Analysis

Zak Crawley, England's unlikely Mr Consistent, seeks his series-defining moment

Opener has been at the top of his game in India, but legacy-defining innings is his next target

Zak Crawley lands a slog-sweep during the second Test  •  Getty Images

Zak Crawley lands a slog-sweep during the second Test  •  Getty Images

It was midway through the second Test in Visakhapatnam, between Zak Crawley's scores of 76 and 73, that Brendon McCullum's comments from two years ago were put to the opener.
The Test head coach had previously stated Crawley was "never going to be a consistent type of cricketer", a point intended to mitigate a 2022 summer in which he had stumbled to a season average of 23. That sentiment got further airing through the following winter, which began well enough with 122 and 50 in the first Pakistan Test in Rawalpindi, before a run of four double-figure scores in eight innings across the rest of that series and two Tests in New Zealand.
Crawley had smirked as McCullum's words were read back to him in the press-conference room during the second Test. And, having chewed over the suggestion that, actually, he is now England's most consistent batter, he offered a pertinent counterpoint: "I'm a better player now than when Baz made that comment. But I understand what he said."
Since the start of last summer, Crawley has been top of the runs for a team rarely short of them, with 748 at an average of 53.42. Against India so far, he is averaging exactly 50, with 200 from four innings.
He is England's top boundary finder with 30, and has the unique honour of being the only member of the top seven yet to be dismissed by Jasprit Bumrah. His twin seventies in the second Test began with half-century stands with Ben Duckett, making them the first pair to put on fifty-plus opening partnerships in both innings of a match in India since Alastair Cook and Nick Compton managed the feat in 2012.
It was clear at the time of his consistency comments that McCullum was shielding Crawley from scrutiny. He admired the batter's positivity, his set-up, the cleanliness with which he struck the ball, and his proficiency on the pull - all of which he felt could be unleashed into something greater in a controlled environment. That has been vindicated.
That's not to say McCullum has always served Crawley sugar. He has not been afraid to question him, such as when he was practising the sweep shot on a whim ahead of the Lord's Test against South Africa in 2022, as an alternative to using his feet against Keshav Maharaj. McCullum pointed out that he'd been perfectly successful hitting down the ground previously, so why change things now? Sure enough, Crawley would fall lbw to the left-arm spinner in the second innings.
But otherwise, through constant hyping, the odd cigar for encouragement, and a central contract at the end of the 2022 summer at the expense of Alex Lees for reassurance he was in their long-term planning, this investment is paying off.
Crawley's part in all this should not be taken for granted. Beyond the mental robustness required to ignore those questioning his constant selection - not without merit given a lack of output - he has constantly tweaked and honed. All while maintaining his attacking nature, which is reflected in a 70.67 strike rate on this tour.
For it to be that high despite mainly subsisting on a diet of spin is down to Crawley's ability to refine the once-admonished sweep shot into an extra club in his bag. We are not even halfway through the series, but Crawley has already played the stroke (in all its guises) 14 times - twice as many times as he did in Pakistan last winter - scoring 29 runs. Having attempted the reverse just once across four innings on the 2021 tour here, he has tried it three times already and found the boundary twice.
His driving down the ground has been particularly crisp. Crawley's stance is now a little narrower, head more behind the ball, meaning he comes across the ball less than he used to which made him prone to nicking off. His game against spin has benefited as a result, allowing him to get forward or back with greater ease. With the help of England assistant coach Marcus Trescothick - another opener who cracked footwork late in his playing days - Crawley now also has better access to all parts of 'the V' down the ground, against both seamers and spinners, in a way that works with the natural arc of his bat.
That heightened technical proficiency perhaps explains why he has faced 92 balls from Bumrah and not only emerged unscathed but with a control percentage of 81.52. It was notable that Bumrah pulled his length back and shifted his line to the channel outside off stump when bowling to Crawley at the start of the second innings in Vizag. Crawley's clean record against Bumrah can also be attributed to the fact he has had little exposure to the reverse-swing spells that have blown away his teammates. But Bumrah has plenty of other tricks in his bag, and none have done for Crawley just yet.
Of course, this series still has a long way to go. As England touch down in Rajkot on Monday with honours even, with the show getting back on the road at the Niranjan Shah Stadium on Thursday, they are essentially going into a best-of-three shootout. The real stuff starts now.
Looking back to 2022, there was no real collateral in backing Crawley through his dip. England lost just one match that summer, and one more of five played that winter, winning three series out of four. Even the one that got away - a draw with New Zealand after a one-run loss in Wellington - was outside the World Test Championship programme.
But as England's form man, particularly with Joe Root struggling to get going, Crawley must assume a more ruthless streak. Those scores in Vizag were head and shoulders above those of his teammates, but he left something out there on both occasions. And while India's innings followed a similar template of featuring one outstanding batter, Yashasvi Jaiswal's 209 in the first innings and Shubman Gill's 104 in the second were both examples of taking charge and making those moments count.
Of Crawley's 16 scores of fifty or more across 41 caps, only six have come in Test wins. And the one century - 122 in Rawalpindi - came on an opening day when three other England players reached triple figures. Any improvement of this ratio of "meaningful" scores over the next four weeks will have legacy-defining properties for player and team.
Crawley knows as much. "I'm still trying to chase those big knocks," he admitted during that second Test press conference. They are not far away. But as the series enters its most critical phase, England could do with him finding them.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo