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Match Analysis

The bell still tolls for Zak Crawley, despite vital return on investment

Opener shows his mettle at the last, but needs to learn the lessons of a tough summer

Zak Crawley emerges to finish England's run-chase on the final morning  •  Getty Images

Zak Crawley emerges to finish England's run-chase on the final morning  •  Getty Images

At 11.26am at the start of the working week, Zak Crawley hit a cover-drive off the back foot that took England to a fourth-innings chase of 130 to win the decider against South Africa. The decider was done in two days and 25 minutes - at 909 deliveries, it was the shortest completed Test since 1912 - and capped a three-match series that spanned just nine days, and could easily have fitted into seven.
There are a few double-take moments in there, the least of them being a Crawley cover-drive. He hits them well, better than most. Well enough to have some of the best players in this England team fawning over it and telling you about it ahead of each of his 13 innings this summer. Because they had to, until today.
With 69 not out in a chase of 130 to close out an engaging Test summer, Crawley finally has something to hold on to this summer. Something more tangible than the consistent praise from those around him that was beginning to sound a little patronising, and not only because of his own slack performance. Since his 121 in the Caribbean back in March Crawley has played 17 innings, of which 10 have been single-figures and none until Monday were over fifty. An eighth score of 50 or more in 51 innings is not much for some. But where Crawley is concerned, it seems not merely to be enough, but an opportunity for a bit of "told you, didn't we?"
"I can categorically say that, at no stage throughout the whole summer, have I doubted Zak Crawley opening the batting," Ben Stokes, England's captain, said, while Brendon McCullum told BBC Test Match Special: "What we saw from Zak in the last innings is what he's capable of achieving."
That two of the most powerful people in English cricket are also two of Crawley's biggest hype-men is not for nothing. And as much as the cute thing to say here is that their faith has been repaid, the truth is Crawley is still indebted to just how much his captain and head coach have invested in him.
During a team golf trip last month, McCullum and Stokes decided to rig a three-ball so that they could play alongside Crawley. The 18 holes were basically an unwinding exercise for a 24-year-old player who has long had a reputation for level-headedness. And it was only back in the clubhouse after a few beers that Crawley finally opened up about how he was starting to lose his equilibrium.
It was an instructive conversation for both captain and coach, because they each took different things out of it. Stokes saw a young cricketer willing to show a bit of vulnerability. McCullum saw someone on the edge. And while the former was empathetic to his state of mind, the latter saw an opportunity. McCullum, for all his free-spirit encouragement, has one unwavering belief: you see what a person is truly made of when they have nothing left to lose.
Maybe it's a bit excessive, perhaps a bit too "THIS IS SPARTA" for a sport that hides away when it rains. But McCullum, and by proxy Stokes, have spent the past few months waiting for an explosion that came in the last throes of the most engaging summer of the modern era. For the first time this season, Crawley was able to showcase not just the drives but the pull shots, too: off front and back foot, against an attack that should have known better.
Kagiso Rabada, a great in waiting and, here, South Africa's player of the series, was treated with particular disdain. Of Crawley's 12 boundaries, seven came off Rabada's 36 deliveries between the two, which were taken for 41 runs. Arguably the heartiest ovation of day four came when he flicked the quick off his toes to pass fifty. Stokes was leading the cheers from the dressing-room. By contrast, that final drive through the off side to win the game less than 24 hours later was given cursory applause, as if we shouldn't have expected anything less.
"What we've seen yesterday and this morning of Zak is what we know that he can produce," Stokes said after the match. "You flip that around to the innings he played in Manchester [38 off 101 deliveries]. He's someone who can read the situation and know what is required of him in different times, different situations and different conditions.
"For him to walk off at the end of this innings not out, leading us to victory, is something you want to see your younger guys doing. Guys who may feel like they're under pressure, that innings last night and walking off here would have given Zak a huge amount of confidence within himself. He knows he's got the confidence and the backing of the dressing-room but there can always be that self-doubt when things aren't going your way. But the way he went out and played yesterday was just awesome."
There is a bit of mayo on that, of course. As there is when McCullum said he will learn a lot from these innings and develop more consistency, despite having already gone on the record this summer to suggest that Crawley is exempt from such judgment. The upsides, they feel, are worth the lows. After making 46 in a 107-run opening stand with Alex Lees against India in the successful chase of 378, this was a far more assertive, far more alpha flexing in a partnership of 108 with the same partner that, but for bad light, could have finished the chase on Sunday night.
Indeed, the red-inker leaves us in an intriguing situation. Because while Crawley has absolutely benefitted from the affections of Stokes and McCullum, along with the presence of long-time confidant Rob Key as managing director of the whole operation, he has, eventually, emerged with a passable set of stats for the summer. His haul of 276 runs at 23 doesn't stack up too badly against the 23.46 average of all the other openers in England in 2022 (Lees, Will Young, Tom Latham, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sarel Erwee and Dean Elgar, who made 915 runs combined).
That's not to say we should revere such middling figures, but there should at least be an acknowledgement of a tricky profession in the trickiest environment, whether you think the man himself is equipped enough to do the job in the first place.
Neither Stokes nor McCullum were willing to extend summer guarantees into the winter. Both, in their own ways, spoke of the need for flexibility in the different conditions Pakistan will represent. In the meantime, there is scope to de-stress, declutter and reflect on a summer like no other. And, in many ways, it will be a summer from which Crawley needs to learn much about himself, in a bid to put it behind him.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo