Matches (13)
WTC (1)
Charlotte Edwards (2)
Continental Cup (2)
County DIV2 (4)
County DIV1 (4)
News Analysis

Zak Crawley's Ashes SOS - why England have kept the faith

England would not ideally be turning to a batter who averages 11.14 in Tests this year - but their situation is far from ideal

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Zak's back? England could recall Zak Crawley after a month of batting in the nets  •  Getty Images

Zak's back? England could recall Zak Crawley after a month of batting in the nets  •  Getty Images

Zak Crawley was mapping out his route to Test cricket when he was still a teenager. At the time he told a local newspaper about spending the 2017-18 winter in Perth and Pune to improve his game against high pace and quality spin, he had just turned 20 years old and was averaging 15.18 after seven County Championship games for Kent, all in Division Two.
"When I look at top players, they seem to play fast bowling and spin better than everyone else," he said. "Everyone kind of plays a lot of that 80-85mph (129-137kph) bowling but if you can play spin and fast bowling, that can separate you from a few people."
Fast forward two years and Crawley had made one of the most striking maiden international hundreds in recent memory. His 267 at the Ageas Bowl against Pakistan came against an attack featuring arguably the world's best left-arm seamer - and as close to a Mitchell Starc replica as there is in Test cricket - in Shaheen Shah Afridi, and well as Mohammad Abbas' swing and control, Naseem Shah's high pace and Yasir Shah's legspin. "All the nets I'd done, all the times I'd gone on my own to hit some balls - it all seemed worth it," he said.
England have hoped for several years that those attributes mean Crawley will fall into the rare category of batters who average more in Tests than they do in first-class cricket, emulating Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. But with a recall seemingly imminent at the MCG on Boxing Day, he is yet to do so: at the time of his Test debut in New Zealand two years ago, he averaged 30.55 in the Championship; 15 matches into his Test career, he averages 28.34.
That overall average hardly tells the story of Crawley's England career to date. After eight Tests, in which his constant improvement was capped by that 267 against Pakistan, he averaged 48.41; across his seven Tests in 2021, that figure is 11.14, and culminated in him being dropped midway through England's home summer following five dismissals caught behind or in the slip cordon in six innings against New Zealand and India.
But England have kept faith in him, trusting their convictions that he has the raw attributes to become a high-quality Test player. It is easy to see why. He is naturally more aggressive than Dom Sibley - who, unlike Crawley, was omitted from the Ashes squad after being dropped last summer. His height makes him better-equipped to play short bowling than Haseeb Hameed - who, unlike Crawley, does not hold an England central contract. And his technique is orthodox and simple compared to Rory Burns - who is reportedly the most likely man to drop out of the side at the MCG.
All the while, Crawley's Championship average has hardly changed: in 2021, he made 637 runs at 33.52 for Kent. Not that it will overly concern him. "In county cricket, do you prepare for Darren Stevens and the medium-pacers that are just wreaking havoc in that? That's not going to prepare you for international cricket," Rob Key, Crawley's mentor, said last year.
Data used by the ECB in selection meetings highlights the discrepancies between the Championship and Test cricket: spinners bowl around one-fifth of overs in the Championship, compared to two-fifths in Tests; around one-fifth of overs by seamers in the Championship are bowled in excess of 83mph/134kph, compared to three-fifths in Tests.
"When you then compare that to, say, Ashes cricket," Mo Bobat, the ECB's performance director, has said, "those levels and intensities go up again. And then on top of that you have the pressure, the scrutiny, the expectations - in many cases, it's a different game. We know that a county batting average does not significantly predict an international batting average."
David Court, the ECB player identification lead, noted last year: "[Crawley] didn't play for England Under-19s. He's obviously really progressed. One of our continued challenges is to keep looking at that potential, and asking: 'what are the attributes required to be successful in international cricket?'"
Even when he was dropped in midsummer after a run of 10 single-figure scores in 14 innings, England were positive about his prospects. "Zak is still a massive part of our plans moving forward," Chris Silverwood said at the time. "He has a bright future and I do not doubt that his time will come again in the Test arena."
Crawley has been dominant against the short ball in Tests after a nervy start against Kagiso Rabada in his second game: according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, he has been dismissed only twice in 296 balls from seamers that pitched short of a good length, scoring 140 runs in the process. If that bodes well against Australia's seamers, it should be tempered by an average of 21.20 against spin - though facing Nathan Lyon in Melbourne will be a markedly different challenge to Axar Patel and R Ashwin in Ahmedabad.
Ideally, England would not find themselves turning to a batter averaging 11.14 this year in order to save a series but at 2-0 down away from home, nothing about their situation is ideal. Instead, they are trusting the scouting systems that identified Crawley as a batter with a high ceiling, and hoping that a single innings of 45 in an intra-squad game and a month in the nets is enough for him to thrive amid the pressure of a huge Boxing Day crowd.
Crawley said earlier this summer that he had "drawn a line" under his struggles against left-arm spin in Asia and must do the same after his lean summer. Like many batters, he has videos of his best innings saved on his phone; highlights of his 267 will make good Christmas Day viewing as he prepares for another opportunity in an England shirt.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98