Who is England's best option to replace James Anderson for the 4th Ashes Test?
England wasted little time in righting the wrongs of Lord’s, bulldozing Australia in the third Ashes Test at Edgbaston to take a 2-1 series lead, putting themselves within touching distance of reclaiming the urn.
The eight-wicket victory was the result of a perfect performance, aided greatly by the six-wicket hauls of James Anderson and Steven Finn in the first and second innings respectively. However, the injury to the former, who has been ruled out of the fourth Test at Trent Bridge with a side strain, leaves England with a predicament.
Losing Anderson is, obviously, a bitter blow. The 33-year-old pacer is England’s most decorated Test bowler ever and, on the evidence of Edgbaston, has just recaptured his form after an unremarkable first two Tests. And if that wasn’t enough, Trent Bridge happens to be one of Anderson’s happiest hunting grounds – in eight matches he has taken 53 wickets at a price of 19.24 each, and on six occasions he has taken five wickets in an innings.
Therefore, finding an out-and-out replacement for Anderson isn’t likely and whoever does come in will be plugging a hole rather than leading from the front - not that it means their involvement is any less important. In fact, for a fast-bowling attack that consists of three frontline quicks plus Ben Stokes, England’s strength could easily become their weakness with the absence of Anderson.
So who are the most probable candidates to fill the void in Nottingham (and possibly The Oval should Anderson not be fit)?
Wood leads the pack
Mark Wood is the glaring favourite. The right-armer made his Test debut against New Zealand in May and has played in four of England’s five Test matches this summer. His figures have been steady but he hasn’t so far produced a standout showing – he is yet to take more than three wickets in an innings and has an average of almost 40 – but in his defence, only once has he gone without at least one scalp.
The impressive return of Finn to the international fold has marginalised Wood, but his recent experience makes him a known quantity for England and he could be a useful workhorse. That heavy workload may be taking its toll – an ankle injury led to him missing the Edgbaston Test although he is expected to be fully fit for Trent Bridge if required.
Another player apparently in the mix is Chris Woakes. The Warwickshire cricketer has also played in four Tests – most recently against India last year – but hasn’t found his feet at the highest level. In those four games he has taken just seven wickets, which explains why he has been unable to keep his place. A knee tear which required keyhole surgery has blighted him for much of the county season – he has competed in just two four-day matches - and he missed England’s Caribbean tour as well with a foot injury.
Woakes is considered a similar bowler to Anderson, hence his inclusion is a strong possibility. He has worked on improving his pace over the past 12 months and even if he isn’t selected, he looks to be firmly in the picture for England’s future plans, having trained with the squad prior to the Edgbaston Test.
Another benefit of Woakes is that he offers production with the bat. England don’t exactly need more batting but having a number nine who boasts eight first-class hundreds and a 37.17 average is no bad thing. Sport is played in the present though and, on current reckoning, Wood edges Woakes.
There is scope for England to look further afield and there is plenty of talent on the county circuit that would stand them in good stead.
Could England turn to a county performer?
Durham’s Chris Rushworth has lit up the bowling charts in the County Championship in 2015, topping the table with 69 wickets from 12 matches at an average of less than 19. The cousin of brief England wicketkeeper Phil Mustard, Rushworth has consistently delivered in all three formats and, on merit, nobody deserves a place in the lineup more.
A right-arm fast-medium, Rushworth is structurally similar to Anderson but admittedly doesn’t offer the speed, but that shouldn’t immediately rule him out. He remains a wholly unlikely choice but his efforts at Durham warrant him being in the conversation.
Likewise, cases can be made for other county stars such as Jack Shantry and Matt Coles. Speculation suggests Mark Footitt’s name is ahead of most. The 29-year-old has picked up 50 Championship wickets this season and although he now plays for Derbyshire, he started his career at Nottinghamshire , who play their home games at Trent Bridge.
The talk is that Footitt is the fastest left-armer in England and he was a part of the 14-man group that travelled to Spain to prepare for this Ashes series. He bowls at 90mph and can extract swing from the new ball, which makes him an ideal option.
Or perhaps the selectors will go for an old hand. Liam Plunkett has flitted in and out of the limited-overs side of late and made his way back into the Test XI that took on India in 2014. It’s hard to envisage him playing but England know what they would be getting from a man who has donned the shirt before – plenty of pace.
Many stake a valid claim but, providing he is in tip-top condition, Wood is the man who will be steaming in on Thursday morning. His involvement all summer goes in his favour and he has shown himself to be solid if not spectacular – he has earned another chance to impress. That said, if the ankle doesn’t fully heal, then either Woakes or Footitt will come in.
England’s attack is undoubtedly blunted without their swinging maestro Anderson and could be put to the sword in batting-friendly conditions. However, if this series is anything to go by, the ball will continue to have a major impact. Finn has excelled after two years out, and Stuart Broad has a habit of rising to the occasion, even if he does at times look meek.
The Poms are in good shape to stave off an Australian challenge in England for the fourth time in a row. The bowling department may have lost their ace, but Wood has the credentials to ensure they keep on track, even if he may not win them a match on his own.