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Zak Crawley: 'It's been the worst summer I've ever had'

England opener hopes he's turned a corner after back-to-back fifties for England and Kent

Zak Crawley made an important 79 to help keep Kent in the First Division  •  Getty Images

Zak Crawley made an important 79 to help keep Kent in the First Division  •  Getty Images

"'Up and down' is generous - I think it was more just down!"
Zak Crawley is speaking at the end of day two of Kent's final County Championship match against Somerset at Canterbury. Division One survival has already been secured via bonus points, following an early declaration from Warwickshire, who need to force victory against Hampshire at Edgbaston to avoid the drop themselves.
Crawley played his part on that front, making an engaging 79 in Kent's first innings which, as part of an opening stand of 176 with Tawanda Muyeye, laid the groundwork for their overnight total of 405 for seven. Coming off the back of the 69 not out that helped England secure a 2-1 series victory against South Africa in the final Test at the Kia Oval, it might be tempting to suggest that he's rediscovered his touch.
The man himself, however, isn't quite ready to embrace that claim fully. This was, after all, just a fourth half-century in the Championship and fifth overall in red-ball cricket this summer. It is now 34 innings, split evenly between international and domestic cricket, since Crawley's last first-class century - against West Indies in Antigua back in March.
"It's been a tough year - probably my worst summer I've ever had," Crawley says, matter-of-factly. There is, however, a degree of satisfaction that he made it out the other end.
"I'm pleased with myself that I could bounce back ," he adds. "I always thought I would, so it's fine - it just took longer than I thought. It's nice to find some rhythm and take a bit of confidence into the winter. Hopefully, all being well, I get picked in those squads."
The squads he speaks of are those for Pakistan (three Tests) and then New Zealand (two). His uncertainty is understandable having averaged just 23 for the Test summer, bolstered by that healthy red-inker in the last of 13 innings. He was averaging just 17.25 in the 12 Tests leading up to it, and knows he is under pressure for his place from the likes of Nottinghamshire's Ben Duckett and Lancashire's Keaton Jennings, not to mention the precocious Harry Brook, who is currently impressing for the white-ball side out in Pakistan after a summer spent carrying drinks for all but the final Test.
Crawley, however, believes he is finishing the season with renewed confidence, and that was particularly evident during this latest knock for Kent. All 13 of his boundaries were sweet, and he was particularly devastating on the pull shot - the very shot with which the Crawley infatuation began, from his days as a Kent Academy kid in the nets through to the 2021-22 Ashes and a pull shot off Mitchell Starc at Sydney that his England team-mates still talk of as if it were their own. And, as in that Sydney innings, a three-figure score looked nailed on until a Green seamer prised him out in the 70s - Cameron Green for 77 on that occasion, Somerset's Ben Green for 79 today.
Of course, you learn more from failure, and by his own admission, Crawley has had plenty to digest on that front: "I've learned an awful lot - mainly what not to do." Having had some time to adjust since that last Test knock on September 12 - he only started hitting balls again a couple of days ago - he can reflect more honestly about the missteps.
"When I was out of nick, I was putting restrictions on where I could score," he admits. "I was getting more and more negative, in my shell.
"It might not have come across like that in some of the shots I was playing," he laughed. "But I find when I'm negative, I don't move my feet very well, I'm not moving my body, so it comes across as loose shots. When I'm moving well, I'm getting in good positions and hitting those balls for four. It's more of a mindset thing and positivity thing and stuff around my practice as well that I got slightly wrong as well, I feel."
The mention of practice is instructive. For a time during his struggles with England this summer, the only thing point the management feared he might be losing his sense of self came in August. In the lead-up to the Lord's Test, head coach Brendon McCullum questioned why Crawley was focusing so much on the sweep shot in the nets and worried he was getting lost in his own head. The balls he was trying to sweep were ones he would usually launch back down the ground. Sure enough, in the second innings of that first Test against South Africa, Crawley dropped to one knee against the left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj and was trapped lbw for 13.
It's hard not to empathise with Crawley around stuff like this, even if you feel he has been afforded a luxury of persistent selection unheard of in recent times. Because, as much as Ben Stokes and McCullum have bigged him up publicly and privately, he admits to finding aspects of the new ethos they were pushing hard to grasp. The evidence of the summer suggested that positivity was the only way to go - four chases on the bounce against New Zealand (three) and India (one), followed by two strong performances to overturn the only defeat of the summer at the hands of South Africa - but Crawley himself found he was struggling to commit. Something he now regrets.
"I've learned a lot from [McCullum and Stokes] this year about the way they play the game, the positive mindset and backing yourself. They are two champions of that, aren't they?
"It finally clicked towards the end of the summer, the messaging they were trying to give. I couldn't fully… I felt under pressure for my place so it's hard fully to buy into that. I wish I had bought into it from the start now."
There was no particular lightbulb moment, Crawley insists, although McCullum's summer-long determination to unlock the enjoyment within the England squad did appear to pay off at the bitter end.
"It was more of a gradual, over time, just decided I've got to back myself here," Crawley said. "It's a mental game at the end of the day, so if you back yourself to score runs, you're going to score runs more often than not.
"I feel like I was just tentative this year. And I decided towards the back end I was going to stop being tentative, and I've played a bit better."
He still potentially has one more innings this summer, though that is largely dependent on a Somerset second-innings fightback (they currently trail by 203) and the weather not interfering. Nevertheless, a return to some semblance of form, the boost of keeping Kent up, and the small comfort of moving past 3,000 first-class runs for the county could be the silver lining to a tough six months.
"We'll see what happens," Crawley says. "I've got a lot of confidence going forward and in this new way I've been playing towards the end, a bit more positively. That suits me more."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo