England would not ideally be turning to a batter who averages 11.14 in Tests this year – but their situation is far from ideal
“When I look at top players, they seem to play fast bowling and spin better than everyone else,” he said. “Everyone kind of plays a lot of that 80-85mph (129-137kph) bowling but if you can play spin and fast bowling, that can separate you from a few people.”
Fast forward two years and Crawley had made one of the most striking maiden international hundreds in recent memory. His 267 at the Ageas Bowl against Pakistan came against an attack featuring arguably the world’s best left-arm seamer – and as close to a Mitchell Starc replica as there is in Test cricket – in Shaheen Shah Afridi, and well as Mohammad Abbas’ swing and control, Naseem Shah’s high pace and Yasir Shah’s legspin. “All the nets I’d done, all the times I’d gone on my own to hit some balls – it all seemed worth it,” he said.
That overall average hardly tells the story of Crawley’s England career to date. After eight Tests, in which his constant improvement was capped by that 267 against Pakistan, he averaged 48.41; across his seven Tests in 2021, that figure is 11.14, and culminated in him being dropped midway through England’s home summer following five dismissals caught behind or in the slip cordon in six innings against New Zealand and India.
But England have kept faith in him, trusting their convictions that he has the raw attributes to become a high-quality Test player. It is easy to see why. He is naturally more aggressive than Dom Sibley – who, unlike Crawley, was omitted from the Ashes squad after being dropped last summer. His height makes him better-equipped to play short bowling than Haseeb Hameed – who, unlike Crawley, does not hold an England central contract. And his technique is orthodox and simple compared to Rory Burns – who is reportedly the most likely man to drop out of the side at the MCG.
All the while, Crawley’s Championship average has hardly changed: in 2021, he made 637 runs at 33.52 for Kent. Not that it will overly concern him. “In county cricket, do you prepare for Darren Stevens and the medium-pacers that are just wreaking havoc in that? That’s not going to prepare you for international cricket,” Rob Key, Crawley’s mentor, said last year.
“When you then compare that to, say, Ashes cricket,” Mo Bobat, the ECB’s performance director, has said, “those levels and intensities go up again. And then on top of that you have the pressure, the scrutiny, the expectations – in many cases, it’s a different game. We know that a county batting average does not significantly predict an international batting average.”
Even when he was dropped in midsummer after a run of 10 single-figure scores in 14 innings, England were positive about his prospects. “Zak is still a massive part of our plans moving forward,” Chris Silverwood said at the time. “He has a bright future and I do not doubt that his time will come again in the Test arena.”
Crawley has been dominant against the short ball in Tests after a nervy start against Kagiso Rabada in his second game: according to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, he has been dismissed only twice in 296 balls from seamers that pitched short of a good length, scoring 140 runs in the process. If that bodes well against Australia’s seamers, it should be tempered by an average of 21.20 against spin – though facing Nathan Lyon in Melbourne will be a markedly different challenge to Axar Patel and R Ashwin in Ahmedabad.
Ideally, England would not find themselves turning to a batter averaging 11.14 this year in order to save a series but at 2-0 down away from home, nothing about their situation is ideal. Instead, they are trusting the scouting systems that identified Crawley as a batter with a high ceiling, and hoping that a single innings of 45 in an intra-squad game and a month in the nets is enough for him to thrive amid the pressure of a huge Boxing Day crowd.
Crawley said earlier this summer that he had “drawn a line” under his struggles against left-arm spin in Asia and must do the same after his lean summer. Like many batters, he has videos of his best innings saved on his phone; highlights of his 267 will make good Christmas Day viewing as he prepares for another opportunity in an England shirt.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98