Not the one to crave limelight, Woakes feels he still has a lot to achieve. ©Getty
It is little more than a five-minute walk to the local Conservative club near the Woakes family home in Birmingham. Roger Woakes used to be a regular, catching up with mates over a pint or two while playing some snooker. He would often take his son Chris with him on Saturday afternoons, the pair spending much of their time around the green baize. When Chris got older, they both played in the club’s Wednesday night team together. “I cherish those memories,” Chris says now. “I wouldn’t change them for the world. I would love to still be able to do it. But, you know, things change.”
In some respects, they do. While family remains the cornerstone of Woakes’ life, he does not have much time for snooker. After a particularly impressive two years, the 31-year-old has graduated from a solid, ‘never let the team down when called upon’ performer to become a central figure in England’s Test and ODI squads. As the leader of the bowling attack, he played a vital role in the 2019 World Cup victory. He has also been a growing influence in the Test team, playing in 12 of England’s last 18 Tests, the most of any fast bowler except Stuart Broad. Last summer, Woakes was named the PCA Player of the Year.
He is a cricketer at the very top of his game. Match-winning interventions in the past 18 months have proved as much. Three wickets in England’s World Cup semi-final win against Australia at Edgbaston last summer. Six for 17 against Ireland in a Test at Lord’s a couple of weeks later. This summer, there was a five-wicket haul against West Indies in the third Test and then a fine 84 not out against Pakistan at Old Trafford which secured an unlikely Test victory. A spell of three wickets in nine deliveries against Australia in a September ODI to turn a losing cause into a winning one.
But it is the consistency of the last two years that really proves Woakes’ worth to England. In his last 12 Test matches, he averages 22.75 with the ball. With the bat, after a difficult spell last year, he averaged more than 30 in the summer just gone. In ODI cricket, he has taken 36 wickets from 24 matches since the start of 2019 at an economy of 5.62, despite mostly bowling in the Powerplay and at the death. It is little wonder that Joe Root has given Woakes the title of England’s ‘Mr Dependable’.
Even so, despite his consistency, Woakes’ value to England is often overlooked. Not by anybody inside England’s dressing room, of course. His teammates don’t underestimate how important the man they call the Wizard is. But outside the team environs, he remains underappreciated. He garners fewer column inches or broadcast minutes than many others and when attention does come Woakes’ way, he is rarely spoken about with the same sort of reverence that the likes of Ben Stokes or Jos Buttler are.
That is despite reaching the milestone of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in fewer Tests than Stokes and Sir Garry Sobers. Despite having a better bowling average at home in Test cricket than James Anderson and Broad. Despite taking more ODI wickets than Sir Ian Botham, from fewer matches.
Most international teams would bite your hand off for a Chris Woakes of their own. And yet English cricket is spoilt with Anderson and Broad, two all-time greats of the game, and Stokes, a player who will end up in that bracket. Throughout his career, Woakes has been vying with these three players for a place in the Test team. Understandably, they have often got the nod. In a different era, Woakes probably would have played many more than 38 Tests since his debut in 2013. That is nobody’s fault, of course. But it is the reality he has had to contend with.
“I try to be realistic,” he tells Fame Dubai through a Zoom call, a week before Christmas. “They [Broad and Anderson] are two greats of the game. You can’t really expect jump ahead of them because they’re still at their peak. That’s something which I have got used to. Some might see that as a bit of a downside, when you find yourself running for one or two spots. And yeah, of course you want to play for England. There’s no doubt about that. But being able to play with them certainly has helped me over the years.”
Perhaps his unassuming, reserved nature is the reason Woakes isn’t given more credit even when he does play. By his own admission, he doesn’t crave the limelight. He appreciates it when people write or say nice things about him. But he would much rather do without any fuss. He thinks he takes after his Mum, Elaine, in that respect. “My Mum is a relatively shy person and I follow suit a bit,” he says. “I certainly don’t like to be the one being focused on in a big room or anything like that.
“I’m not overly fussed to be first to be spoken about. But I’m happy with that. I’m happy in my own skin. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to perform and do well for England because that’s the only thing on my mind.”
The way the (World Cup final) game was won obviously just added to the whole thing. It was amazing. I wouldn’t change it for anything now, but I’ll tell you what, I’d have changed it for a comfortable win on the day, that is for sure.
Despite all the success Woakes has enjoyed during his career, those formative experiences at the Conservative club have stayed with him. As well as the influence of his parents, he credits the working-class background of the people he grew up with at the club as having helped shape the person he is today. “It is what grounds you,” Woakes says. “It’s what gives you your personality, being around good people. And with working-class people, that is often what you get.”
There are fewer more grounded cricketers than Woakes. Staff at Warwickshire comment on how he is always taking an interest in others, regularly popping into the office for a catch-up. The county’s head groundsman Gary Barwell says Woakes always has time for a chat and will often ask after his family. Barwell doesn’t think he’s met a nicer bloke in 25 years in the pro game. To those who know the type of person Woakes is, it was little surprise that at the end of the World Cup final, his first reaction was to go and console New Zealand’s Martin Guptill. “It just kind of dawned on me there and then that I should do the right thing,” he says.
Woakes has never been one for making enemies on the pitch. He tried it a few times early in his career but found it affected his game. A match against Somerset at Taunton comes to mind, when he went at Nick Compton, who was at the non-striker’s end, verbally. There wasn’t a specific reason. He just did it. But it really didn’t work. “At the other end, Marcus Trescothick was whacking me everywhere. It completely backfired,” he laughs. “I’ve realised that it isn’t the best thing for me to do, and I lose my ability to perform if I do that. So I kind of try and channel it a different way.”
