International / 14 January 2020, 3:30pm / PAUL NEWMAN CRICKET CORRESPONDENT
Mark wood moved into pole position yesterday to be included in the third Test after England’s fastest bowlers were challenged to provide the X-factor against South Africa.
Wood was the clear winner in what appeared to be a bowl-off against Jofra Archer in the St George’s Park nets for the final place in the England attack, left vacant by the injured Jimmy Anderson.
With two days to go before Thursday’s third Test, England will not make a final decision until after their last training session tomorrow, but Wood could be in line for his first international appearance since he suffered a side injury in the World Cup final on July 14.
Archer still seemed troubled by the right elbow injury that kept him out of the Cape Town Test and was down on pace again compared to the Durham man, who has been making steady progress towards full fitness throughout this tour.
Perhaps surprisingly, both fast bowlers only sent down one spell each yesterday but it did not need the speed gun to declare Wood as the out-and-out quickest on the day. Chris Woakes, the forgotten man of this tour and one of the worst-hit victims of the sickness bug that decimated the squad over Christmas, should not be discounted and looked sharp himself as England practised in Port Elizabeth yesterday.
But with the St George’s Park pitch expected to be slow, with the possibility of spin later on, England feel they need one of their express bowlers to stand up and be counted here ahead of the quicker surface likely for the fourth and final Test next week in Johannesburg.
‘If these guys are fit and raring to go at 100 per cent intensity, it would be great to call on one of them because at Port Elizabeth we may well need that X-factor,’ said England assistant coach Paul Collingwood.
‘It was all about busting a gut today because these guys have an opportunity to show us they should be the one in the team.’
This has been a difficult first international winter for Archer after his spectacular introduction with England in the World Cup and the Ashes last summer.
He took only two wickets in two Tests against New Zealand, bowling with the Kookaburra ball for the first time in red-ball cricket, and then suffered with flu when he arrived in South Africa.
Archer recovered in time to play in the first Test in Centurion and took five for 102 in the second innings, but then the elbow injury he first suffered in the World Cup reoccurred.
The England camp feel they are still learning what makes such a precious asset tick, but there was still the impression of Collingwood throwing down the gauntlet to Archer yesterday when he assessed his chances of playing in the third Test.
‘It’s very early in his international career and he hasn’t bowled a lot with the Kookaburra ball, which requires a completely different skillset to the Dukes,’ said Collingwood.
‘But absolutely his biggest skill is bowling 90mph-plus. We have enough bowlers in the county circuit who bowl at 82mph to 85mph and try to nip it around. You want the likes of Archer and Wood to give us something different.’
There seem no such concerns about Wood, who was brought on this trip with an eye to playing in the final Test at speed-friendly Wanderers, with anything else a bonus.
And England do not think they would be taking a gamble now if they throw Wood in for his first Test appearance since he reached 95mph and was named player of the match against the West Indies at St Lucia early last year. ‘Ideally we would have liked Woody to have gone out and got some competitive games in before he played a Test again,’ said Collingwood.
‘But I’ve got no qualms that he could come in this week and be successful because of what he’s done in the past and what he can draw on. He’s got the skills to go out there and make an impact.’
There is still a chance that Woakes could play ahead of a spinner but the likelihood is off-spinning all-rounder Dom Bess will be given the chance to build on the positive impression he made in Cape Town.
Which leaves just the England pace race between Archer and Wood still to be decided. Going into a training-free day today ahead of England’s last training session tomorrow, Wood is the leader.
l The man who racially abused Jofra Archer in the first Test against New Zealand in November has been banned from attending matches in the country for two years by New Zealand Cricket. The 28-year-old Auckland man was also warned by police after admitting abusing Archer as he walked off.
An NZC spokesman said: ‘We’d like to apologise to Jofra Archer and the England team and reiterate this behaviour is completely unacceptable.’