At close to the witching hour a twenty-one year old and rather gangly Chris Woakes strode to the Adelaide wicket amidst a crowd of thirty two thousand to make his debut as a batsman for the England T20 side. His face was split not with anxiety but by the widest possible grin.
Originally on the scorecard as the number 11, Andy Flower had noticed how well Woakes was batting in the nets and, as England’s reply to Australia’s sub-par 157 faltered, the coach suggested to England’s captain, Collingwood, that the young man from Warwickshire might be raised in the order to 9 above Swann and Shahzad.
T20 is spectacle. It is a team game of such short duration that it is more possible for a single player to win a match than the longer forms of the game. And to do so with a contribution which in those would count as insignificant.
All cricket contains individual duels between bowlers and batsmen, but this format’s focus on the ‘singles’ is intensified. How fitting then that the greatest of duelists, John McEnroe, was there to watch. Wouldn’t Third Man like to know what Mc made of it.
T20 is also a game where the super abundance of wickets to balls available – a ratio of 12:1 compared with 68:1 in Test matches – allows for greater risk taking and therefore rewards fearlessness and prizes those who can throw caution to the wind.
Where Test cricket requires the self imposed limitations of gnarled professionals who have developed their version of three shot cricket, T20 requires, behind the eyes, the unlimited imagination of the young.
Woakes took guard, his body contorted with wild articulations like someone with Sydenham’s chorea. His first job, at 130 – 7 in the 16th over was to keep out a hat trick ball from Watson, which he did from deep in his crease.
A single on the fifth ball of Watson’s over brought him down, like a true David in front of the Philistines, to face their giant Tait’s searing sling shots. The first missile Woakes resolutely defended. The second, scarcely a shade under ninety miles an hour, he manhandled high across the midwicket boundary, rows and rows and rows back into the stunned multitude.
The wickets fell about him. Demonstrating a keen eye as well as nerves of steel, he repeatedly played the ball to third man with half a bat, strangling the Australian surge.
The 20th over saw Woakes watching helplessly from the non-striker’s end as Swann, with just 4 runs required in six deliveries, grabbed for glory and lost his wicket to bring Shahzad, last man, to the wicket.
Our youngster walked down the wicket to tell the old man of 25, “Lay anything you can on it on it and run. Leave the rest to me, Shaz.” But Watson was too good, cramping Shahzad for room on ball two and ball three. 4 to win, 3 balls to go.
As the odds moved towards Australia, their skipper White, gambling as he must, moved mid on back and fine leg up. Ball four thudded into Shahzad’s pads and they ran for dear life to complete a single and bring Woakes to the place fate seemed to have determined for him 21 years and 317 days before in some Birmingham maternity ward.
2 to tie and bring the game to the resolution of a golden over. Watson at 4 for 12 would bowl it for Australia but who was warming up for England? 3 to win, two balls to go.
Woakes, again playing late with an angled bat, carves the fifth ball out to the cover boundary. The old-timers in the England dug-out leap for joy, but they are premature. The boundary guard cuts off the ball and returns to keeper Paine with the scores tied. One ball to go.
Paine stays up at the wicket and the field comes in to prevent a single.
But those without fear do not look for bunts and frantically run singles in this position. They get the leading leg out of the way and hit with a wide arch of the bat, as Woakes did then, clearing the ring of fielders and sending the ball to cow corner.
India, Pakistan and SriLanka never cease to amaze by the way they find youngsters to bring into their teams. Australia once were renowned for their wealth of young talent and their eagerness to blood them. Now for the first time in over one hundred years the ossified Establishment that commanded cricket in England has been removed and, like a cork flicked from a champagne bottle, talent is bubbling to the surface.
Well done the selectors, well done the coach, well done the captain, well done the team that welcomes and encourages the fearless young. Well done Woakes.
Note missing bail at time of winning hit in last photograph.