Mark Wood, from childhood days spent charging in from the conifers at the back of his garden, trying to clonk his father, Derek, on the head, through to the present, has only ever wanted to bowl as fast as he possibly can and play Test cricket for England.
A rebellious left ankle that has led to him going under the knife multiple times might have led others to veer away from one or both of these ambitions, either by dialling down on pace or specialising in short-form cricket in a bid to have a career of sorts. But Wood has always stayed true to his goals. And on a sun-soaked second afternoon in St Lucia this persistence culminated in one of the most popular members of the England team bowling the 90mph-plus speeds one would expect to emanate from the hand of a West Indian, but instead sent five of their batsmen back to the pavilion dazed.
Mark Wood’s pace puts England in control against West Indies
When the 29-year-old detonated the stumps of the No 11, Shannon Gabriel, to bowl the home side out for 154, he wheeled away arms outstretched, drinking in every moment of a maiden Test five-wicket haul. For a bowler who got his chance here only after Olly Stone was crocked at the start of the tour, and has played just 13 Tests out of a possible 55 since his debut in 2015, this was the ultimate.
“There have been some horrible dark days with injury and things, with confidence and self-belief,” Wood said. “I thought in my mind I was an England player but I hadn’t shown it. But today I feel like I have. The feeling of five was brilliant. The lads knew what it meant to me and I was emotional in the dressing room. It was a relief and I am so happy.”
Wood’s figures of five for 41 from 8.2 overs were not simply reward for those weeks and months battling back from injury but also a pay-off for having the bravery to ditch a short, sprinter-style run-up and replace it with a smooth, extended gallop to the crease.
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This tinkering last year might have affected his pace but little of this slight right-armer’s natural explosion at the crease has been lost. This was reported back from the coaches on the England Lions tour to the UAE before Christmas but, until he stepped back into the international arena, nothing was guaranteed.
What can now be said with certainty is that Wood, when fully fit, firing and deployed on a pitch with a bit of life, still possesses the capacity to be a bowler of considerable shock and awe.
Take his fourth wicket as an example. Here Darren Bravo fenced tamely to slip. But it was a succession of balls that thudded into his body in the lead-up that prompted such a meek shot. And look at his hat-trick ball which, after he dismissed Shai Hope and Roston Chase in his first over, was clocked at an eye-catching 94.6mph.
Though left by Shimron Hetmyer (who would eventually succumb three overs later to a lifter that soared off the edge) it was the fastest ball of a match that features Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph – two bowlers who send the ball down with a heavy slathering of hot sauce on top.
“That [speed] was past expectations‚“ said Wood. “I think it was the adrenaline. But I wasn’t really looking at the speed gun, to be honest. I felt in good rhythm and all I could see really was the batter. I was particularly pleased with the Hetmyer wicket. He’s a huge talent and to get him out, where he didn’t look comfortable, was really pleasing.”
Looking on from the TalkSport commentary box, and given a wave by Wood during his first spell, was Steve Harmison, a close family friend from Ashington in Northumberland. His seven for 12 in Sabina Park in 2004 is part of the folklore of English fast bowling and he was close to tears watching Wood tear through the West Indies batsmen in a similar vein.
“It feels so special. I’m very emotional,” Harmison told the Guardian. “I get a lump in my throat watching him. I’ve seen him grow up and for him to keep coming back from injury after injury, time and again, to do this, it makes it all worthwhile.
“And a memo to England: identify more of these guys, so if Mark or Olly Stone get injured we have more in reserve. In the space of half a session he has shown what we need to win Test matches away from home. But we need to make sure they bowl in short spells. We can’t flog them.”
It is hard to disagree with Harmison and, for all the visceral thrill this performance generates, Wood must continue to be deployed sympathetically by his captain for maximum effect. Do so and England will have a real asset on their hands.