Chris Woakes may have never been away. His fourth ball swung late and narrowly missed the rim when Rohit Sharma was lured into the drive. His sixth was a brute, which Sharma fended off against Jonny Bairstow.
Siren call followed by snort, and no trace of rust. This is how you introduce yourself to Test cricket again.
It had been 373 days since Woakes last enjoyed the thrill of a Test wicket: Pakistani Mohammad Rizwan at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. Since the weeks stretched to months and then totaled a year, he could reasonably have wondered if the talent had let him down.
Chris Woakes was great for England on his return to the side for the fourth Test
But it’s not for nothing that Woakes is England’s happiest cricketer. And so, on a mostly gray day in South London, he emerged from the most difficult 12 months of his career with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. Really, it was more than anyone deserved.
Last summer, his sunny optimism became a common thread. Not only did he take 17 wickets in five home Tests at 20 each, he helped pave the way for a series win against Pakistan with a crucial half-century at Old Trafford.
Then, in January, he shared a taxi with Moeen Ali to Heathrow on his way to Sri Lanka, and everything unraveled. When Ali tested positive for Covid, Woakes was forced into quarantine. And with the pandemic of touring without any warm-up matches, he had no chance to prove he was ready for Test cricket. The sequence of events still irritates him.
The bowler took four wickets and caused trouble for India’s batsmen all the time
When it was tedious enough to sit out six matches in Sri Lanka and India, where he had hoped to massage the perception that he is struggling without the English dukes, Woakes then bruised a heel that slipped on his stairs at home, making the injury worse when he tried to dig through it.
After already missing the series of two tests against New Zealand, he was now banned from the first three games against India. As the normally upbeat Joe Root put it on Tuesday, it all made for a “nightmare.”
Unlikely, Woakes may have been helped by the rare sight of Jimmy Anderson squandering the new ball during a four-over spell that cost 20. It meant Root brought in Woakes as soon as the ninth was over, with the shine still showing. His introduction changed the pace of the morning.
Along with Ollie Robinson, who reliably hit the fork in the Pavilion End, he took down seven straight virgins, a run that included Sharma and Rahul, leg ahead of Robinson. When Anderson switched sides to sack Cheteshwar Pujara for the fourth time in the series, India was 39 for three.
By this time, Woakes had run off with figures of 5-4-4-1 – the spell’s brief recognition of the fact that his only red ball cricket last year between the Southampton Test and this was 15 overs for Warwickshire Second XI previous week.
Woakes recalled his quality, especially in conditions suitable for swing bowling
Still, Root entrusted him to open after lunch while England searched for Virat Kohli – and the plan almost worked. At 22, Kohli pushed one that left him, and watched with relief as Rory Burns didn’t react on the second slip, causing Root to extend a late right hand first. The opportunity went begging.
Later Woakes suffered again when Craig Overton dropped Rishabh Pant on the third slip. If he’d forgotten the fragility of England’s catch in the cordon, at least they made him feel at home.
But he kept dropping off, rocking it back and forth, and rarely missed his height. He had caught Ravindra Jadeja, mysteriously promoted to number 5, in the briefs for 10, and – moments after his reprieve – Pant caught himself long-off for nine.
And when Shardul Thakur threatened to ruin England’s good work with the ball by hitting a 31-ball for half a century, it was Woakes who put an end to his fun, overturning the out of judgment of umpire Wharf to take a hard-earned lbw to win.
India’s last two wickets came in a rush, denying him the chance to restart his Test career with a five-for. But figures of four for 55 from 15 overs, including 35 runs from the 19 deliveries he pitched to Thakur, were a reminder of what England have missed.
Woakes could take advantage of injuries from the likes of Stuart Broad and stake his claim