Chris Woakes is, by all accounts, a nice guy.
So nice, in fact, that he expresses gratitude when I arrive a few minutes late to the hotel instead of treating me with vague contempt. It apparently gave him time to scarf down a quick lunch because he missed breakfast, he tells me, before asking whether I would like to have a coffee and inquiring about how my day is going. We’re soon settled down – he with his Pavilion Blend coffee and me with my green tea – and, of course, I feel a bit guilty after all the bonhomie that I have to kick off this chat with a rather pointed question:
First, I just want you to confirm this: apparently you’ve had to block people on Twitter because they said you’re too boring?
I’m too boring?
I’m not saying that. Other people are saying that.
Other people think I’m too boring?
Well, I was hoping you’d tell me.
I’ve blocked people in the past. Whether it’s because I was too boring, I’m not sure. The thing with Twitter is … I love Twitter, it’s great. Catch up with news, catch up with what people are doing. It’s good to express your opinion, sometimes. As a cricketer, you have to be a bit careful at times. But then, you get some mentions that you see – either people being not too nice or offensive – and you have to block them. It’s a small minority of people. Someone might have called me boring once and I might have blocked them.
Why do people think you’re boring?
I’m a pretty down-to-earth guy. I try to keep things pretty simple, on and off the field. I like to spend time with my family and my friends. I try to keep my private life away from the cricket side of things. I’m happy with who I am. Even if my label is ‘boring’.
You know, my label is ‘quiet’. Why haven’t I seen you at the support group meetings?
Among the many impressive things Woakes has done in the past year – hitting an unbeaten 95 to rescue England from 82 for 6 in a 288-run chase in an ODI against Sri Lanka; becoming the first England bowler since Ian Botham in 1978 to take a five-wicket haul in each innings at Lord’s, against Pakistan; finishing with 26 wickets, a series record for England against Pakistan; (all of which you can read about in his Wisden Cricketers of the Year 2017 essay) – it’s his impeccable hair that gets most attention. It’s tucked underneath a well-worn baseball cap at the moment, but, according to James Taylor, Woakes gets it cut every ten days.
Ten days, really?
You know what’s quite funny about this story? James now gets his hair cut way more often that I get mine cut. I get mine cut – and this is genuinely honest – every three weeks. I’m positive he gets his cut every two weeks.
Funnily enough, Taylor launched into quite the monologue about his own hair when Wisden India last spoke to him.
See! See what I mean? He’s so vain! He just put some tax on that story. I just try to keep my hair tidy. The boys always say my hair is immaculate when I don’t think it is. I don’t like to keep my hair too long. I’ll tell you what, though, I had a shocker when I was at school when I decided to dye my hair. Instead of going to the salon and getting it done properly, I just got my mum to buy one pack from over the counter. It was supposed to be blonde tips. But it ended up being rather ginger. I looked like Jonny Bairstow for a few weeks.
Moments later, Woakes removes his cap and leans closer to show me a part of his hair on the left side.
When I was four or five years old, I jumped off the side off a chair. I had a pen in my hand. I don’t really remember it, but my mum tells the story like this. I jumped and as I landed, I fell over and the pen went inside of my head. So when I get my hair cut short on the one side, I’ve got quite a big scar on the left side of my head. At the minute, my hair is too long. When I get my hair cut short you can really see it, but I don’t tend to cut it too short there.
Is that your coolest scar story?
Yeah, the only others scars I have are from the operation I had on my knee. It’s a pretty minor operation, but I’ve got two small scars on either side of my knee. But you can’t really see them unless you look properly.
Knees, you see, are not half as interesting as hair so he doesn’t bother with the show-and-tell.
The cafe we’re in is relatively unoccupied, save for a few people here and there, conversing with each other but also punching away on their phones. We briefly discuss how attached to technology we’ve become. (“It’s amazing, isn’t it, how you find yourself on the phone 24/7? It’s almost like we can’t live without it.”) This is the part where I’m supposed to steer the conversation back to cricket, because Woakes is a cricketer and I’m a cricket journalist and there’s cricket happening, but he’s so relaxed. You never see this side of a player at a press conference, where they blurt out what’s actually on their mind rather than giving a canned response, so I keep cricket on the back burner a while longer.
Do you prefer talking on the phone or texting?
Definitely a texter. I find it so much easier to send a quick text message than to make a phone call, which turns into five or ten minutes.
Is Woakes ‘boring’?: “I’m a pretty down-to-earth guy. I try to keep things pretty simple, on and off the field. I’m happy with who I am. Even if my label is ‘boring’.”
So, are you a person – and I’m this person – who when people call you, you sort of –
– let it ring?
Yeah! Depending on who it is!
Gee, I didn’t even have to complete my sentence!
I knew what you were going to say! But yeah! (leaning in, as if he’s revealing a deep, dark secret) Sometimes, I would just leave it. And send them a message five minutes later.
The apologetic ‘Hey, sorry I missed your call’ message.
Yeah, that one.
Why don’t other people get this? It’s like ‘Is your house on fire? No? Well –’
‘Then send a text message!’ Exactly. Also, have you noticed people, generally, if they ring you and they don’t leave a voicemail, you know, you just know, it’s not urgent. If they leave a voicemail, it’s pretty urgent and I get back to them straightaway.
I tell him that I wouldn’t know as I’ve never set up my voicemail in the first place, and he throws his head back in laughter. Soon, we are on the topic of emojis, the modern-day hieroglyphics, and – hey – would he be game to indulge in a bit of analysis on his most frequently used emojis? Surely, he will say no, because your messaging habits are too personal for a stranger to be familiar with, and I will understand because I’m not sure I would do the same either. Instead, he throws me for a loop, whips his phone out and we begin poring over each emoji.
This reminds Woakes how old-school communication used to be years ago, and how he met his wife Amie. Do you remember MSN Messenger, he asks me, a big grin spreading across his face.
Oh my gosh, yes.
Back in the day, I used to go to the same school as Amie’s brother. She was 16 and I was 18. He was in my year at school. We weren’t really close friends but we knew each other, you know? We went to this music festival where local bands play. She was there and we got talking. We didn’t really speak on the phone, of course. And there was no WhatsApp or things like that. We spoke on MSN Messenger for a little while, exchanged numbers, and from there we went on a few dates.
His first date with Amie, he explains with another goofy smile on his face like a man in love, was at Stratford-upon-Avon in England. (“Just south of Birmingham, a half-an-hour drive from where we live. It’s a nice setting, a river there, nice little old town.” And birthplace of the Bard.) He proposed to her there too, and got married on February 10.
Woakes admits he’s “a bit of softie at heart”, a trait he says he inherited from his mum. In other words, he’s the guy that will put up with chick flicks (and may secretly enjoy them), and won’t ever be caught in a fight if he can help it.
You’ve never been in a fight?
I remember being chased by a bunch of sixth-formers once. I must have been 13. Sixth-form consists of 17 or 18-year-olds. A group of guys from my year had stolen their football. Rumour had gotten to them it was me. It wasn’t. And they chased me, grabbed me and threw me against the fence.
Hence, you try and stay out of fights?
I’m a lover, not a fighter.
From his dad, Woakes inherited a deep love of football and, more specifically, Aston Villa. He was also a highly-rated winger for Walsall FC’s school of excellence before studies and cricket intervened at age 14.
Aston Villa, huh?
My dad supported them from when he was a young boy. When I came along, he kind of pushed me towards Aston Villa. They’re the local team to where I live. I went to my first Aston Villa game when I was 8 years old and just fell in love with the club. I remember the game, we played Derby County, I think. I went with my sister’s husband, boyfriend at the time. I was more obsessed with people swearing around me than watching the game. I was like ‘what the hell is going on’. It was a strange experience, but Aston Villa won and I’ve supported them ever since.
What are you like when watching the games?
I get so nervous. Especially during big games like when we play Birmingham City, our local rivals. Or when we’re in semifinal or final. It doesn’t happen very often but a couple of years ago we were in the semifinal and then final of the FA Cup. I went to both. We won the semifinal and lost the final. That day in the semifinal, the last 10 minutes of the game, we were 2-1 up and I was just the most nervous human being on the planet. Way more nervous than I’ve ever been playing a cricket game. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Just because you know you can’t affect it in any way.
Have you got over what happened on May 30, 2015?
Being an Aston Villa fan, you have to just be happy you got to the final. It was supposed to be a really good day, it turned out to be on of the worst. To lose 4-0 was … just … shocking. It was hard to take. I remember I went for a few drinks afterwards to drown my sorrows with a few friends. We were actually in London at the time because Warwickshire were playing Middlesex. I wasn’t playing because I had a knee injury so that’s how I managed to go to the game. I’m still scarred. You know what, I should’ve mentioned this when we spoke about scars. What a mental scar.
Have you ever bunked school to watch a game, cricket or football?
I did bunk a class to watch football.
Not for cricket. Not for cricket. Football is my real passion, clearly. England were playing Brazil at the World Cup. And we weren’t allowed to miss the class to watch the game so myself and a few mates watched the game and then went in late. And we got in trouble for that. Worse, England lost to Brazil. I remember that well. That’s called karma.
Okay, I didn’t plan on it taking so long before we actually talked shop. I mean, a boring cricketer would have surely answered in a Morse code of grunts. Or ‘no comments’. This is so like Woakes to seem run-of-the-mill and then, in a blink of an eye, exceed all expectations. It’s what his Indian Premier League experience in the 2017 edition of the tournament has been like. Playing for Kolkata Knight Riders, he was initially on the expensive side while picking up the odd wicket, but he’s improved steadily and has finished with 17 wickets in 13 games at an economy rate of 8.77.
What’s the IPL experience been like?
You don’t get that attention back home at all. Cricket’s – although it’s followed well back home – not followed like it is here in India. It’s almost a religion. My wife came out for two weeks and she was coming from the airport to the hotel in Kolkata. She saw all the billboards with our faces on it. She was like, ‘This is crazy, you’re like movie stars for eight weeks.’ It’s pretty surreal.
On bowling in T20s: “You have to reflect on it sensibly. In Twenty20 cricket, as a bowler sometimes you’re always going to be on the receiving end of some good shots. Other days you don’t bowl quite as well but you get a little bit lucky and get the wickets at the right time and all of a sudden your figures suggest you’ve bowled really well when you haven’t. You have to be realistic and be honest with yourself.”
Trevor Bayliss (former Kolkata coach and current England coach) recommended to KKR to pick you apparently.
Yeah, Trevor’s put in a good word. He has spent a lot of time here at KKR. He talks very fondly of his times here, talks highly of the franchise as a family. He said it’s a really good team to be a part of. So when I heard it was KKR who bought me, I was delighted. I’m thankful for Trevor because he was a big factor in me even thinking of putting myself in the auction. I was mulling whether to even bother putting my name in the hat. He told me it would be a good opportunity. He said, ‘You might not get picked up, but KKR are likely to be after an allrounder so fingers crossed you get picked up’. That kind of forced my hand in a way.
How do you rate your performance?
I’d like to think I’ve had some really good games and some games where I’ve been below par. You have to reflect on it sensibly. In Twenty20 cricket, as a bowler sometimes you’re always going to be on the receiving end of some good shots. Other days you don’t bowl quite as well but you get a little bit lucky and get the wickets at the right time and all of a sudden your figures suggest you’ve bowled really well when you haven’t. You have to be realistic and be honest with yourself.
You bowled a real effort delivery to Shreyas Iyer in a match against Delhi Daredevils in April, I don’t know if you remember, it took off the pitch …
I do remember, I remember it really well.
It squared up the batsman, hit his right shoulder …
… Went over the ‘keeper and for four. That’s cricket, isn’t it? You bowl a good delivery and it goes for runs. You say it hit his right shoulder, I thought so too, but the umpire gave it as four runs against my name. That’s how it goes sometimes. It can get frustrating. But the most important thing, for batsman or bowler, is to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of yourself. That ball that I bowled that went for four, the next ball you need to run in and do as good as you can. If you’re thinking of the previous ball or the next ball, you’re not completely focused on what you’re going to do at that moment in time.
You’ve spoken in the past about how you don’t show a lot of emotion while bowling. I hate to break it to you, but in a lot of the IPL photos you have a bit of a resting sad face going on and you look stressed.
Going for runs, which every bowler hates, that really makes my blood boil and my jaw clench. When you’re in the moment, you’re trying so hard to do well for your team. It’s hard for me, even now, to explain how much it annoys me. But if you let your emotions get the better of you, that’s when your performance can go downhill. What happens to me, if I let my emotions show too much, my performance dips. Other people find it helps them. I find it has a detrimental effect on my game so I have to consciously try and keep it bottled up and then reflect after the game.
Your captain Gautam Gambhir didn’t bottle his emotions before the team bowled out Royal Challengers Bangalore for 49 all out. How much effect did his mid-innings chat have?
It helped massively. 130-odd on that wicket was not good enough. So there we were disappointed with our own performance and Gauti got us together before we went out and said, ‘Look, we have our pride at stake, we need to show intent.’ He raised his voice and you could tell how much he meant it. That sparked an urge in the guys to really perform and show some fight. What was really important about that game was we executed our skills very well, bowling and fielding.
But when Gambhir talks about playing for the KKR jersey, how do you buy into that? This isn’t your national team and you’re only here for six weeks.
You have a responsibility. When you’re bought for any amount of money regardless of whether it’s a large or small amount, you have a duty to perform for that team that have shown their faith in you by selecting you. The fans have backed us through thick and thin. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing for – your country, Warwickshire or KKR – I don’t differentiate between the three when it comes to what I put in.
On being part of Kolkata: “Trevor put in a good word. He has spent a lot of time here at KKR. He talks very fondly of his times here, talks highly of the franchise as a family. He said it’s a really good team to be a part of. So when I heard it was KKR who bought me, I was delighted.”
What is it like to be coached by Jacques Kallis, your favourite cricketer?
I try to pick his brains a little bit. JK is a quiet guy but if you get in a conversation with him he can open up and share some really good ideas. He’s been great for the team so far. Very relaxed, calm character, which is a helpful trait to have as a coach. He doesn’t panic because that can spread through the dressing room. Hopefully I can pick his brains some more before I go home. He’s one the best allrounders that ever lived, if not the best. He and Trevor are similar characters: fairly quiet, keep to themselves, but when either speak, the whole team listens up. Pre-chats or team meetings or when we have time-outs for the IPL, he comes out to the field and gets us all in a group and helps us refocus. That’s the only time JK raises his voice because otherwise you can’t hear a word in the middle because it’s so loud!
How will IPL help the England players going forward?
I think it has been very beneficial. It’s good for someone like me to play in front of 60,000 to 70,000 at each game at Eden Gardens, to have that pressure on you with the price tag (Rs. 4.2 crore). Everyone I’ve spoken to, the other England guys, they have thoroughly enjoyed it and feel the experience has been very good for them, cricket-wise. Also, playing white-ball cricket leading into the Champions Trophy will be a huge advantage. In IPL, you play a lot of the guys you’ll playing at there. It’s good to get a quick look at some of the guys I’ll be playing against.
When we finally decide to wrap up, I realise it’s been an hour. Woakes doesn’t immediately rush off, but takes time to say how lovely all this was and a few more kind words before he bids goodbye. I begin to pack up when the waiter walks over with the bill.
Me: 500 rupees? A bit expensive for a cup of green tea, don’t you think?
Waiter: It’s not just the green tea, but your friend’s coffee too.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: That Chris Woakes, how forgetful/rude/positively Machiavellian of him to have me pay for his coffee.
But, wait. Don’t you ever have coffee with a friend and say, ‘Hey, this one’s on me. You can get the next one’. That’s what this was. Obviously. You say you spoke to a cricketer and didn’t pay for his beverage? You’re clearly not friend enough. And he didn’t even have to explicitly say anything because of our telepathic understanding. ESP. We just redefined #FriendshipGoals.
I learn later Woakes paid for his coffee separately too. So it’s a short con by the hotel. Zoinks! Nevertheless, he is apologetic and agrees to keep a cuppa of England’s finest ready for me whenever our paths cross again. Which means we just re-redefined #FriendshipGoals.