You probably think you know Mark Wood. He’s the well-made boy from Ashington, the fast English bowler with the imaginary horse, the extrovert whose innate sass has helped him navigate an injury-ravaged career.
He is all that with certainty, even if the horse has long since been put out of its virtual misery. But at its core lies a sympathetic contradiction. In “The Wood Life” he once laughs about almost ripping off his toe with a lawnmower. Next he tells of a severe panic attack on a flight to Amsterdam. He can play the fool and be paralyzed by fear just as easily.
It almost goes without saying that this isn’t a classic autobiography. Wood doesn’t stick to conventions: He’s a teetotaler, survives for weeks on tour with nothing but Margherita pizza and wears goggles to chop onions. He’s a fool with a twist.
And while the book — written with the apt assistance of ESPNcricinfo journalist Vithushan Ehantharajah — is divided into “How to…” chapters, from “How to Celebration” to “How to Love,” Wood is honest about its value to those who are looking for depth. “Perhaps this is more of a not-so-helpful self-help book,” he writes with characteristic self-mockery.
When told that he comes across as a regular guy on the site, he sounds flattered. And yet, in other ways, he’s anything but. Wood is one of the fastest bowlers in the game. He’s world champion. And he has five-man Test matches in some of cricket’s most remote corners: St Lucia, Johannesburg, Hobart.
He’s also regularly injured, although following an elbow operation he’s hoping to feature in the final stages of the English T20 series in Pakistan from next week and is looking forward to a busy winter: a T20 World Cup in Australia, Test series in Pakistan and New Zealand, white-ball assignments in South Africa and Bangladesh.
But the long absences, the many operations, the rehabilitation phases – all of this is an indelible part of his story. He has appeared in just 26 out of England’s 100 Tests since debuting in 2015. That’s why the good times feel extra sweet.
“If I hadn’t had them, I probably wouldn’t have played as much as I did,” he says sports mail. ‘England could have looked elsewhere. For myself, I might have said, “Look, I don’t know if I can keep doing this”. I didn’t live up to the potential I thought I had.
The self-confidence is definitely there, and he loves the job: “When everything is right, fast bowling is a great feeling. It feels like you’re flying, like a surge of electricity. On a good day, you feel like you and the thug have telepathy with each other, like “I’m coming here for you.”
He sometimes dreams of his favorite spells, and he’s particularly fond of a delivery that Shimron Hetmyer of the West Indies involuntarily flinched during a lightning strike in St. Lucia in early 2019. “It was a bouncing wicket and the slips were miles of backs. The way the edge went… it seemed to fly.’
At the same time, a part of Wood seems endearingly impressed with the world that launched his career. He has played with England’s two greatest bowlers – Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – and has been praised by his opponents.
“I was doing a couple of catches at the border in Adelaide over the winter and Brett Lee came by and said ‘Well done Brisbane’. I immediately texted my buddy and said ‘Brett Lee came over to me’ as we used to pretend to be Brett in the garden. He wrote back and said, “I can’t believe you’re actually speaking to these people.”
In the book, he recalls an unplayable ball to sack Usman Khawaja in Hobart in January. That night he boarded the hotel lift with Australia coach Justin Langer, who said: “Woah, that bouncer was a brute, wasn’t he?” These are the stories that keep him going and make England believe. Ben Stokes is a huge fan and was the teammate who encouraged him to go short in Hobart, where Wood finished a career top six at 37. Moments like this made him want more.
“I’m getting to an age where I don’t want to look back and think about the games I missed,” he says. “I want to be able to say, ‘Look, that’s how many times I’ve played for England. And I give it my all every time I play.’
His commitment is absolute, but expectation can bring fear. Wood draws on an analogy he picked up from a psychologist. “When you have a pitcher full of water and you add rocks, the water level goes up, and that was like stress for me. The rocks might miss your family. It could be injuries, airplanes, or worrying about food. As you add them, the water gets higher, to the point where it overflows. That’s when the fear kicks in.’
He has learned to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and is aware that his body language needs to be worked on. But because of the injury-related break, he feels young for his age: he will be 33 in January. A longstanding ankle problem appears to have been resolved and he is optimistic about the years to come.
“I’m probably in the best phase of my career,” he says. “Most people say their best time was in their late 20s. I feel like it’s my best piece now because I’m fresh: I didn’t get much done and was a late developer.
With three tests in Pakistan beginning in December, Wood is hoping his slippery pace and low trajectory will prove useful on surfaces that can encourage a reverse swing. These traits explain why his Test record abroad (47 wickets on 25) is better than at home (35 on 40) – and why he believes he still has work to do to become a permanent member of England’s attack.
“If I’m not bowling at 80 mph, there are 15 or 20 bowlers who are better than me at 80 mph. If I can move the ball, I’ll be more effective in England. Right now I’m probably not moving it enough or I’m not accurate enough so I need to improve.
On the other hand, like Bobby and Jack Charlton, Wood is a world champion from Ashington – which is more than can be said for the other England fast emerging from this Northumberland town, Steve Harmison. “That’s the only thing I’ll ever know about Harmy,” says Wood. “He’s got the gates, the pace, the height, he’s the Lord Protector of the North. He’s Ashington’s #1. He was the original Ashington Express, I’m the Ashington Choo-Choo train.’
If he can hit the ground running in the next few years, there might even be material for another book.