There is one thing that really grinds his gears, though. “As every fast bowler will tell you, literally just conceding runs is the thing that burns at your inside,” he says. “You’ll find this, the majority of times when there are overthrows in the field, it’s been thrown by a batsman. It’s never been thrown by a bowler. It’s because batsmen don’t understand. When you are going for runs, it just burns at you inside. It really does.”
It is one reason why Woakes places such a premium on accuracy but there is far more to his all-round game. He has a wonderfully repeatable action, can swing the ball conventionally and reverse, and is quicker than he is given credit for. He has added the wobble seam delivery to his repertoire of late too and, in limited overs cricket, has a handy back-of-the-hand slower ball and a dead-eyed yorker. He is a proper batsman as well, with a solid, dependable technique that has yielded 10 first-class hundreds. Jason Roy thinks Woakes’ cover drive is as good looking as they come. And in the field, Woakes is quick, athletic and has a rocket arm as well as a safe pair of hands.
While he clearly has an abundance of talent, his success is not simply down to that. According to those who work with him, his professionalism and dedication are second to none. As an example, five years ago Woakes felt his running speed across the ground needed improving. He worked with England’s fitness coaches on his technique to such an extent that he is now one of the fastest players in the squad, capable of reaching speeds of more than 34 kph. He has a pre-game gym and sprint routine, two days out, which he follows to the letter. He is particular about it and has been known to re-do the session if it isn’t spot-on first-time around.
Woakes was also the first player to arrange a session with Emma Gardner, England’s nutritionist, when she started to work with the team in 2017. His attention to detail impressed Gardner, who put a plan in place with him to eat more regularly in order to keep his energy levels up. She describes him as a role model for the players in England’s squad. He thinks about the game a lot too, doing analysis on opposition players, working out how he is going to attack them, ahead of each match.
Where does this perfectionism and work ethic come from? Woakes cites the influence of his parents. Roger was a gardener and handyman and would sometimes take Chris with him on jobs. “He would give me a job to do and I would just do it half willingly,” says Woakes. “I wouldn’t do it very well and he’d be like, ‘What’s this? This is a disgrace. If you’re going to do it, do it properly.’ I remember always asking if we can go now but he would literally do it until every blade of grass was perfect or everything was picked up. I think you just pick up on those traits as you as you grow up.”
Woakes and his wife Amie are now parents themselves, to two-year-old Laila and three-month-old Evie. “You see these beautiful things come into your life and when you do have a bad day, it just kind of puts things in perspective,” Woakes says. “They don’t know whether you’ve had a good or bad day and are not too fussed about how many wickets or runs you score. The older you get, you realise how much family really is important to you. Becoming a parent, now it’s all about delivering for your family, being able to provide for them and give them the best opportunity in life that you possibly can.”
When he is not away with England, spending time with Amie and the kids is his first priority. Other than that, sport is Woakes’ release. He doesn’t watch much cricket but loves football, and his beloved Aston Villa. He says he will watch any live action that is on. “I’m not a massive one for sitting down and watching a load of nonsense on TV,” he says. Woakes is also one of those annoying people who is good at most sports. He is a fine golfer, excellent at snooker and was part of Walsall FC’s academy as a child.
He is now also, of course, a World Cup winner. Woakes played a crucial role in the latter stages of the 2019 tournament, bowling superbly in the final four matches, all of which England had to win. He took three wickets in that amazing final at Lord’s, a vital but often forgotten contribution. “It was horrendous being on the field in that moment,” he says of the Super Over. “The way the game was won obviously just added to the whole thing. It was amazing. I wouldn’t change it for anything now, but I’ll tell you what, I’d have changed it for a comfortable win on the day, that is for sure.
“What was brilliant about that moment was the way Jos [Buttler] whipped the bails off, got up and was running away like a madman and then we all just kind of filtered towards that bottom corner underneath the home dressing room at Lords. That’s where all the families were. So that was quite nice for them to be so close to us celebrating. It was for everyone who has had any sort of say in that group of players getting to that moment in our lives.
“It was just huge for cricket. I think we were all taken aback by what we actually achieved and how much of an impact it had on people.”
There are plenty of things left to achieve. This year is a huge one for English cricket with Test tours to India and Australia. The mark against Woakes in Test cricket is his disappointing away record. At home, he has taken his wickets at 22.87. But away from England, his returns are far less impressive, with an average of more than 50. There are mitigating factors. He has played more than two consecutive away matches on just two occasions and taken the new ball in only eight out of 25 away innings. Nevertheless, he knows it is an issue.
Woakes does not think he is currently in England’s first-choice Test team away from home but given their hectic 2021 schedule, there will certainly be opportunities. He hopes that work he did with Darren Gough on last winter’s trip to New Zealand will stand him in good stead. Gough’s advice was to bowl a more aggressive length, bashing the pitch hard rather than going fuller in search of swing. The initial signs, albeit from just two Tests, were encouraging.
Other than that, Woakes, who is 31, simply wants to eke out as many games for England as possible. The 2023 World Cup is a target too. “I feel like I’m at the stage now where I know what I do well,” he says. “I don’t want to stand still, I want to keep improving, but I know my game is at a place where it can produce good performances. Whereas early in my career I didn’t think like that.
“I was always thinking I’ve got to perform really well in this game to keep my spot. That has changed in time. I feel like now I’m not playing my last Test match for England every time. That’s just something that comes with a bit of age. You get a bit wiser.
“I’m desperate to play for England for as long as I possibly can. I feel in a good place with my body. I feel like I can play for a lot longer. If someone had said I would have played over 100 games for England across all formats when I was 15 or 16 years old, I would never have believed them. Every time I go out there, I try to do the best for myself and for my family. I’m just trying to be as good as I can be.”
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