Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum are about simple, clear messaging. Cricket is a complicated enough sport, and English cricket a pressurised enough environment without introducing anything that may elicit doubt. Especially at a time when England need as few distractions as possible to overturn a 2-0 deficit.
This was not just about wickets, even if they were pretty spectacular. Usman Khawaja lost his leg stump at the end of a four-over opening spell where no delivery dropped below 91mph. Then an entire tail was lopped off inside 16 balls to snuff Australia out for 263. Yet the real power and truest glory of Wood’s exploits today was the emotion he evoked.
Undoubtedly, everyone here witnessed the best day of the series so far. So much of it was in keeping with the last 11 days’ play: just as either team looked like they were getting ahead, the other pulled them right back. On balance, Australia finished ahead, leading by 195 after removing three of the host’s top order.
Just as in England’s attack, the point of difference was a bloke charging in and slinging down such fire it made the heat emanating from the Western Terrace feel like a cool breeze. Wood was seen as the ideal weapon to unleash against Australia after the last few days of English discontent following the final exchanges at Lord’s. In the end, he was edge-of-your-seat distraction.
Stokes used him in bursts: four overs then two before lunch, before three in the middle session and four at the end. For a player who has subsisted on those workloads this year, with a last competitive outing coming in the IPL on April 15 for Lucknow Super Giants against Punjab Kings, it was the only way he could be used. And Wood responded by bringing his best, averaging 90.7mph across his 11.4 overs and, ultimately, covering for four dropped catches that allowed Australia to regroup from 85 for 4.
It wasn’t all his own way, particularly in the middle session when Marsh swung him away in front of square for six. Though even that period had a whiff of showdown about it. As the Western Australian put it, an upbringing on fast Perth decks made him all too aware this was a moment where he had to sink or swim. Wood was the only bowler to drive him to such limits.
To watch Wood anyway is to sense a bloke charging to the crease like this may be his last delivery. The ankle surgeries, the elbow issues and the other parts of the body fast bowlers break and rebreak for our entertainment will eventually overpower his spirit. But based on today’s efforts and outcome, we are not as close to that point as previously feared.
The ferocity of his deliveries was such they did not simply rap glove (both of the batters and Jonny Bairstow) or crack timber (bats and stumps) but stripped the context of the moments in play with the brutality of flesh blasted off bone.
A routine developed among those in the stands for every delivery from the 33-year-old’s first four overs. A look to the person to your left or right to make sure they saw it too and you weren’t dreaming, then a glance at the big screen to check the speed. The “whoops” and “ooohs” for each reading finally turned to meaningful roars when Khawaja’s leg stump was taken out emphatically with the final over of that spell.
People often talk about how pace bowling was better in “their” day, as if the current generation are too weighed down by oat milk and the crippling weight of a world around them falling to bits to either purvey or appreciate this lost craft. The truth is, few cherish it more than those watching this generation of cricket. Partly because the game is slowly tearing itself apart. But mostly because, well, bowlers have never been quicker.
A case in point: those initial four overs from Wood came at an average pace of 92.90, which slots it into No. 2 of the fastest spells in an English Test since 2006 (when accurate ball-tracking data was available). He has four of the top six in that category – Brett Lee has the third and fourth – all from a single Lord’s Test against India in 2021 in which Wood returned previous best home figures of 3 for 51. No. 1 was 93.41mph which Wood was on course to bettering before the last two deliveries in that sequence.
Throw in the fact he also sent down the fastest four-over spell in T20 World Cup history in a group game against Afghanistan in 2022 and it is clear while the gap between appearances are frustrating, the upside is unrivalled speed. For a man from Ashington who grew up in a world of swing, seam and elbow grease, lusting for Ferrero Rocher and possessing what his closest friends describe as “noodle arms”, it is a remarkable feat of endurance above all else. When considering the greatest speedsters over the last 20 years, he must feature.
Ultimately, being part of those conversations are what it is to be at this level of sport. But the man himself acknowledges his case is not as strong as others. When told his opening burst had set an Ashes record, bettering Brett Lee’s 92.4mph offering at Old Trafford in 2005, Wood cherished the feat and the company but understood where the true measure of worth lies: “I’d rather have his wickets.”
The Australian’s 310 are unreachable, given Wood is still five away from triple figures. But Thursday represented an important step in the right direction towards rectifying a peculiar quirk of being far more effective away from home.
Considering the Dukes and is an English bowler’s best friend, it has seemingly never quite taken to Wood’s charm. The previous 14 appearances at home left him with an average of 39.63, while his 49 overseas dismissals have come at 24.18, six lower than the career average of 30.57.
Even with the love of Test cricket in this country, it still suffers from the usual issues of distance and timezones dictating relevance. Wood might have impressed on the previous Ashes tour with 17 wickets and an impressive 6 for 37 in the final Test at Hobart, but performing through the winter nights ring-fenced his brilliance from the broader conscience. It also did not help that it was a chastening and utterly forgettable campaign from an English perspective. Stuart Broad even tried to void it.
As Wood strode off with the match ball for the first time in England, raising it for a fourth time in his career but first towards his mother, Angela, and father, Derek, it felt like we were witnessing a personal moment for an individual and public relief for a team who had been missing his qualities.
Having taken the winning wicket at Trent Bridge in the 2015 Ashes – a photo of the Nathan Lyon dismissal takes pride of place in his home – he missed the entirety of 2019 after tearing his side in the World Cup final. An injury picked up during the last of his 10 overs before making it worse when he put in one of the worst dives in humankind as he attempted to cross the line at the nonstriker’s end for the winning run.
He was desperate to play the first Test of this series at Edgbaston only for Stokes to decide to save him for the second. Then, in the lead-up to Lord’s, the right elbow operated on twice last year began swelling. With the extra week’s grace, he has been able to put in what could prove to be his most impactful display for his country.
England has always come first for Wood. So much so that when Lucknow were preparing for an IPL fixture against Chennai Super Kings, he was reluctant to reveal too much about how to combat two of their upcoming opponents, Stokes and Moeen Ali.
Here at Leeds, he has done them a huge favour by, for now, covering up some of England’s shortcomings. Drops of Smith, Head, Marsh and Carey are, at this juncture, not as terminal as England’s previous 14 missed chances across the first two matches. And they managed to largely contain Australia – Marsh notwithstanding – despite being a bowler light after Ollie Robinson left the field midway through his 12th over with a back spasm.
That’s the key thing about breathtaking pace. It strips context, enriches the game, lifts your team-mates, scares your opponents and, well, always gives you a fighting chance. Exactly what England need from here until this Ashes is over.