The English have always been more bewitched than most by the sight of pure speed. Perhaps that’s because of its simple rarity on an island whose prevailing characteristic is dampness. Even so, on a pulsating day in St Lucia it was hard not to get swept up in the spectacle, as Mark Wood reduced the West Indies middle order to rubble and offered a tactile and tantalising outline of the bowler he may yet become.
This tour has in many ways been a celebration of quality old-school fast bowling from Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel, Jason Holder and Alzarri Joseph. Only now, with the series already lost, did England offer an entry of their own.
Pace is never enough on its own at this level, of course, and on his recall to the Test side after almost a year out, Wood did far more than turn up the speed dial. He bowled with skill and accuracy and variety and movement, earning his best Test figures of 5-41 and possibly even an Ashes berth, if he can stay fit.
But the real value of his eight-over spell either side of tea was in its pure theatre: the sensory treat of seeing extremely accomplished batsmen jumping and weaving in the face of bowling that at one point touched 94.6mph: as quickly as any Englishman has bowled since Andrew Flintoff in the 2009 Ashes.
Only pure pace - more so than destructive six-hitting, given its intense threat of physical harm - has the ability to do this: to make seasoned, sedate watchers of the game leap out of their seats and inadvertently blurt out Alan Partridge commentary expressions.
Naturally, a note of caution is required here. “Bring on the Ashes!” seemed to be the immediate reaction among England fans on social media, and certainly the idea of pitching the Ashington Ambrose against Australia’s pace boyband of Mitchell Starc, Jhye Richardson, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood is an attractive one.
For that to happen, though, it’ll need Wood to stay healthy. It’ll need him to turn in more electrifying displays like this. It’ll need England to manage his workload through a packed World Cup summer, and to help him out with friendly pitches. Assuming all those things, it could be quite a prospect.
Moeen Ali deserves a mention, too. His 4-36 included both openers in consecutive balls, precipitating a collapse of proto-English proportions. From 57-0, with all the momentum and a commanding position in the game, the West Indies slipped to 59-4, and though Shane Dowrich (38) offered some isolated resistance down the order, they were never quite the same once Wood had torn into them.
We knew he was in decent nick, of course, coming off a successful Lions tour to the United Arab Emirates. We saw him bowling at a decent lick in the nets off his new, extended run up. But it’s a fair bet even Wood himself didn’t really expect this.
His first three balls whizzed past the outside edge. His fourth touched the 90mph barrier. His fifth found the edge of Shai Hope’s bat and flew to Rory Burns in the gully, who took a fine catch. His sixth was a carbon copy, only quicker still: Roston Chase fencing blindly at a 93mph rocket and diverting it to Burns again.
For half an hour, the West Indies could scarcely lay a bat on him. Shimron Hetmyer gratefully left the 95mph hat-trick ball alone, but just before tea he edged to Joe Root at first slip. Dwayne Bravo went the same way - 79-6 now - and in the space of 26 balls, Wood hadn’t just surpassed his best ever Test figures. He hadn’t just reminded everyone of the potential we all saw in him when he made his debut four years ago. He had been reborn.
Seduced by Wood’s lightning gift, Root probably bowled him for a couple of overs too many. There followed a short period of consolidation against the slower bowlers - which is to say, everyone else - but Stuart Broad showed there was still room for his particular craft, getting Dowrich LBW with a nifty leg-cutter and then taking a magnificent one-handed catch at mid-off to give Moeen his fourth wicket. Wood duly returned to clean up Shannon Gabriel, and such was the efficacy with which England had closed proceedings that the ailing Ben Stokes wasn’t even required to run in on his bruised heel.
In all 16 wickets fell in the day, the first six being England’s. After such a promising start with the bat on Saturday, they rather crumpled without complaint here, blown away by a remarkable spell from Gabriel, who bowled Jos Buttler without allowing him to add to his overnight 67, and then pinging Jonny Bairstow on the helmet grille with a smouldering 93mph bouncer.
Bairstow hung around over an hour for just two runs before - again -being bowled through the gate, a method of dismissal that is beginning to become his unwanted signature. Stokes nudged his way unfussily to 79 before finally losing patience and trying to hook Kemar Roach against the stiff easterly breeze, to a side of the ground where only two players have ever hit a six here: Kieron Pollard and Deandra Dottin, the stars of the West Indies men’s and women’s teams respectively. Stokes barely got the ball to square leg, but it still needed Dowrich to run 25 yards and take a magnificent diving catch.
It was that sort of day, really: packed with action and thrills and scrapes and superhuman feats. There was even time at the end for a more serene coda, in which Burns and Keaton Jennings saw out the last 10 overs on a pitch beginning to shoot and rear in alarming fashion.
England should have enough runs in the bank to earn a consolation win, but this was one of those days of Test cricket when the entertainment was so fine that curiously, the score could scarcely have felt less relevant.
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