Chris Woakes: 'I felt like it was my shirt. Six months on, I haven’t played a game' | Ali Martin

England’s man of last summer didn’t get a game all winter. Now he heads for the IPL with the Ashes on his mind

It’s the morning after the night before and 5,000 miles away from Pune, the scene of England’s collapse under lights in the first one-day international, one of their World Cup winners is decked out in Warwickshire training gear en route to Edgbaston for a net before the Indian Premier League next month.

Chris Woakes was the Professional Cricketers’ Association player of the year last summer – as voted by his peers for his England performances – but despite 20 Test wickets at 21, his steely 84 not out in a tense run chase against Pakistan at Old Trafford and no fitness problems since, the all-rounder has somehow not played a game all winter.

The one-day series in South Africa in December was postponed after the bubble burst, his tour of Sri Lanka was scuppered when forced to isolate for a week when Moeen Ali contracted Covid-19, and he was then overlooked for the three Tests in India before flying home as part of England’s much-debated rotation policy.

Missing the current one-day series was a case of England deeming the logistical issues – quarantine, flights etc – too great for only three ODIs. Nevertheless, much like the similarly rested Joe Root, it was hard not to wonder what a difference his cool head might have made striding out at No 8 during the ultimately thwarted chase on Tuesday.

“Watching at home, I would love to have walked out in that position,” says Woakes, over a socially distanced coffee near his home ground. “And that’s my role in the team: I don’t necessarily try to launch sixes, I’d have tried to be the guy to be there at the end. Whenever that blue shirt is pulled on, you want to be a part of it.”

Woakes is not criticising those out in India, it must be said. After England lost 10 wickets for 116, squandering a rocket-fuelled start from Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy, Eoin Morgan doubled down on the aggressive approach taken and his regular attack leader is on board with this given the team’s rise to world champion status.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re No 1 in the world, we should be cruising home in that situation,” says Woakes. “But [expecting everyone to suddenly throttle back] would mean going away from what Eoin Morgan wants from this team overall and I’m a big believer in what he says, goes. Just look at what he’s done in the job.

“When I made my debut in 2011 I was solely worried about my own performance. Others were too. But under Morgs it’s only ever about the team. We could have been smarter [in Pune] but still fearless with it. We play our best cricket by being aggressive. Morgs will be telling the lads to execute better, not change the mentality.”

Chris Woakes with the England white-ball captain, Eoin Morgan, in South Africa.
Chris Woakes with the England white-ball captain, Eoin Morgan, in South Africa. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Woakes being such a team man is perhaps why, despite pulling out last year for family reasons, Delhi Capitals still opted to retain him for the IPL. It is a big opportunity, too: despite winning his last Twenty20 cap in 2015, the fortunes of others during the recent 3-2 defeat in India means the 32-year-old could yet be a World Cup bolter. “Delhi have been loyal to me and I want to repay that,” says Woakes, who flies back to India this Sunday. “It’s my third season in the IPL overall [after spells with Kolkata and Bangalore] and I always come back a better cricketer.

“I don’t want to rule out the T20 World Cup at all, I still see myself as a three-format cricketer. I’m looking to work on my variations, death bowling and explore some power-hitting options. Hopefully I can give Morgs and England a reminder of what I can do.”

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Competition will be fierce at Delhi, who finished runners-up in 2020. The head coach, Ricky Ponting – a cricketing brain Woakes is keen to pick – will be juggling only four overseas slots and also has Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Marcus Stoinis, Steve Smith, Tom Curran, Sam Billings and Shimron Hetmyer from whom to choose.

So there could be more time on the bench. But after the winter just gone – one that went south in January when a shared taxi from Birmingham to Heathrow with Moeen triggered a week in isolation and led to the all-rounder berth in Sri Lanka going to Sam Curran – Woakes is at least prepared.

“We had both cleared testing the day before that journey,” he recalls. “England apologised afterwards for putting us in that situation. But it was so frustrating. After the summer I had, maybe my best since 2016, I felt like it was my shirt. Six months down the line I haven’t played a game and that’s simply the word for it: frustrating.

“In India, the balance of the team with two spinners made it tricky. But missing the pink-ball Test, that was a bit of a kick in the teeth. Four seamers and I still didn’t get a look-in. That just about summed up my winter, really. And I feel I made strides in my last few Tests overseas. It’s easy to get pigeonholed but I know I’ve improved here.”

Chris Woakes during an England nets session at Ahmedabad in February.
Chris Woakes during an England nets session at Ahmedabad in February. Photograph: ECB

After not playing, some will question why Woakes needed this rest and note the £160,000 IPL deal hasn’t made way. But as a husband and father of two, he is fully on board with the measures taken to counter bubble fatigue. “I hope those who follow closely see, IPL or not, I was away for two months with loved ones back home in lockdown, not playing and with two spells of quarantine. I don’t want to sound like a privileged sportsman, people are grafting in hard times. But it’s not just about the players, it’s the impact on families. England have done the right thing.”

Reaching the IPL final could lead to Woakes being unable to make the first Test against New Zealand on 2 June in a two-match series added late to the schedule. With making the Ashes squad his goal in 2021, it could throw up a tricky situation.

“That’s a conversation for down the line,” he says. “If I’m not in the Delhi XI, I’ll speak to Ricky and the powers-that-be. Of course I want to play at Lord’s, my record there (27 wickets at 11 runs apiece, a career-best 137 with the bat) speaks for itself. But those Tests were arranged late.

“England want us to broaden our horizons in the IPL and, at this stage of my career, these opportunities won’t keep coming up. If it means missing a Test, that unfortunately might be the case. The players are in an awkward position, though. This summer is big, especially with a Test series against India to follow.”

After the spin-fest in India, should English groundsmen raise the mower blades? “We’ll want conditions that suit us more than them, it would be daft to do otherwise because winning is a habit and we’ve a great chance to regain the Ashes. India going to Australia and winning showed us they are beatable.”

Such optimism has sustained Woakes during an unfortunate six-month hibernation and the hope now is that this particular Bear is back on the park very soon.


Ali Martin

The GuardianTramp

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