Mark Wood talks to All Out Cricket about getting back to his best after recovering from his latest injury setback, and why this England team are so exciting.
“This is a squad that ultimately is going to win the Champions Trophy,” drawls Joe Root, leaning forward into another media huddle. He sees what we all see. Fierce top seven. Great allrounder. Bristling bench. Quicks that want to knock your block off.
Speed is the thing now, rushing through the veins of a team abuzz. Speed with bat, speed with ball. One without the other unbalances everything. Chris Woakes, Ben Stokes and Liam Plunkett all push it through around 90mph. And then, of course, there is Mark Wood.
“Horrible.” It’s the only word Root needs offer when asked what he’s like to face in the nets. Last summer, they faced each other on Twenty20 Finals Day. Root had just hit 254 in a Test match. “He made me look a mug, a mug. Woody’s got that impact you need, at any stage of any game. Just through raw pace.”
Only pace as pure as this can propel an unknown so far so quickly. In two years Wood has sped through several careers-worth of soars and dips, absorbing an England ODI debut in May 2015 after just a handful of matches for Durham, followed by an Ashes series in which he took the clinching wicket by way of prelude to his mates from Ashington, where he’s always lived, piling into the Oval dressing room at the end of a dreamlike summer that would turn, in the fall, to dust.
By late November he was under the knife, the pain in his ‘chronic’ left ankle too much to bear, and the comedown kicked in soon after. He recalls a time of “climbing the walls” and being “impossible” to live with. Then, in April, a setback in his rehabilitation, and a second operation. More climbing, more walls. Two months further down the line he was finally able to play again, tearing into Root at Finals Day and bounding through his hastened ODI return like a tagged teen on day release. “To come back so strongly is incredible!” he said at the time. And indeed it was.
“This last time was the worst,” he says now. It was October, on the eve of England’s departure for Bangladesh and India. More pain, more scans, more horror. A third operation in just over a year. At 26, Mark Wood thought it was over. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’m still getting pain, I’m not the same bowler, I can’t rev it up’.”
The first time AOC saw Wood in 2017, he was in a large marquee on the Oval outfield running through his action with an elasticated band tied around his waist, driving himself through the pain and fear weighted in each delicate stride. Clasping the band to provide resistance was Kevin Shine, ECB’s lead fast bowling coach.
“At first it felt like I couldn’t see the endgame,” says Wood, “but I was just thinking too much. Eventually I just said, ‘Forget everything. Forget this technical bollocks. Just run in and bowl as fast as you can’.”
Something clicked. He stopped overthinking. He began, slowly, to trust the remedial work they’d been doing on his action and then, by fits and starts, the confidence dared to return. He felt, if anything, ahead of schedule. By mid-March he was playing competitive cricket. By early May he was playing again for England.
“There probably is a psychological element to it,” says Root, the old hand, of Wood’s return against Ireland, when he got quicker and more assured as he went on. “First of all he needs to make sure he’s fit for the Champions Trophy, and then we’ll see how he’s shaping up for the Test matches. Of course it’ll be great to have someone of Woody’s pace in the squad and I’m sure he’d be very effective out in Australia. Let’s just see how he goes through the summer and see what shape he’s in by the end of it.”
Root dare not look too far ahead. Still, he knows this is a two-year power-grab, starting with an assault on the here and now, leading in to that sweaty middle period of an Ashes series away and an Indian summer at home before the defining death overs when it all has to come together: a World Cup and an Ashes series in 2019.
“I’m aware we’ve got one hell of a team,” Wood says, buzzing again. “We haven’t got the type of arrogant characters who think we can just waltz in and walk it, but we know we’ve got some of the best players in the world. That’s probably why everyone’s so excited.”