Zak Crawley: 'I don't need to work on my defence, I just need to back myself'
Opener adamant that his game can come good for the Ashes after latest lean spell
It was in the aftermath of England's one-run defeat in the second Test against New Zealand in February that Brendon McCullum sat with the travelling press pack to once again back Zak Crawley.
The 25-year-old opener had struggled in that fortnight, returning just 58 runs from four innings at an average of 14.50. Off the back of a Pakistan series that began with scores of 122 and 50 in the first of those three Tests, the questions around his place in an otherwise barnstorming XI were a redux of those that were had after a tough 2022 summer.
The answers were the same as well, with McCullum unequivocally stating Crawley was his man: talk of high ceilings and a knack of putting opposition attacks under pressure. There was, however, one important piece of advice from the head coach: "You have to suck up the low scores. But the thing he can't do is tweak and alter things too much because then you are trying to catch form."
McCullum went on: "That is the challenge for Zak and we have had those conversations. He is fully on board and he has to trust in the game he has. His attacking game is much stronger than his defensive game, so he needs to start from a position from attack rather than looking to defend and, if he does that, who knows what he can achieve. We will find out, I guess."
Fast forward almost exactly a month, on the last Friday in March at a wet Spitfire Ground in Canterbury, it seems Crawley is taking that advice. The first ball of the 2023 season, which contains the huge carrot of an Ashes series, is still two weeks away from being sent down. But the Kent batter is in defiant move to prove his coach and his captain, Ben Stokes, right. And in turn, his doubters wrong.
"It gets talked about like it's very easy, opening the batting, which makes me smile," Crawley said on Friday morning. "I take it in my stride and try to score runs every time I go out to bat."
Most notably, when asked about his defensive technique and whether that needed honing before Australia come to town, armed with a new and potentially improved batch of red Dukes balls, he was keen to set something straight.
"I have got a good defensive technique," Crawley said. "When you are playing against the best sides in the world it might look like it's not. It's not something I need to work on. It's something I need to keep backing. The same as my aggressive game."
There are two things to take from that. The first is that he is probably right. In terms of Crawley's defences being literally breached, he's been bowled nine times out of 60 innings, or 15 percent, with the same number of lbws. His main downfall - not that McCullum and Stokes regard batters getting out in that term - has been caught, behind or otherwise, which makes up 40 of those dismissals.
The second is that Crawley has never seemed more determined to do things his own way. Already 33 caps into his Test career this period since the beginning of last summer - averaging 25.86 in 12 Tests - has seen him develop a hardness as the struggler in an otherwise successful batting line-up.
"It's nice when people back you and think you're a good player," he replied, when McCullum's words from Wellington were relayed back to him. "I've had a lot of support from a lot of people about my game but, most importantly, you've got to back yourself or it's not going to work.
"I certainly do. It hasn't gone perfectly the last year but I've had some good knocks. I've got two hundreds last year [against West Indies in March and Pakistan in December]. I was in the top 10 run-scorers. But that probably wasn't portrayed in how I was spoken about in the press. But there's ups and downs in anyone's career, and especially opening the batting, and I back myself and keep batting every time."
What talk there has been of replacements has come almost entirely from outside the camp. The looming return of Jonny Bairstow poses various different scenarios, such as Harry Brook taking his stellar form to the top of the order or even the wildcard choice of Ben Stokes assuming the role. And yet, while the numbers don't suggest it, Crawley continues to be heralded as the totem of a side who are breaking records, winning the battle for eyes and on a run of 10 victories from 12 matches.
There does, though, have to be a solution to this lean trot. And even amid the fighting talk, Crawley admits that, perhaps, his issues have come from doubling-down too far - not so much losing his sense of self, but almost trying to adhere to a caricature of what he is about when he is at his best: a domineering shotmaker.
"I feel like I've made the mistake of taking it too far at times and so have some of the other batsman," he said. "The thing that England are doing so well batting-wise, in terms of Brook at the moment and Joe [Root], they're very smart about it, how aggressive they are.
"But they're not seeing the work that they do between those periods of aggression, where they're seeing out good spells. That doesn't get talked about, but that's where the balance is key and that's where you feel your best.
"Everyone concentrates on their own game, I concentrate on my own game. We all chat cricket but I'm not going to score any runs trying to bat like Harry Brook or trying to bat like Joe Root. The only way I'm going to score runs is to bat how I've done at my best throughout my career, and that's what I try and do."
As for the Ashes, Crawley wants to resume the spot as opener that, so far, has been cordoned off for him. He knows runs for Kent will be required to secure it outright if he is to make it to "the pinnacle" of playing in "the biggest rivalry in Test cricket". He had a healthy taste of it in 2021-22, being drafted in for the last three Tests with a highlight of 77 in the second innings at Sydney - the only one of the five matches England did not lose. That experience showed him just how big a deal it is.
"I certainly felt in in the Ashes Down Under, there was a lot more hype around it and it was just bigger and there seemed to be more media," he said. "I got more nervous for it, it almost felt like my debut again, so I suppose that answers it, there is just a bigger hype around it and rightly so."
More media and bigger hype means greater scrutiny, something he is evidently ready to meet head-on. Even at the age of 25, with time to come again in the future, we are entering into a make-or-break summer for England and this iteration of Crawley. For a person regarded as something of a gentle giant, his demeanour right now is of a cricketer who is sick of the barbs and more motivated than ever to get it right.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo