England is set to make the shock decision to select Mark Wood over Jofra Archer in the team for the third Test against South Africa starting on Thursday.
England wants extra pace on the traditionally slow St George’s Park pitch, and while Archer has been showing something of his form of last summer in the nets, Wood has been replicating a human catapult in doing everything asked of him and more.
And that has propelled the Durham fast bowler, who turned 30 last week, ahead of Archer in the race to replace the injured James Anderson in the side.
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The likely selection will be a blow to Archer, who has struggled this winter after an electrifying start to his England Test career in last summer’s Ashes.
The 24-year-old took two for 207 in two Tests against New Zealand, and although he took six wickets in the opening Test against South Africa at Centurion. They were expensive and also came at the cost of an injured right elbow, which ruled him out of the win in Cape Town.
Archer has now recovered but Wood’s extra pace when bowling at top speed he clocked 95 mph during the World Cup will counter that of Anrich Nortje, the fastest bowler in this series to date, whose home town is Port Elizabeth.
Indeed, Steve Harmison the former Durham and England fast bowler who is Wood’s mentor and comes from the same village of Ashington, said Wood was “always penciled in to play the PE Test because of his reverse-swing” during a Q and A session with Telegraph readers during the second Test in Cape Town.
Wood has not played a competitive game since the World Cup final when he limped off after a hostile ten-over spell but has built up his speed and stamina in South Africa over the last month. England’s coaching staff is understood to have been highly impressed by Wood’s attitude, particularly in the last two net-sessions at St George’s Park.
Wood has therefore leapfrogged over Archer who played in the first Test at Centurion and took six expensive wickets, before injuring his right elbow. According to Paul Collingwood, England’s assistant coach, the management has tried to find Wood a game to play in on this tour but it has not been possible.
“Ideally you’d love Woody to go out and get some competitive games in,” Collingwood said. “But I’ve got no qualms he could come in this week and be successful because of what he’s done in the past 36 wickets at 37 runs each in 13 Tests, what he can draw upon. He’s got the skills to go out there and make an impact.”
Chris Woakes is another pace bowler in contention for Anderson’s place and is the closest to a like-for-like replacement as an outswing bowler, but local conditions are working against him.
“The Windy City” is another name by which Port Elizabeth is known, and St George’s Park is exposed to the sea-breezes at the top of a hill only a mile from the Indian Ocean. As the wind blew when England practiced at the nets adjoining the ground yesterday afternoon, it would have favored Sam Curran’s inswinger from the pavilion end and Stuart Broad’s outswinger from what is known as the Duckpond end.
If these conditions applied in the Test, Woakes and Broad would be unsuited to opening the bowling together because both would want the same end. Curran, as a left-arm swing bowler, is suited to bowl opposite Broad with Wood as third seamer from either end.
When Ben Stokes bowled his knock-out final spell on the last afternoon at Cape Town, he also made the ball reverse-swing, so it makes sense for England to increase their fire-power in a department where they have so far surpassed South Africa.
Collingwood took what is becoming the England party line on Archer when a slow pitch is coming up, which happened in both Tests in New Zealand when Archer took two wickets. “He’s very early on in his international career. He hasn’t bowled a lot with the Kookaburra ball, which requires a completely different skill set to the Duke’s ball.
“His main skill is bowling 90-plus mph. We have enough bowlers in and around the county circuit who can bowl at 82 to 85 mph and try to nip it around. You want the likes of Wood and Archer to give you that x-factor, and that’s what we’re looking for. It’s important we train and have that attitude to make sure you’re ready and raring to go when it comes into a Test match.”
While there is a case for playing both Wood and Archer, to exploit the increasingly low bounce for which the ground is renowned, England appear to be thinking of retaining a spinner, probably Dom Bess if only because he has played more recently than Jack Leach, who has been so ill that his last game was the Mount Maunganui Test in mid-November.
“I think if you look at the data as you always do turning up at a ground, then spin tends to play a bit more of a part here than the other grounds,” Collingwood said. “But we’ll gauge it.”
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