

The truth is that great teams need boring players. Because like Claude Makele for Chelsea or Richard Hill for the England rugby team back in the day, having unflashy players who go under the radar because they’re so consistent is gold dust.

So will Woakes ever emerge from the shadows of Anderson, Broad and Archer? I doubt it. But I’m sure that he’s perfectly happy with that. And we’re sure to miss him when he’s gone. Even when we forget his name in pub quizzes.

Michael Wood

16 comments

  • He was harshly done by this winter. I hope that we see him back in the ranks in the summer. With Leach inked in as first choice spinner, a second spinner unlikely to be needed on English pitches, and the three out and out speedsters (Archer, Stone, Wood) and the two veterans Broad and Anderson all very much lower order batters a bowler who can bat is required, and other than Woakes the only obvious options for that role are Sam Curran or possibly trust that Ollie Robinson of Sussex (the best bowler of the trio just named) is good enough with the willow the fill the no8 slot.

    • Yes. Not sure we’ll see a lot of Wood, Stone or Archer (Mr Fish Tank) because all 3 are virtually walking wounded most of the time, and I’m not even sure Archer can bowl top pace any more or indeed wants to play Test cricket. Woakes should have always been in the side at least most of the time, but they seem to have forgot him completely for some reason only known to Ed Smith, unless he’s permanently rotating or resting. I reckon he could bat up the order if required as well.

  • As a Warwickshire man I have witnessed the repeated rise and fall of Woakes 1st hand. Whilst he may not be the most watchable cricketer of recent years he is now one of the most consistent, having worked hard to develop his game ffrom county to test level and in an age where our bowling attack is anything but, with the honourable exception of our Jimmy, he would have been a better bet than either Curran on this tour. Like Plunkett before him, cruelly discarded after the World Cup, where he was possibly our best bowler, he seems another who’s face doesn’t fit for some reason. During the Harrison and Graves era, supported by Mr. Ed there have been a succession of players given chances disproportionate to their achievements. Woakes appears to be one of those who has to prove himself every time he plays. He’s hardly over the hill but promising youngsters seem to be the order of the day in sport generally these days and we all know this does not lead to any sort of consistency, as youngsters don’t know their own game well enough to produce often enough when it matters, crucial in a highly technical sport like cricket.
    At least the ignoring of Woakes will help Warwickshire. He could be the ideal foil for Stone and Brooks if they can stay fit and Woakes has a good record here, being a natural athlete. He’s also a much better bet as 1st change than opener, where he lacks the pace to capitalise fully on a new ball.
    Incidentally the Cricketer magazine is running a competition for the best county sides of the professional era. They ask you to choose from a list of probables and if your choices aren’t there you can add them to make up your best X1. Significantly Woakes is absent from the Warwickshire listing in any category.

    • With all eyes on the Ashes (whether we like it or not) Woakes’ overseas record will, sadly, count against him. I fear that the Ed Smith mantra will be pace-pace-pace, with Leach trying to block up an end while the pacemen are resting. A combination of Anderson and Broad will likely fill the role of third seamer, except in Adelaide, where Jimmy will be given the new ball under the lights if he remains injury-free. It was a combination of unfortunate circumstances that led to Woakes’ exclusion from the team in all formats this winter. His ill-fated car journey with the positive-testing Moeen forced him into quarantine when he might otherwise have played, and he was always playing catch-up after that. I disagree with those who dismiss his performances as boringly forgettable. On his day in English conditions he can be unplayable, and his wonderful innings at No 8, during which he dominated the match-winning partnership with Buttler, gave England their only victory in the 2020 Pakistan series. I fervently hope we haven’t seen the last of him at Test level, because he’s at his peak now – if only they’d give him a game or two to prove it!

    • I can’t see at all that Woakes’s face doesn’t fit in the England set-up. He’s been a first-choice pick in ODIs for years now; there seems to be an idea, which I don’t quite understand, that he’s not a T20 bowler, but which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with faces not fitting; and he’s played about as much Test cricket as you would expect from someone who’s missed a fair few matches in recent years with injury, has an abysmal overseas record and who’s competing with Stokes for the all-rounder spot and Anderson and Broad for the fast-medium spots. And the England hierarchy seem to bend over backwards saying how wonderful he is.

      What’s the evidence for the face not fitting? (Similarly, Plunkett being discarded after the WC had nothing to do with face not fitting as far as I can see and everything to do with selection planning based on WC cycles).

      And, if he should have played more tests, when, where and in place of whom? (Since I suspect your answer might well involve the surname Curran, it might be worth pointing out in advance that only six of Sam Curran’s 21 tests–and neither of his brother’s–appear to have come at the expense of Woakes).

