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Match Analysis

Zak Crawley keeps riding the purity of Bazball's high notes

Perhaps the true miracle of Crawley is that he's willing to keep driving into the abyss

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Bazball, Schmazball, call it what you will. England's new team philosophy is based on the premise that, contrary to everything you have ever been brought up to believe, Test cricket really doesn't matter. Instead of allowing its infinite possibilities to overwhelm you, your truest route to success is to channel that inner child that grew up thumping tennis balls in the back garden, and treat it all as one big jape.
Which is all well and good, but how does such a fascinating thought-experiment survive contact with a contest that even the opposition has intimated is a bit of a waste of their time? Does that double-dose of nihilism end up cooking those newly liberated minds, as if they were Timothy Leary's psychedelic disciples of the 1960s, many of whom soon discovered that their LSD-fuelled quest for true meaning merely hastened their recognition of the dark futility of existence?
Too heavy (man…) for the first day of an Ashes summer? Probably. But as Ireland rest their weary limbs after an opening day that lived down to several of their most deep-seated fears, there may be one or two players in that away dressing room who are already thinking that Test cricket is not the drug for them. "It was not our best day," as Heinrich Malan, Ireland's understated coach, put it. "We didn't necessarily cover ourselves in glory."
There'll be no such unpleasant flashbacks for England's Ashes-bound entertainers, however. For within their ranks there was, is, and seemingly always will be, an antidote to the dangers of over-think.
Zak Crawley doesn't care what you think. He doesn't care about the match situation. He doesn't care for the suspicion - right from his second-ball spank through the covers - that this particular contest might be a little too easy, even for a man whose Test average of 27.60 gives off an implication of vulnerability.
Instead, he simply bats like a boy thumping balls in his back garden. Specifically, a boy who's been brought up on bucket-loads of driveable half-volleys on a personal bowling machine, which is more or less the life story of an undeniably well-heeled alumnus of Tonbridge School, whose old flat in Canterbury quite literally backs onto Kent's St Lawrence Ground itself.
As he once told The Times, the inspiration for that particular career move came from reading about Johan Cruyff living on site at Ajax. "Practice is so easy," he said. "You just walk down, whereas others have to drive in or get a lift."
It's fair to surmise, therefore, that Crawley has long since waltzed past Malcolm Gladwell's benchmark of 10,000 hours of practice making perfect. And when, in Fionn Hand's second over of his debut spell, he unfurled his exquisitely honed levers through a brace of off-side boundaries - the first off the front foot, the second pinged off the back - it was plain to see why England's faith in his methods remains entirely unshakeable.
Yet for all the purity of those high notes, there were plenty of duff moments too from a player who, perhaps crucially, doesn't care where he gets his runs either. Four times in nine balls, he survived an inside-edge, three of which skittered away to the fine-leg rope. A fourth of his 11 boundaries zipped off the outside edge, too, past the cordon to deepen the gloom of the toiling Mark Adair.
The upshot was a 39-ball half-century, the sort of tempo that might once have left MCC's members feeling giddier than their gin, but on this occasion, it wasn't even the fastest half-century Crawley's made in his last two Test innings in England. At the Kia Oval last September, he once again rose above the doubters to pass his landmark in a mere 36 balls as South Africa were hustled to defeat in a total of 909 balls, for the shortest completed Test in England since 1912. (This one, incidentally, is 488 and counting …)
"Baz just wants batters who have got that X-factor and that sort of innings in them," Stuart Broad said at the close, "because two or three will come off on a day when you need them. Zak showed that again today. He hit some eye-catching shots, got a brilliant fifty, and got us off to the perfect start."
And by the close, it was three from three that had romped along at that Baz-prescribed tempo, with Ollie Pope easing into his work on 29 from 35 and Ben Duckett alongside him on 60 from 71.
In more ways than just his superior and undefeated total, Duckett's was the better and calmer of the two innings - and it was remarkable too for being his very first for England in England, after 26 previous matches across formats, dating back to 2016. While the pair were clattering along to an opening stand of 109 in 99 balls, it was as if they were reliving their perfectly dovetailed alliance on that crazy day in Rawalpindi in December - their very first as a partnership - in which they both made centuries in a first-day total of 506 for 4.
Duckett ducked and dived while Crawley stretched and eased, the former using his lack of reach to lever length deliveries on the up through point, or haul the shorter ones in front of midwicket, finding angles that his taller, right-handed, team-mate seldom needs to use. It's a chalk-and-cheese alliance that has and will mess with more experienced attacks than Ireland, a point which Broad acknowledged with reference to a segment on the Sky Sports broadcast from Mike Atherton.
"I love that dynamic with Ducky and Creeps up the top," he said. "Athers did a piece showing the use of the crease [for bowling angles] and that is really difficult for any bowler to bowl that when the same ball you bowl can go in different areas."
Duckett's drug of choice, incidentally, would appear to be endorphins - "Benbuzz", maybe, to use Mike Brearley's accidental phrase in a recent Guardian interview - given how good he's been made to feel in every England set-up since his recall in October. For the Test team, he's now made 568 runs at 63.11, with a strike-rate of 94 and rising, and a clear shot now at a second hundred in his last six Tests. And though his opportunities with the white-ball have been more limited, his peerless prowess on the sweep in Asian conditions surely makes him a World Cup bolter in Matthew Mott's eyes.
He, for one, could not be better placed going into a Bazball Ashes summer. But riding the crest of a wave is the easy part for this team of thrill-seekers. The miracle of Crawley, on the other hand - and something that is perhaps a touch easier to see after this latest romp - is that he's willing to keep driving into the abyss that the rest of the team are encouraged not to notice, and maybe in the process serve as a bridge to those good times beyond.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket