Zak Crawley bats like no one is watching

As sport continued through the Covid-19 pandemic, a quirk that emerged throughout was how much more attacking teams and players were behind closed doors. The lack of a crowd meant the pressure was a little less, the nerves a lot more manageable, and thus the barriers to accessing peak performance significantly reduced.

The 2020-21 Premier League season was the first in any division in the top four tiers of English football history to see more away wins (153) than home wins (144) as teams felt more at ease in previously unwelcoming grounds. During the NBA bubble season, overall free throw percentages rose from 77.1 per cent to 80.6. Even Dwight Howard, regarded as one of the most unreliable shooters in the game, saw his free-throw numbers rise significantly from 49.4 per cent to 61.8. And in the 2020 English summer, Zak Crawley, a first-class average of 30.51 with just three centuries in 73 innings behind him, struck a ridiculous 267 against Pakistan at an empty Ageas Bowl.

This was a 22-year-old Crawley’s eighth Test, and as with most of that age, experience and a middling domestic red-ball record, he came into the knock as a nebulous concept. Tall, languid, capable of timing the ball so well you could set your watch by his drives on the up. His Kent teammates spoke of a world-beater in the nets. Some of the wisest sages further afield reckoned he was the kind of opener capable of laying waste to opposition attacks. And that August, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas and Naseem Shah, found out all about it.

For a bit, anyway. It did not take long for Crawley to return to being a concept. Someone else’s idea of excellence that the rest of us were too dumb to see. A self-driving car of a batter who could change your world, just ignore those false starts and crashes among the 29 caps leading on from that knock and into this fourth Test against Australia. A period which did house two more centuries but, more pertinently, a damning average of 24.34.

And while there were flashes of bits here and there, such as the 77 in the second innings at Sydney in the 2021-22 Ashes, each innings beyond that Pakistan knock gave further cause to regard it as an anomaly. If Zak Crawley scores 267 at the Ageas Bowl and no one’s around to see it, does it actually count?

However, since the start of last summer, things have been a little different. The change of captain and coach was not just in personnel but in attitude. Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum align on many things, but most important was the need to strip away the bits of being an English Test cricketer that had weighed heavy on so many. Messaging became more positive and selection less about immediate judgement and more about loyalty. As far as scrutiny, there was little inside the walls of the dressing room and anything outside was dismissed out of hand. Ignore the noise, ignore the trolls, ignore your own numbers. Ultimately, bat like no one is watching.

No player was given as much of all that as Crawley. Indeed there were times it felt the bigger decisions made – dropping Alex Lees at the end of the 2022 summer when he averaged (slightly) better than Crawley; bringing Jonny Bairstow back in as wicketkeeper at the expense of Ben Foakes when someone else could have averaged the 25.86 Crawley did coming into this summer under Stokes – were made for the Kent batter’s benefit. Sure, high ceilings, a streaky player, capable of taking the game away from teams and blah, blah, blah. But when do we see this upside? Having paid out in instalments over the last few weeks, with solid starts and nothing more, when was the jackpot going to hit?

Well here, today. Thursday, July 20, to be exact. Day two of this fixture, when England had to best Australia and the weather to keep the Ashes alive and Crawley emerged as this freakish elemental presence. A devastating 189 from 182 deliveries making both factors obsolete and with a kind of other-worldly domination of an Australian attack that we have not seen since Kevin Pietersen first strolled onto the scene.

Crawley did it in the way they told us he would; 24 boundaries, most struck with a degree of permanence. Some were scuffed just past his stumps or beyond the grasps of wicketkeeper Alex Carey or those in the slips. He was given out leg before on 20 but saved himself with a review. Reminders of who we knew him to be, and how this could be fleeting.

Except it wasn’t. It kept going, on and on and on, laying waste to a vaunted attack, as they said he would. An innings of ludicrous harmony and infectious rhythm that kept the crowd at a peak for the entire last two sessions, as if they were listening to their favourite song on repeat. A song made up entirely of drops and choruses.

It started, in earnest, once he had reached his half-century from 67 deliveries. He needed just 26 more to move to a fourth Test hundred and in turn, the second-fastest century by an England opener. The first? That belongs to him as well, after an 86-ball effort on the opening day of the first Test in Pakistan back in December.

The beginning of that move from 50 to 100 real quick was set off by a slog-swept six. A second – off the same shot – brought up a century stand with Joe Root from 82 deliveries. The third, a KP-esque short-arm pick-up over wide long on off Mitchell Marsh, who dismissed Crawley twice at Headingley, took England into the lead with a statement. This isn’t about you. None of this is about you.

It’s worth noting those sixes were Crawley’s first of the Bazball era. For a player encouraged to dominate, he has never been asked to veer from his natural game to do so. Indeed, the only time McCullum has challenged Crawley is when he fell to a sweep against Keshav Maharaj during the first South Africa Test at Lord’s last summer. McCullum’s issue was this was not a shot he has seen Crawley practice.

Therefore it was neat to see Crawley move to fifty with a reverse sweep off Travis Head’s off spin, a shot he has dedicated huge amounts of time to in the nets. Yes, he has been cut a lot of slack. But it’s important to note, even if it may not be relevant to your own opinions about Crawley, that he has been desperate not to waste it. He knows just how lucky he is.

“It’s fair to say that under any other coach or captain I probably wouldn’t be playing this series,” said Crawley at stumps. “So, to be backed by them gives me a lot of confidence. They’ve always said not to worry about being consistent, just to go out and try to win games for England. It would be really nice if we win this game and I’ve contributed to that but there’s a long way to go.”

That England already look like dwarfing Australia’s 317, leading by 67 with Stokes and Harry Brook set at the crease going into day three, is largely down to him. Particularly a second session of 25 overs in which Crawley conducted the mother of all assaults. England scored 178 for 1, at a strike rate of 7.12 an over, heading into tea trailing by 78. And guess who scored 106 of them? Off 82 deliveries, no less.

The way he dovetailed with Moeen Ali for 121, then Root for 206, spoke in its own way of Crawley’s feel for the game. The latter of the two stands was when he felt most comfortable; a period after the century was brought up in which he found new levels of liberation.

He apologised for any arrogance when stating “it wasn’t actually that easy to score at times”, wary it sounded a lot like a humble brag after you’ve strummed England’s highest individual score in a home Ashes Test since Nasser Hussain doubled up in 1997. Especially as he battered one of the most remarkable pace attacks in the world, making a group of six-foot-plus quicks sending down near-ninety miles of heat his way look too samey.

By the end, Pat Cummins looked like a man desperate for the ground to open up and swallow him, though there was no guarantee Crawley wouldn’t hit one hard enough to find him down there.

Crawley acknowledged that luck was on his side, but it’s worth looking around that for now because he did so. He has developed a knack of ignoring the noise, even if there have been the odd jibes at punters and their opinions on his underperformance heading into this series. On 93, he drove loosely over the slips to oohs, before eliciting aaahs with a stunning cover drive on the up to move to 97.

A scuffed shot over cover for two brought up the century, which was not greeted with much beyond a sheepish grin and dollops of relief. Root was quickly on the scene to embrace his partner, before giving him room to further salute a crowded balcony and an Emirates Old Trafford ground with everyone on their feet having been glued to their seats. He batted like none of them were watching, and in doing so gave them one of England’s most dominant days in any Ashes series.

It is rare the upside is as good as they say it will be. Rare such investment reaps such spectacular dividends when you need it most.

Only a fool would say this is the beginning of something special. Because by all accounts, this kind of special wouldn’t be that if we expected it every time. And fundamentally, yesterday’s Crawley is not today’s Crawley.

But today’s Crawley has put England in a commanding position to make it 2-2 in the Ashes and given all who were here memories to carry into tomorrow and beyond.

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