It is tempting to draw parallels between Chris Woakes and N’Golo Kanté.
Both men are exceptionally good at what they do, are humble, always sport a smile and, in the perception of fans across the globe, are underrated. You could say that both Woakes and Kanté are wayyy too nice to be sportsmen. Yet the reason why it is hard to draw a parallel is because while one is celebrated universally, the other is not.
While it is true that Kante hails from the BJ Watling academy of underrated sportspersons, his efforts seldom go unacknowledged. As recently as last month, the Frenchman was tipped to be a Ballon d’Or candidate, and after every Chelsea (or) France match, you have at least a dozen meme pages cracking the overused “70% of the Earth is covered by water. The rest? Covered by Kante” joke. Kante might be underrated but there are still enough people who rate him highly.
But Woakes? No one cracks Chris Woakes jokes in the aftermath of a match. Nor does anyone vouch for him to be named the Cricketer of the Year. If the phrase ‘taken-for-granted’ were a human being, it would be Woakes. His entire existence, sometimes it feels, is concealed by an invisibility cloak. Like a ball-boy in a Tennis match, people just don’t seem to care what he does and his job, they assume, is to simply serve the protagonists standing in front of him.
In many ways it was emblematic of Woakes’ career that on Tuesday, after bowling one of the greatest ODI spells of all time, it was Joe Root that fans were talking about post the game. Woakes had set-up the match for England with a preposterous 4/18, yet the discourse that followed the game was whether Root should find himself back in the T20I set-up.
But forget the first ODI, Woakes’ proficiency in 50-over cricket – in particular with the new ball – has flown so much under the radar that it’s genuinely baffling. Make no mistake, what Woakes did on Tuesday in Chester-le-Street was simply ludicrous. There has arguably been no better new ball spell this century – his figures in the first 10 overs (5-4-6-2) serve as a testament to the same and, as CricViz revealed, the overall bowling impact he registered (+79) is the best ever for any English bowler.
Yet it’s not just about what Woakes did on Tuesday. For, for four years now, the Birmingham man has been right up there as the best seamer in the world. Why he hasn’t received the plaudits or acknowledgement for the same is simply because, well, he is Chris Woakes.
Consider the table above. Since the start of 2017, Woakes is one of just four bowlers to have taken more than 80 ODI wickets, with only Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult and Mustafizur Rahman having struck more times than the Englishman in this time period. Yet, quite remarkably, he boasts an average and strike rate better than all the three bowlers above him in the list, making a genuine case to be called the best seamer across the past four years.
What makes Woakes’ feat even more impressive is how well he’s fared away from home during the said period. It goes without saying that Woakes’ style of bowling – searching for swing and seam with the new ball, testing the batters’ patience by incessantly bowling in the corridor of uncertainty – is tailor-made for English conditions, even with a white-ball. But, away from home, where in most countries his strengths get neutralized, the right-armer has still managed to put up numbers that place him in the upper echelon of seamers in world cricket.
Since 2017, among seamers, only Hasan Ali has taken more wickets away from home than Woakes. He has, in this period, played ODIs in Australia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and West Indies and has, impressively, averaged under 30 in all but two countries. This is in stark contrast to someone like a Boult, who not only has taken 71% (68 of 96) of his wickets in the past four years at home, but has also averaged over 30 – 30.55 in England; 48.50 in UAE; 42.50 in India – in every country he’s played in.
In fact, among pacers to have taken more than 75 ODI wickets since the start of 2017, only Woakes and Rabada boast an average under 30 both home and away, showcasing their all-round prowess and reliability.
The King of Powerplay bowling
In an era where bowlers, in particular seamers who adhere to the conventional style, are considered mere cannon fodder, what Woakes has managed to achieve is outrageous. Starc, Hazlewood, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Boult are names that come to mind when we think of new-ball bowling in ODI cricket, yet Woakes’ numbers in the first 10 overs – across the past four years – show just how effective his metronomic style has been.
Since the start of 2017, no bowler has taken more wickets than Woakes in the first 10 overs of an innings. Among seamers who have sent down at least 150 overs (in the first 10 overs) in the said period, no one boasts a better average than the Englishman, with his SR of 30.42 also being the best of the lot.
In fact, dating back to the start of the previous decade, only Malinga (81) and Boult (71) have taken more wickets than Woakes in the first 10 overs of an innings, despite the right-armer having bowled considerably fewer overs than most of the other bowlers in the list.
But as if these numbers aren’t enough to regard him as one of the best in the world, Woakes did something that none of the other bowlers in the list managed: mastermind his country to a World Cup win.
How Woakes bowled England to their maiden 50-over World Cup title
The dominance of Bairstow and Roy, the invincibility of Ben Stokes, the leadership of Eoin Morgan and the vigour of a new-to-the-scene Jofra Archer are all mentioned while recapping England’s 2019 World Cup glory, but, really, cornerstone to the Three Lions’ success was the mastery of Chris Woakes, who with the new ball gave England a headstart in almost every single encounter.
No bowler took as many wickets as Woakes (12) in the first 10 overs in the 2019 World Cup, but it was how he raised his game in the crunch encounters that defined his quality. Across the last four games – two do-or-die games (vs IND and NZ), semis and the final – Woakes’ figures in the first 10 overs read 20-3-56-5 (ER 2.80; SR 24).
Notably in the semi-final against Australia, Woakes accounted for two wickets inside the first seven overs (one of which was that of Warner, Australia’s highest run-getter in the competition), and was subsequently named the Man of the Match for his efforts. He took three more wickets in the final (including that of danger-man Martin Guptill in just the seventh over) and, though his efforts were ultimately overshadowed by the drama that unfolded, his contributions proved to be invaluable in the larger scheme of things.
“Sometimes, just sometimes, nice guys do finish first!” uttered Simon Doull on air as Ross Taylor hit the winning runs in the WTC Final last week, but Woakes, one imagines, would disagree with the statement. Not only has he, for half a decade now, been completely taken for granted by both the fans and the English management, his efforts have also totally gone unacknowledged, to the extent that a world class performance from his end is still received with surprise. The day that changes, the day Woakes is celebrated as one of the best in the business, maybe we could call him the N’Golo Kanté of Cricket.