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Wood's on fire

The fastest England bowler of them all? Darren Gough thinks so Getty Images

At an annual event for the cricket charity Chance to Shine in the Long Room at Lord's last September, Mark Wood fulfilled a commitment he had made almost two years earlier. The premise of the evening is that four England cricketers each team up with a professional chef to cook a dish of their choice, which is then eaten by the guests, judged by a panel of experts, and given a mark out of ten by all those dining beneath paintings of WG Grace, Lord Hawke, the founding fathers of the I Zingari, and Sir Donald Bradman, amongst others.

This successful event has run for eight years and raised impressive figures for the charity that brings cricket into state schools and challenged urban communities. Alastair Cook won three on the bounce with first a lamb rack, then a cheese and onion tart, and lastly an all-conquering chocolate brownie (his grandmother's recipe). Stuart Broad won the next two but was beaten by Toby Roland-Jones in his bid to match Cook's hat-trick. Must be something in the name. Twenty months ago Wood said he'd like to have a crack at it but pulled out the night before the 2018 date after complications from his ankle surgery had brought more pain than was bearable for the journey to London from Durham and an afternoon in the kitchen. He promised to come along the next year. Which he did.

He took on Eoin Morgan, Liam Plunkett and Tom Curran in a World Cup winners' special. It's a reality show of sorts and brings out the competitive juices in players whose whole life has been driven by the pursuit of victory. Curran was well miffed to miss out, Plunkett clearly shaken to register third place after a cheffy mate of his went to a lot of trouble to help devise a desert shaped like the World Cup and coloured in red, white and blue. Morgan posed for myriad photographs, Irish eyes smiling on tap, and then auctioned the money shot of him upstairs in the home dressing-room at his place of work with the World Cup and prize winner at his side.

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Really, isn't it marvellous the things cricketers do for charity.

Wood won. (Ham hock terrine, haggis and quail's egg - I kid you not.) At the climax of the evening the four contestants stood on the small Long Room podium. By their side were the professional chefs who had mentored them through the day. The room went silent.

"In fourth place with 923 votes is…" and so on, until "and the winner of Chance to Dine 2019..." Hearts beat faster, Wood clenched his fists. "...is....." Wood flicked a bead of sweat from his brow. "Mark Wood!" And at this announcement, he jumped into the arms of his mentor, wrapped his legs around his waist, arms around his neck and hugged him to the point of suffocation. It was a gloriously unbridled moment of enthusiasm and joy. At that instant, every single person in the room fell for "Woody". At a one-day international a week later, Wood, with the widest smile. introduced himself to everyone as the 2019 champion of Chance to Dine, which was very funny and not without its little bit of magic.

Thus, if you think how much a cook-off for charity meant to him, imagine Woody early this week, and indeed, over the next week or so. Imagine the pride. After all, in the deciding match of a Test series - a match in which he very nearly did not play because of soreness that lingered from the long haul in Port Elizabeth - he bowled not only sensationally fast but with memorable skill and imagination to take nine wickets and the Man-of-the-Match award. For many sportsmen who compete at international level, the glory is reflected some time well after the performance: for days, weeks or months later perhaps, when the strain has worn off, the relief taken its course and the scale of the achievement has space to sink in. Not Woody. Woody is all about the now.

"At the Wanderers, Wood jumped wide of the crease to deliver a fast, full, outswinger that turned Anrich Nortje inside out, found the edge of his bat and flew low to gully. This was a thing of immense physical strength, splendid natural ability and great beauty"

Commentating for talkSPORT, Darren Gough watched Wood charge in at the Wanderers and proclaimed him England's fastest ever bowler. The spoilsport next to Gough, yours truly, said, "Hang on, Goughie, how about Harold Larwood and Frank Tyson?" "Didn't see 'em. They tell me Fred Trueman was quick, but I've seen the footage and I'll bet he was around 85mph, maybe a touch quicker on his day." Devon Malcolm? "Nah, Woody's quicker." Okay.

The problem with not having seen someone, or something, is that you haven't seen it, so you don't know - one way or the other. There was no way of measuring back in the day, therefore you take case studies. In one series, Larwood singlehandedly reduced Bradman to almost half his career average. The Bodyline footage shows the wicketkeeper, Les Ames, flippin' miles back, as a good number of very fine Australian batsmen took blows to the body.

Richie Benaud says that Tyson, through the air, was the fastest bowler he saw. In that breath, he mentioned Michael Holding at The Oval in 1976, when he took 14 English wickets by bowling mainly full and straight on a straw-dry pitch. Benaud added that Jeff Thomson, with his freakish speed and bounce from short of a length, had them all covered when it came to pace off the pitch. Tyson lasted only briefly, his piece de resistance the 7 for 27 in Melbourne on Len Hutton's tour of 1954-55.

