Bazball belief to white-ball ambitions: Crawley determined to be an entertainer
The England opener is currently at the BBL with Hobart Hurricanes, in a format he feels comes naturally to him
It's me, Zak, I'm the problem, it's me.
Few players divide opinion in English cricket as much as Zak Crawley. For some he is the symbol of England's old-school-tie network to whom opportunities are handed, not earned. For others he is the high-ceiling, high-potential wunderkind who represents the art, if not the science, of the sport. Einstein might not pick Crawley in his team, but Picasso would.
But while the merits of his Test selection continue to be debated into the night, at teatime, everybody agrees that Crawley has slowly been building a case for white-ball selection, with a stint in the BBL for Hobart Hurricanes - his first-foray into the big bad world of overseas T20 leagues - the latest nod to a player with ambitions that stretch beyond the Test game.
"I massively want to get in that T20 and 50-overs side," Crawley tells ESPNcricinfo, with an ODI World Cup looming later in the year. "I've always actually found white-ball probably comes more naturally to me, but the red-ball has always been my priority and has always been my favourite format. It's the most rewarding and, in my eyes, the pinnacle of the sport."
It is hard to pinpoint how startling an admission it is for England's Test opener, who currently isn't in either of the white-ball squads and has played just three ODIs, to admit to being better suited to the format he isn't playing.
On the one hand, it's a comment arguably best kept to himself. We love the honesty Zak, but keep your voice down. On the other, it correlates with the evidence we have seen with our own eyes. Crawley started out, and is still to an extent, as an England player picked on the potential of the player he might be tomorrow. Whereas Hurricanes have picked him on his ability today.
By his own admission, he has "probably done better in white-ball than red-ball" in his career so far and it isn't much of a stretch to argue that had Crawley not been elected as the chosen one of Test cricket three years ago, by now he would've been selected as the deserving one in the white-ball set-up. His T20 record matches up against his World Cup winning peers Harry Brook and Phil Salt. The difference is that whereas the 23-year-old Brook has played 99 T20s and the 26-year-old Salt has played 170, the uncapped Crawley, aged 24, has managed just 51 because of his Test commitments.
"Obviously it's going to be hard to compete with those white-ball guys," Crawley explains of finding the time to commit to white-ball cricket whilst still trying to master the red. "But I don't regret not playing more T20 cricket…because I'm where I want to be in terms of the Test stuff. But I feel like the blend is actually easier than people make out."
Crawley lists off the reasons why he has felt more at ease adapting to white-ball cricket than red, because the emphasis of the former is on free-scoring, fun-centric cricket. And then his train of thought concludes with, "Well, that's the way we play Test cricket now as well, so they've kind of moulded into one."
It is a merging of mindsets that is seeing England finally reap the rewards they have long been hoping for from Crawley in the Test arena, as Crawley is finally managing to tap into the mentality that has allowed him to succeed in white-ball, but has so far held him back in red. Crawley described the summer of 2022 as his "worst ever" and this following on from a 2021 where he averaged 10.81 in Tests.
"You always doubt yourself, but I never doubted their belief in me," he says of the backing from Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. "I was piling more pressure on myself but then in those last couple of Tests of the summer, I kind of thought this is do or die. So I just let it go."
The 2022 summer finished with a free-flowing 69 not out off 57 balls against South Africa which was backed up with 122 off 111 balls against Pakistan.
I want to be remembered as someone [where people say] 'oh geez, Zak's coming in to bat now, I'm gonna go watch on the TV'. Or you know there was that line that all the bars were empty when Kevin Pietersen was batting. I just thought that was such a cool thing to say about someone
"I've never really celebrated," Crawley says, reflecting on the moment his ton arrived in Pakistan. "But I was just so happy that day in Rawalpindi and there was a big sense of relief."
Crawley insists that there has never been a moment on the pitch that he hasn't enjoyed playing for England. That even when the runs have been at an all-time low and the press mutterings at an all-time high, "I just think this is so cool. It's the dream and I love it every time."
Off the pitch, however, Crawley is happy to admit that there were times where the hotel walls were closing in as he faced the possibility that the dream could be coming to an end if a score didn't arrive soon.
"Thanks to Baz and Stokesy that's getting easier," he says.
Crawley loves McCullum and McCullum loves him, with Crawley singing freely from the coach's handbook of putting entertainment first.
"I think there's not a lot of use to cricket other than giving people things to watch," he says.
It is an irony of the current England Test squad that in creating an environment that prioritises individualism, fun and freedom, McCullum has created a cult of players who would Tom Daley off the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge if the gaffer even half raised an eyebrow.
Their relationship continues a well established theme. People who have played the game look at Crawley and say, this lad can bat. He can pull 90mph in front of square and he can drive through the covers on the up. It is the frustration and the beauty of a player who can do things the best in the world can't whilst unable to nail the basics. Like a pianist who can play Beethoven but not Baa Baa black sheep.
"I think people can see that I've got talent and you can work with talent," Crawley says. "And I've been fortunate to have the backing of some good players which is obviously so cool. It's just up to me to make it work consistently and turn myself into a top player, which is what I want. And I've shown signs of that."
The signs are exactly what makes Crawley such an engrossing character. Where the highs provided are serene and the lows exciting still. A year ago, Crawley says, he wouldn't have cared what he looked like batting, but now, with a blossoming run of form and a new mindset, the idea that he could be remembered as an entertainer is "massive".
"It's probably my biggest driver," Crawley says of being known as a stylish and at times, dominating player. "I want to be remembered as someone [where people say] 'oh geez, Zak's coming in to bat now, I'm gonna go watch on the TV'. Or you know there was that line that all the bars were empty when Kevin Pietersen was batting. I just thought that was such a cool thing to say about someone when I was growing up and I thought, that's what I want."
"I was inspired by Ricky Ponting and Pietersen, two blokes who absolutely whacked it. You don't really hear many guys talk about the blockers as their heroes."
Crawley stops short of nailing his colours to the mast and declaring the World Cup as his target for the year. There's a lot of water to pass under the bridge before then. But he knows that stints like this one with Hobart Hurricanes will only provide opportunities to advance his case.
Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby