At lunch on day two in Grenada, Chris Woakes was the first England player to advance towards the boundary rope. Just before Woakes left the playing field, he turned back to wait for his team-mates.
It would be tempting to say that the moment embodied Woakes’ tour so far in the Caribbean: given the chance to lead, he had failed to do so. At lunch, his series haul de él read two for 183 from 71 overs: the new role of attack leader, in lieu of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, seemingly fitting about as well as a jumper that had shrunk a couple of sizes in the wash .
As Kyle Mayers had suggested on the opening morning, with the new ball the Grenada pitch rewards bowlers who can put the ball on a good line and length, compelling the batsman to play, and elicit seam movement. This is a task that Woakes, whose Test bowling average in England is lower than both Anderson’s and Broad’s, should be tailor-made for.
Dropping England’s two highest ever Test wicket-takers has finally allowed Woakes the chance to be first-choice opening bowler. And yet his opening over the day, to Kraigg Brathwaite, did not even demand that Brathwaite play at a solitary delivery; Woakes’ entire over could be left alone with no threat to stumps or bat.
The tone for his new-ball spell was set: generally too wide to the right-hander Brathwaite, and then too straight to the left-hander John Campbell. Over his first 18 balls, Woakes was left alone 12 times; on two occasions, Campbell clipped him off his pads. Just four times in his opening three overs, then, did Woakes do as he is expected to with the new ball: compel the batsman to play on a good line and length just outside off stump, although his last two overs with the new ball were better.
It is often said that Woakes needs more pace or more variety away from home, both claims with considerable merit – especially when bowling with the old ball. Yet, England’s greatest regret about Woakes’ new-ball bowling over the three Tests in the Caribbean has been that he simply hasn’t been accurate enough.
In his five new balls spells in the series, Woakes has only found a good line – the corridor of uncertainty just outside off stump – with 47 per cent of deliveries, his lowest ever figure during a Test series in which he has played more than just one match. In their opening spells in the Caribbean, Anderson and Broad locate a good line with 55 per cent and 59 per cent of balls: a considerable upgrade on Woakes this series.
Foreign surfaces are less forgiving to any erring in line or length; with pitches generally better for batting than those in England, deliveries a little short or full can sit up to be hit, rather than still move menacingly off the seam. And while England can still offer bowlers prodigious seam and swing until the second new ball is near, overseas the little lateral movement there is quickly dissipates; although the West Indies also use the Dukes ball, this version goes softer – and so harder to seam or swing – notably earlier than in England.
The upshot is that, for a bowler with Woakes’ skills, the margin of error is lower overseas. He has been reminded of this truth in this series: after spending his entire career longing for the new ball, Woakes hasn’t taken a single wicket in his five opening spells.
So when Woakes prepared for his second spell after lunch, it was hard not to imagine this was his final ever Test away from home: in his 20th away Test, his overseas average had ticked up to 55 apiece.
It was an opportune time, then, for Woakes to deliver his best spell in seven Tests this winter. He did it by embracing a tool that he has developed to try to become more effective overseas: the short ball, which accounted for both Nkrumah Bonner, trying to evade an awkward lifter, and Jason Holder, hooking straight to square leg, within four balls .