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Malcolm blew the South Africans out of South London at The Oval in 1994, claiming nine out ten at a cost of just 57. This is worth watching on YouTube, as the quality of production is good and the framing consistent with modern technology. It looks in some instances quite shockingly fast, and the fact that Malcom could be occasionally wild and pretty much always unpredictable added to the uncertainty when facing him. He was one who induced physical fear among batsmen, and Steve Waugh once remarked that the Aussies were always pleased when England selected a steady medium-pacer ahead of him.

In Port Elizabeth, the St George's Park pitch was dead. There is no half-measure to dead, yet Wood forced batsmen into mistakes with his pace off that pitch. Granted, the most thrilling wicket was when he knocked Dean Elgar's off stump clean out of the ground, but others were simply pushed back and then embarrassed. At the Wanderers, Wood swung the ball very late, a difficult skill with the speed registering above 90mph, and he remained accurate even when tired. In the last over of Saturday's play, he jumped wide of the crease to deliver a fast, full, outswinger that turned Anrich Nortje inside out, found the edge of his bat and flew low to gully where the catch was well taken. This was a thing of immense physical strength, splendid natural ability and great beauty. It was also very fast. Had it been bowled by Dennis Lillee or Malcolm Marshall, we would all have said, "See, that's why he's the best."

The more I think about Gough's opinion of Wood's speed, the more I am persuaded that he might have a point. In fact, the more I think about Wood, the more enamoured I become of his free-spirited cricketing ability. All of which has got me thinking back.

Like Gough, I am a disciple of John Snow. In Australia in 1970-71, this languid fellow smoothly went through the gears to bowl some spells, and individual balls, that rank with any. Snow's unique and disarming ability was to make the ball "get big" from only just back of a length, which forced even the best players to stay in the crease when they might otherwise have moved forward. From there, Snow struck with his devastating offcutter.

Bob Willis can never have bowled faster or more effectively than at Headingley in 1981, when he charged down the hill, first appearing to have become deranged before disappearing into some kind of transcendental state. Steve Harmison was never more frightening than when taking 7 for 12 against West Indies in Jamaica or more breathtaking than when he drew blood from Ricky Ponting's face during the opening salvos of the 2005 Ashes. Ian Chappell said the best fast bowling he had ever seen was from Andrew Flintoff at Lord's against the Australians in 2009 - he did, honest. Sky's coverage recorded Freddie consistently at 91mph that day.

Last summer, Jofra Archer rocked the Aussie boat with a mesmerising assault on the Bradman of the day, Steve Smith. The bouncer which hit Smith so horrifically in the back of neck clocked in at 91.3mph. The final ball of that over at 96.1mph. Now we're talking. Certainly, Archer's impact that day signalled a shift in confidence for England after the draining loss at Edgbaston in the first Test.

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There is an anomaly to the speed gun which registers generally faster speeds from balls pitched full rather than those dug in short. It is something to do with the way in which the tracking cameras pick up deliveries released early and flat over their first couple of feet of travel, as against those released late and downward. I know nothing about the science of this but have seen it be the case too often to think otherwise. While working for Channel Nine in Australia, we ran a "find a fast bowler" competition and the teenagers who worked out that the gun recorded them quicker with half-volleys and full tosses than bouncers won.

You would be surprised to stand next to Wood. He's a slip of a thing - five ten at a guess, and willowy. But then so was Malcolm Marshall, and Larwood and Ray Lindwall for that matter. Tyson had huge shoulders but was not a tall man. Neither were Trueman and Gough, though both had the physique to get it down at a fair lick. There is something rather alarming to a batsman about this skidding pace - as if the ball is homing in. Unsurprisingly, it's an angle of delivery that takes a disproportionate amount of physical effort relative to the one set in motion by a taller man. Mostly, these fellows are searching for extra bounce and the taller you are, the easier it is to extract bounce from a threatening length.

The hope is that Wood's body holds up, for such is the strain on his lower back, hips, knees, ankles at the point of delivery, one wonders how he completes a day, never mind a match. His misgivings and insecurities come from both the pain and disappointment he has suffered. Meds and rehab are no kind of a life.

Meantime, we can rejoice in one of the good guys emerging from the darkness into light. He had not played a single game of cricket since limping off the field in the World Cup final on July 14th last year. Prior to Port Elizabeth, his last Test was in St Lucia nearly a year ago. He bowled at the speed of light there too. Woody, it's great to have you back.