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England give Mark Wood chance to be his best after first Test misuse

England's Mark Wood appeals unsuccessfully for the leg before wicket of India's Ravindra Jadeja on the first day of the third cricket test match between India and England in Rajkot, India, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024
Mark Wood kept England alive on the first day of the third Test, having missed the second in Vizag - AP/Ajit Solanki

Opting for Mark Wood’s pace over Shoaib Bashir’s spin was the final decision made by England when selecting their XI for the third Test. But by stumps on day one, when he had three wickets and a fine, if farcical, direct-hit run out, they could reasonably ask where on earth they would have been without him.

Wood went wicketless in the first Test in Hyderabad. That game saw a series of firsts for Wood. It was his first Test in India, first in the unusual role of sole seamer and, as an old-ball specialist, the first time he had bowled the opening over of an innings. In the second innings, he took the new ball, but was whipped off after just one over by the ever-inventive captain Ben Stokes. That was a first, too.

Afterwards, Wood was delighted with the win but down on his own performance, drawing an unfavourable comparison with the genius of Jasprit Bumrah (who had taken six wickets). Overall, his assessment of his role in the game was “odd”. He added that he found it “bizarre” to not have another fast bowler to discuss tactics and conditions with.

“Whenever Woody plays for England, he gives absolutely everything to the team and he certainly did that last week,” said Stokes. “When he doesn’t feel like he contributes, he feels like he’s let people down. But that’s obviously not the case.”

Listening to Stokes speak about Wood’s role before the third Test, it was clear that the captain had been canny enough to recognise that his old mate is a creature of habit. So he changed his handling of Wood, just as he has curbed his attacking instincts when setting fields for Tom Hartley since he took a first innings hiding in Hyderabad.

England's captain Ben Stokes, left talks with Mark Wood on the first day of the third cricket test match between India and England in Rajkot, India, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024
Ben Stokes and Wood have a good, close relationship - AP/Ajit Solanki

No longer would Wood be the lone seamer. Instead, he was paired with Jimmy Anderson, who would provide the passages of control, while Wood attacked. There would have been a case for selecting another controlling seamer, like Ollie Robinson, alongside Anderson, but as ever England chose the attacking option, and appear to have a better balance because of it.

Stokes used the words “high pace” and “point of difference” when discussing Wood’s usage, while making clear he would not be flogging a precious commodity on a pitch that was unlikely to be helpful. As a result, he would be given “more rest”. In short, Wood would not need to perform every role asked of a seamer in the subcontinent, just the ones that suited him.

It worked a treat, on what proved a fine day of Test cricket for Durham players. Stokes brought up his 100th Test, with Paul Collingwood presenting the cap. In New Zealand, stalwart batsman David Bedingham made his maiden Test hundred for South Africa. And Wood bowled with trademark pace and graft.

First, he became the 25th new ball partner of Anderson’s Test career. After a slightly over-pitched, wayward start, he pulled his length back, found some extra bounce and forced Yashasvi Jaiswal to fend to slip. In his next over, Wood got a ball to shape in to Shubman Gill. The next one, on a similar fourth stump line, held, and took the edge. Even as they made centuries in Vizag, Jasiwal and Gill had looked troubled by Anderson, operating around 10mph slower than Wood. This time, they had genuine pace to contend with and due to cool morning conditions leaving a touch of moisture in the pitch, nip, too.

Wood’s opening spell lasted six overs, in the course of which he topped 93mph, and discomfited Rohit Sharma, clattering a brutal short ball into his grille. Stokes mixed up his fields, at one point posting two gullies barely a metre apart, then opting for the short-ball option.

After the afternoon became England’s first wicketless session of the series and as Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja’s partnership was ticking towards 200, Stokes turned back to Wood in search of a wicket. They telegraphed the bouncer plan to both men and, while it leaked some runs, it eventually brought the wicket of Sharma, pulling straight to midwicket, where Stokes took perhaps the simplest catch of his 100-Test career.

For each of his three wickets, Wood wheeled away in maniacal celebration, the frustrations of Hyderabad flooding out. Assistant coach Paul Collingwood, however, felt Wood had enjoyed the run out most of all.

“On flat pitches, you need something, be it a leg-spinner who can turn it both ways, or extreme pace,” said Collingwood. “You have to think outside the box on how to take wickets, be it field placings or plans. I thought we did that pretty well today.”

This continued a trend. Across his career, he has picked up important hauls in Abu Dhabi, St Lucia, South Africa, Australia, Pakistan and now India, so that his record is unusual for an English quick: his average is almost 10 lower away from home than at home. On slow pitches like these, England need Wood, and need to use him right.

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