Mark Wood would appear to have given himself an excellent chance of playing in the third Test with a blistering bowling performance in the nets on Monday.
Wood, who has not played a match since the World Cup final on July 14, bowled with outstanding pace as he attempted to prove his fitness for selection. Required to demonstrate that he could back up Sunday’s equally impressive display for a second successive day, Wood bowled a long, hostile spell without any obvious difficulty. He could hardly have done more to convince the England team management of his readiness to return.
His performance came in contrast to that of Jofra Archer. Also required to bowl at full speed as he recovers from an elbow injury, Archer looked considerably slower than Wood in the nets. As a result, Archer looks unlikely to be considered ready for selection in the third Test starting on Thursday.
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Ahead of the session, it appeared England may opt for Chris Woakes to replace James Anderson in the side. For while the team management are understandably keen to include a bowler of Wood or Archer’s pace, they are even more keen not to recall them too quickly and risk further lay-offs. They seem particularly cautious over the recall of Wood, who has not played a first-class game since February, when he bowled England to victory over West Indies in St Lucia.
Woakes remains very much in contention. A final decision will not be made until Wednesday, or perhaps even Thursday morning. The squad are not due to train on Tuesday – they have been given a rest day – and will have a light session ahead of the Test on Wednesday at which it will be clear if Wood has suffered any reaction to his recent exertions. Archer now looks the least likely of the three to play.
With the Port Elizabeth pitch expected to be fairly slow and dry, England are keen to include a point-of-difference bowler within their line-up. And as Wood showed in St Lucia – or at various times during the World Cup, when he delivered the fastest ball of the tournament – he can generate the sort of pace that can unlock even international quality batting line-ups on decent batting surfaces. Woakes, for all his all-round qualities, cannot necessarily do the same thing.
Selecting a man with no recent match action is not ideal. The England management had attempted to find some sort of competitive game for Wood to play over the last week or two, but nothing appropriate was available. Certainly unleashing Wood in Monday’s form on club batsmen may have proved unwise.
“I’ve got no qualms he could come in this week and be successful because of what he’s done in the past and what he can draw upon,” Paul Collingwood, one of England’s assistance coaches, said. “He’s got the skills to go out there and make an impact.
“Here at Port Elizabeth it’s generally a slower pitch so sometimes having that kind of X-factor bowler would be great. We have enough bowlers in and around the county circuit who can bowl at 82 to 85 mph and try to nip it around. You want the likes of Wood and Archer to give you that X-factor.
“Ideally we would have loved Woody to go out and get some competitive games in. We had a look around but it’s not as easy as it sounds. So we’ve tried to replicate the amount of hours on his feet with running and walking. All you can do is get the overs under their belt and make sure they can come back for second and third spells and get the miles in the legs.”
England also received encouraging news in a swift return from sickness for Joe Root. The England captain missed training on Sunday due to illness, but took a full part on Monday. The team management insist his absence on Sunday was mainly precautionary with a view to preventing further contamination.
While a first look at the pitch on Monday may have seduced England into thinking they could field an all-seam attack, they seem intent of retaining Dom Bess, who made a favourable impression in Cape Town. The last Test on the ground, in January, lasted three days with Sri Lankan off-spinner Dhananjaya de Silva claiming five wickets in the match.
“If you look at the data, spin tends to play a bit more of a part here than the other grounds,” Collingwood said. “But we’ll gauge it. There’s no point looking today. These pitches change so quickly over 24 hours. We’ll have a good look on Wednesday and see which combination is best to take 20 wickets.”
On the evidence of the last two days, it’s hard to leave Wood out of that combination.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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