      Reply moderated
      • We’ll have to agree to disagree over this one Marek. All the evidence I can see points to a lack of enthusiasm for certain players and preference for others, not based on achievement.
        Woakes may have tested positive along with Moin, but Moin made it back into the side later in the tour and with our seam attack struggling to restrict the Indian batsmen Woakes seemed to me to be the best option.
        Plunkett’ dropping had everything to do with his falling out with management after his public show of disbelief with the decision for which he was never consulted after being one of our best World Cup bowlers.
        You don’t discard players by rote in cycles when they’re still performing unless you operate a new broom policy to make your mark. Now that sounds familiar, wonder who the new broomer is?

        • Are you saying that Plunkett’s dropping came in two stages–that he was dropped temporarily and then permanently once he expressed disagreement with his temporary dropping? I’ve never seen that reported.

          Operating a cyclical selection policy for one-day teams isn’t that unusual. It has nothing to do with making a mark–it’s to avoid the kind of situation that England got into with Darren Gough, where they played him for three years on the assumption that he would make it to the next WC and then found out six months beforehand that he wouldn’t.

      • “there seems to be an idea, which I don’t quite understand, that he’s not a T20 bowler”.

        His record in the matches he did play wasn’t that great – bowling average of 36 at an ER of 9.3. It is of course fair to say it was a small sample size.

        Partly he’s suffered because the Currans play the same role. I also suspect England have a T20I fixation on death bowling of yorkers and slower balls – Woakes tends to plough it just back of a length in a manner they probably see as too predictable.

        It’s worth mentioning that he’s now 32 although he benefits from England being rich enough to pay players not to play.

  • Nice guy and excellent home record, but his away Test record is still shocking – bowling average over 50. It’s not enough just to perform when the conditions suit you – Woakes has to learn to do it overseas to be considered a seasoned England player.

    • Woakes is an improved bowler in recent times and it was more to do with his exclusion from the ODI’s, where we clearly have a weak seam attack, consistently conceding well over 300, that the criticism of his sidelining was aimed.

    • He wasn’t dropped though, so he’ll be back for the next series. I agree that it would be an exceptionally poor piece of selection if he was dropped from the ODI team.

      • When we were struggling to restrict India and out tail was not giving any runs, having Woakes as an option would seem to be a sensible. He can get good players out and make consistently useful runs.
        If you’re a previous regular and suddenly get deselected I call that being dropped. Will he be back for the next series, I’d say that’s debatable.
        Plunkett comments were well documented at the time. He implied it would be safe to make them as he had no hope of future selection anyway.
        As I’ve said before age shouldn’t enter into selection. Form and fitness are everything, being a promising youngster should be further down the list.
        Look at the England soccer team, full of overrated promise who have yet to achieve anything and show no signs against half decent opposition. One of the most enduring sporting sayings is ‘you win nowt with younguns’. The proof is in the teams who win tournaments.

      • Re Woakes: that is to not understand the idea of resting or rotating players. What you call it is irrelevant–he simply wasn’t dropped. Of course he could be rested for the next series too–but next time England put out a full-strength ODI team, he’ll be in it if he’s fit.

        Re Plunkett–that was exactly the point I was making: if his comments suggested that it was safe to make them because he had no hope of reselection, then by definition they can’t have been the cause of his dropping. That’s just basic logic.

        That saying is simply nonsense. Most teams that win tournaments have a mixture of ages.

        • You’ve just proved how relevant the ‘Younguns’ cliche is. It’s not about having youngsters in the side per se, it’s about a balance of youth and experience. Too many promising players in preference to experienced players who know their own game and can adapt better to circumstance and you win nothing, it’s about getting that balance right. Nowadays we have an obsession with youth in sport, consistently over praising them so most fall by the wayside of expectation, unable to deal with the pressures. It’s counterproductive. Your core has to be experience to win major tournaments, you see this in all team sports all over the world. Promising Youngsters are inconsistent by definition and you need a solidity they can’t provide to win a succession of knockout games.

  • Yes Chris Woakes is an underrated player in England’s scheme of things. In fact, I watched with awe his all-round performance in Lord’s Test in 2018 against India. In fact, he was drafted into the side as a replacement for Ben Stokes who was banned for 1 test as he was facing some court case. Woakes grabbed the opportunity with both hands and scored a Brilliant century and was unbeaten on 137 when the declaration took place. He also got a couple of wickets in both innings of India. And he ultimately got the MOM award for this match. He was Joe Root’s go-to-man whenever England wants a wicket. Anyhow it was surprising to see his omission both in Tests & ODIs against India in recent England’s tour.

  • I certainly remember his test hundred, his 80 odd not out that won a test last summer, and his fantastic control of swing and line and length.

    I suspect most England fans do as well. People remember Angus Fraser being a pretty fine bowler 20 odd years after he last played.

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