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Ollie Pope: Zak Crawley is capable of a run-a-ball Ashes hundred

Vice-captain backs team-mate to turn on the style at some point in coming series

Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope celebrate the moment of victory at The Oval, England vs South Africa, 3rd Test, 5th day, The Oval, September 12, 2022

Zak Crawley's brisk half-century helped England to victory in record speed against South Africa at The Oval last summer  •  Getty Images

Ollie Pope has backed Zak Crawley to make an impression in the Ashes, believing the England opener can strike a run-a-ball hundred against Australia's much-vaunted attack.
Crawley remains a point of contention in a team that has won 11 out of their last 13 Tests under Ben Stokes' captaincy. He's been a constant selection since the start of last summer, but heads into the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston this week averaging just 27.69 in that period. There have been just four scores above fifty - including a century against Pakistan back in December - the last of which came against Ireland at Lord's last week.
Stokes and head coach Brendon McCullum remain huge advocates of the 25-year-old, citing his potential as a reason not to judge him solely on output. During a poor run last summer, McCullum stated that Crawley's skillset "is not to be a consistent cricketer", encouraging him to continue playing his way at the top of the order for the team's good.
And last week at Lord's, faced with an 11-run chase in the fourth innings against Ireland, Stuart Broad related how the talk in the innings break had been about the possibility of Crawley winning the game with consecutive sixes. "The conversation in that 10 minutes was 'can you do it two balls?'" he said. "Don't take four overs, don't worry about getting out ..." In the end, Crawley sealed the chase with three fours in four balls.
Such sentiments are echoed by Pope. Though the vice-captain cedes Crawley himself has not been happy with his returns so far, Pope feels the Ashes, and the bowlers England will face, provides the perfect opportunity for the Kent batter to show just how high his ceiling really is.
"The player that Zak is, he could have a tough first game, have a tough first innings of a second game and then go and blast a hundred off a hundred, because he's got the ability to do that against Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Scott Boland, Nathan Lyon - these guys," said Pope. "That's the exciting thing about Zak as a player - you know he can take the game and, in the space of a session, set the tone or break the back of a run-chase.
"We chat about it openly and he wouldn't mind me saying - there have been times when he hasn't scored the weight of runs that he has wanted. But there have also been times where he has played some knocks that have gone under the radar. He's scored his three hundreds (in his career) but he's also had a lot of big knocks at the top of the order."
Pope cites knocks against India and South Africa last year as examples of Crawley's under-rated contributions. The former was 46 at Edgbaston, part of an opening stand of 107 with Alex Lees, which provided a platform for a chase of 378. The latter was 38 from 101 deliveries in the second Test against South Africa that, following centuries from Stokes and Ben Foakes, led to a first innings of 415 for 9 declared that England were able to fashion into an innings victory to square the series at Old Trafford.
There is also Crawley's only score of note against Australia, a 77 compiled at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It is this knock, against Cummins, Starc, Boland and Green, that coaches and team-mates believe showcase the scale of Crawley's ability, more so than the 267 against Pakistan in 2020. "He's obviously a player who can deal with 90mph bowling at his head," said Pope on that innings.
Crawley is clearly at the end of his tether with constant criticism of his selection. Last month he stated he did not care for the views of "the average punter" questioning his place on social media. That noise will only get louder with the heightened interest in the Ashes bringing greater scrutiny.
Pope sympathised with his team-mate's situation and feels greater focus on the five matches against Australia should not make the next six weeks the be-all and end-all. Not just for Crawley, but for the rest of an England side angling to claim the urn for the first time since 2015.
"Firstly, Zak is a top bloke and a very well-liked bloke in the changing room," Pope said. "There's a lot of media around it, because of the numbers. There's been a lot of chat. Coming in after someone like Alastair Cook and the way he played - what a legend of the game he is, averaged 40-odd - there's probably a bit of a stereotype maybe as to that England opening spot, you need to be averaging 40 and batting this way.
"Just because it is an Ashes series, there's more on it because there are more public eyes watching. But it doesn't have to be a make-or-break series. There's pressure on us all going into this series. We're playing one of the best teams in the world in our home conditions, so we're desperate for everyone to do well. But at the same time, if it doesn't go to plan, what we've done as a team in the last year and a bit ... for nobody is it a make-or-break series."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo