Like a safety harness or parachute, there are some things you appreciate more in their absence. So it may prove with Chris Woakes. While he rarely gains the headlines of Ben Stokes or Joe Root, he has developed into a valuable – if slightly unsung – player in this England ODI side.
The plan in this ICC Champions Trophy was for him to take the new ball and bowl at the death, perhaps the two most difficult requirements for bowlers in modern ODI cricket. While he is still learning his trade in both departments, his pace, skill and calm head under pressure render him a valuable player. Replacing him is far from easy.
It’s not just the bowling either. Coming in at No. 8, Woakes offers reassuring stability in the lower middle-order. His unbeaten 95 against Sri Lanka 12 months ago was the highest score by a No. 8 in the history of ODI cricket. He did something similar when England subsided to 124 for 6 in Antigua in March by striking an unbeaten 68 to help his side to a four-wicket win. His absence increases pressure just a little on those above him. It’s as if their safety net has been removed and for a team encouraged to play fearless, aggressive cricket, that could be relevant.
England have a few replacement options as seamers. While it looks as if they will resist the temptation of returning to Stuart Broad, whose role in the Test team renders him more valuable than ever, it means the strongest contenders are Steven Finn, Tom Curran and Toby Roland-Jones. Curran is uncapped at international level and Roland-Jones has one cap after making his debut on May 29 against South Africa. It means that Finn, who has already played 69 ODIs and was the third fastest England bowler to 100 ODI wickets, could be the most likely one to gain.
Curran can probably count himself unfortunate if that is the case. He was seen as the next in line by the selectors a week or so ago. But when they were looking to change the side for the final ODI against South Africa, they noted that he had bowled heavily for Surrey in the preceding days and decided to opt for Roland-Jones instead. Reece Topley would have been an option, too, had he played a little more cricket since he returned from a shoulder injury sustained in January.
It may well be that David Willey is the primary beneficiary of Woakes’ injury. If England are looking to replace Woakes’ all-round package, rather than just his bowling, it may well be that they draft Willey into the starting XI in the hope that he can show some of the batting ability that seen him hit two List A centuries and another in T20 cricket at domestic level.
However, there has not been much sign of that form in Willey’s international career to date. His top score in ODI cricket, where he comes in much lower down the order, is just 26 and though there is a limited sample size to judge him as an international batsman, an ODI batting average of 15.75 and strike-rate of 69.61 compare poorly to Woakes’ 25.00 and 86.86 respectively.
Willey may have a point to prove with the ball too. There have been times when, armed with a new ball and generating swing, he has looked a dangerous bowler in ODIs. At his best, he might be just the man to take those key early wickets than can shape games. But for that to be the case, he has to make the ball swing and in the limited evidence seen in this tournament to date – and in Willey’s performance in the ODI against South Africa at Lord’s – it seems unlikely to do so. Otherwise on these surfaces and at his pace, he could be in for some long afternoons.
On the plus side though, Willey’s left-arm variation might be an asset. At present, the England pace attack appears to be an assembly line of right-arm seamers, with one replacing another.
There have been mutterings from some – mainly on social media – that the injuries to Woakes and Stokes may have been partially attributable to their experience in the IPL. There’s no evidence to support that view, though. Injuries are part and parcel of a seamer’s life and both men may have been used more heavily had they remained in county cricket. It was noticeable in the press conference after Friday’s match between Australia and New Zealand that some journalists thought the rustiness of the Australian seamers might have been due to their absence from the IPL. Sometimes it seems team management cannot win whatever they do.
England did receive some better injury news on Friday. They believe Root’s apparent calf injury in the victory over Bangladesh was nothing more than cramp and insist he is not a fitness concern going into the match against New Zealand on Tuesday.
They won’t have Woakes, though. And that is a significant blow to their hopes of lifting a first global ODI trophy.