Statistics, like alcohol, should be used responsibly. Before you lay down quantitative truths to the world, you need to consider context, sample size … all the old favourites. We all know this, yet most struggle to adhere to it. Some manipulate statistics to present alternative truths, also known in some cultures as bare-faced lies.
Others, such as the Spin, occasionally get giddy with a love of cricket and start to run wild, politely telling the more sensible voices in their head where to stick their admittedly well-meaning concerns about the legitimacy of the sample size.
To wit, Mark Wood’s Test career. We probably shouldn’t be doing this, but we can’t resist breaking it down into two distinct phases:
Short run-up (2015-18) 12 Tests, 30 wickets at 41.73, strike rate 76.2, no five-fors.
Long run-up (2019-20) 3 Tests, 18 wickets at 14.22, strike rate 26.2, two five-fors.
Wood changed his run-up in the autumn of 2018 after a chat with one of his childhood heroes, Michael Holding (Wood had not been born when Holding played his last first-class game, in 1989, but watched videos of him when he was growing up). It reduced the stress on his body, particularly his troublesome ankle, and also his mind: Wood found he was no longer straining for rhythm, and his pace increased accordingly.
You could never describe anything to do with Wood’s bowling as effortless – if Holding’s run-up led to the nickname Whispering Death, Wood is more Grunting Harassment – but bowling in excess of 90mph, sometimes 95mph, comes much more easily than it did before.
He savaged West Indies in St Lucia last year, a spell that the great Scyld Berry said was the fastest he had ever seen from an England bowler, and proved it wasn’t a glorious one-off by ransacking South Africa with another scorching performance at Johannesburg in January. It is only three Tests with the new run-up, but Wood has been man of the match in two of them. If that is not good reason to get lost in Statsguru, we don’t know what is.
In between, Wood missed the Ashes because of a side strain sustained during the World Cup, and a recurrence of the same injury would have kept him out of the Sri Lanka tour had it gone ahead in March. His stop-start-stop-again career tells us that, even if his ankle is better than before, he is inevitably going to miss games. If he plays one in every two Tests for the rest of his career, it would be good going.
He is 30 years old now, an incongruous age for a man whose demeanour suggests he should be forever in his early 20s, and an unpleasant landmark for even the least injury-prone fast bowlers. But there is also the tantalising prospect that, for the next year or two, Wood could be the kind of weapon of mass destruction that England have not had since Frank Tyson in the mid-1950s. There are so many things to look forward to when Test cricket resumes next week: Jofra Archer, Ollie Pope, Chemar Holder, the brilliant Sky coverage, cricket itself. But nothing has got the Spin’s mind racing like Wood. It’s not just batsmen whose beans start going when they are exposed to fast bowling.
Wood is more fascinating than most because of the variables involved in his career. We know, all things being equal, that Archer will end with hundreds of Test wickets at an average in the low-to-mid 20s. With Wood, anything could happen. It is not beyond the realms that he will pick up an injury in training and never play another Test. But it’s also conceivable that he will stay fit for long enough to help England be competitive – maybe even victorious – in their upcoming series in India and Australia.
Wood’s speed, aggression and reverse swing make him England’s favourite travel accessory. His Test average away from home is much better than in England, which puts him in a minority, and Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, would accept many a pact to have Wood available for at least three of the five Ashes Tests in Australia in 2021-22.
Here are the averages of England’s main pace bowlers, at home and abroad:
Home Away Difference
Wood 44.00 20.76 23.24
Stokes 34.89 30.87 4.02
Broad 26.69 31.57 -4.88
Anderson 23.76 32.05 -8.29
S Curran 20.94 43.05 -22.11
Archer 20.27 47.00 -26.73
Woakes 23.45 51.68 -28.23
Wood’s performance in English conditions is less relevant, yet if he can terrorise West Indies and Pakistan this summer it will strengthen the belief that his new run-up has taken him to a tantalisingly high level. Besides, with Wood there is always the chance that tomorrow may never come, so we should enjoy every moment. One of the reasons he is so infectious is that he bowls like every spell could be his last. The success of 2019 – individually at St Lucia, collectively in the World Cup – has left him at peace with a career that until then had been endlessly frustrating.
When Wood gets it right, there is something fiendishly difficult about facing him, even in comparison to other seriously fast bowlers. It might be the lift he gets from just back of a length, or a frantic bowling action that makes the ball harder to pick up. Either way, CricViz’s ball-by-ball data shows that, when he bowls in excess of 90mph, Wood’s Test average drops from 34 to 15. Like Tyson, he is uncomplicated and violently quick.
He is not particularly a product of the England and Wales Cricket Board pathway, just an ordinary bloke with extraordinary fast-twitch fibres. And a rare resilience: Wood has bounced back from umpteen disappointments with Tiggerish enthusiasm, going through hours and hours and hours of déjà vu in the gym.
Tyson famously sledged batsmen by quoting Wordsworth, and spoke of the “glad, animal thrill” of fast bowling. In his own, earthier way, Wood is equally charismatic when he opens his mouth. All these recent sports documentaries that purport to reveal all are compelling but also selective. With Wood, perhaps more than any sportsman in the world, you really do feel like there is no edit function in his brain. He’s an antidote to a post-truth world, and the alignment of his personality and surname make it extremely difficult for weekly cricket emails to resist describing him as unvarnished.
Wood’s honesty and self-deprecation make his interviews refreshing. So does his memory for detail. Nobody came close to painting as vivid a picture of the England dressing-room during the desperate climax to the World Cup final. One day he will make a great after-dinner speaker. All being well, the next couple of years will give him a few more stories to tell.
• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.