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Match Analysis

Zak Crawley makes his mark to begin his repayment of the faith

First century since 267 against Pakistan serves timely reminder of young batter's potential

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Zak Crawley made his second Test hundred  •  AFP/Getty Images

Zak Crawley made his second Test hundred  •  AFP/Getty Images

The stats don't lie. At least, not when you accept them as indicators of an underlying truth, rather than an irrefutable end in themselves. When England's second innings got underway in Antigua, just three balls and 18 minutes into the third day's play, and with a deficit of 64 to surmount, a graphic flashed up on the TV screens that warned of the potential jeopardy in store.
It showed a list of England's top-order collapses in 2021 - a hammer-horror of batting dysfunction, featuring each of the eight occasions in that year's 15 Tests in which they had lost their first five wickets for 67 runs or fewer.
And when it came to England visits to the Caribbean, that batting malaise had even deeper roots. On their previous trip in 2019, Joe Root's men were rolled aside for 77 en route to a thumping defeat in the opening Test. Ten years prior to that, England had been routed for 51 by Jerome Taylor and Suliemann Benn on the fourth afternoon of the series opener, eventually losing by an innings in 33.2 overs from an unnervingly similar position - a first-innings deficit of 74.
And so when Alex Lees departed for his second single-figure score of his debut Test, it's fair to suggest that English optimism was in short supply. Zak Crawley had already survived a triggering of his own after all - and for all that his first-over lbw verdict was one of the worst of a substandard match for the umpires, his haul of 11 single-figure scores in 16 innings in 2021 was hardly a reason to believe that his reprieve would be a long-term one.
But by the close of an unfamiliarly serene day's batting from England, Crawley had racked up his second Test hundred, passed 1000 runs in the process, hauled his average back above 30 for good measure, and shown enough class and durability in his 200-ball stay to awaken thoughts that his career-best 267 could yet be at his mercy if he shows sufficient hunger on what looks now to be the deadest day five of a Test match since… well, since last week.
For those stats don't lie. No player who, at the age of 22, can convert his maiden Test hundred into the sort of whopper that Crawley compiled against Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl in 2020 can possibly be written off barely 18 months later. And given the ebbs and flows of both form and luck that all established players must endure in the course of their international careers, there's no way either that he'll look back in a decade's time, on this century or his Southampton epic, and think, "well, that was a complete road, it doesn't really count".
For this performance deserves to be viewed within the context of England's rebuild, as well as the realities of a lifeless deck. In the whole of the team's desperate 2021, there had been a solitary century from a player not called Joe Root - and that man, Rory Burns, no longer merits a place in the squad after his defenestration in the Ashes.
By the time Crawley had nudged Jayden Seales through midwicket for his milestone-sealing runs, England had posted a centurion in both the first and second innings of a Test for the first time since their tour of Sri Lanka in 2018. The fact that Root was not the man to three figures on either occasion would hardly be a cause for celebration if it meant that he was also desperately out of form. But given that he finished his own solid day's work on 84 not out, the chances are that he could yet follow suit on Saturday morning. From a first-day nadir of 48 for 4, the batting aspect of England's reset couldn't really have progressed more exponentially.
"Oh, that's right up there, it was really special feeling when I got it," Crawley told BT Sport at the close. "I had a tough year last year and probably at times didn't think I'd get this opportunity again, so I'm absolutely delighted and pleased we're in a good position to win tomorrow."
That latter assessment might be stretching the bounds of optimism - especially given the mixed status reports about Mark Wood's dodgy elbow. But with a lead of 153 already banked and nine wickets left to push it further, there will undoubtedly be the chance to have a dart with a new ball at some stage on the final afternoon, and maybe even come up with a more threatening response than Chris Woakes and Craig Overton managed in their off-colour opening gambit.
But for now, England can content themselves with something resembling a feelgood factor in the most troubling facet of their current Test game. All things being equal, they will pass 300 in their second innings of the match, having failed to make that mark in ten attempts in the Ashes. Stiffer tests will lie ahead, maybe even as soon as in Barbados next week, but having found his place in the team untenable last summer, after averaging 10.81 in his first eight Tests of the year, the self-belief that Crawley will have gleaned from this chance is immeasurable.
"When I got taken out the team they said I had a big future which I was very thankful for," Crawley said. "It gave me a lot of confidence. I was thankful they picked me for the Ashes, it's a dream come true. I always believed in myself that I would come again. Maybe not so soon, but I knew I was young and I had a chance to come again."
Given the air of reticence that has dominated England's top three for the past decade, the optics of Crawley's batting have long made an irresistible case for his defence. Where his contemporaries have all died in a ditch - especially Dom Sibley last summer, whose only remaining shot against India had been an uncomfortable shovel off the legs, and Haseeb Hameed in Australia, a tour for which his selection was borderline negligence - Crawley's poor returns have at least been a consequence of his broadened horizons. And on the fleeting occasions when his game has come together in the midst of his dry spell - most tellingly with his first-morning fifty in Ahmedabad last year, and again with a brilliant 77 at Sydney in January - he has looked as fluent as any player in the game.
"Make good decisions," was the advice that Crawley had drummed into him during his 193-run stand with Joe Root, the perfect role-model for a young, expansive right-hander - not least on the ball before his century, when he swung too eagerly into an air-shot against Seales, and immediately had his captain in his ear, reminding him that good things come to those who wait.
"He does that extremely well and I tried to emulate him," Crawley added. "He was very good to bat with, he batted brilliantly and took the pressure off. He's always a calm head telling me to take it one ball at a time, make good decisions, and thankfully I made a few more than I usually do."
Not unlike Jonny Bairstow in his first-innings hundred, a feature of Crawley's innings was the shelving of his favoured drive. Early in his innings, a graphic on the TV broadcast contrasted Nkrumah Bonner's magnificent discipline in the channel outside off with Crawley's tendency to go looking for the ball, a reflex approach that had done him in all too often in his previous innings, including via an inside-edge to Joshua da Silva in his first-innings 8.
"I like to put some pressure on the bowlers but I've certainly tried to rein my game in a bit more since coming back into the team," Crawley said. "I've tried to put away a few more shots that I was playing last year and getting me into trouble.
"I'm just trying to make the game a bit more simple," he added. "Against the new ball, the drive is not an easy shot to play. I'm much more comfortable playing through the leg side. That's not ruling out the off-side game - there's still plenty of runs to be had there. It's just knowing when to play it."
Such are the lessons that a spell of dead-deck accumulation can gift to a team in need. It may not count for much in a broader context right now, but when the spin settings get cranked up on the next tour of India, or when Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood find a juicier surface in next year's Ashes, Crawley will be able to tap into this moment, and remember he's been here before. And he's young enough and good enough to head back there again.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket