Zak Crawley was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the 2021 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Tim de Lisle spoke to the young top-order batsman about his breakthrough year in international cricket as well as his extraordinary 267 against Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl.
On August 21, as England warmed up for the Third Test against Pakistan at Southampton, several things were not happening to Zak Crawley. He was not about to be voted Young Cricketer of the Year by the Cricket Writers’ Club, or Young Player of the Year by the PCA. He was not a shoo-in for Wisden’s Five, or the cover of Playfair. By 4.30 on August 22, all these honours were in the bag. It’s amazing what you can achieve just by scoring 267.
This was Crawley’s eighth Test, and his seventh as a stand-in. He had shown promise, but his height (6ft 5in) was more striking than his average (28). Now, at 22, he was the understudy who stole the show. It’s the storyline of All About Eve, the classic film revived as a stage hit. In the 2020 remake, All About Zak, the plot came with a twist: the novice was not a nasty piece of work.
He agreed to meet at his home ground, Canterbury, on a November Thursday, which turned out to be day one of England’s second lockdown. Kent’s office was closed (“Please deliver all parcels and letters to Sainsbury’s”). But here was Crawley, unruffled, loping across the car park with a smile. He apologised for being late; it had been a full five minutes. In two circuits of the St Lawrence ground, he retraced his whole career.
For the first lockdown, he had moved back to his parents’, near Sevenoaks, and spent the long blank days running and reading. This time, he was staying put at the flat he shares with a team-mate, Grant Stewart. “Up there,” Crawley said. He really does live above the shop. He moved in after reading that the great footballer Johan Cruyff had lived at Ajax’s stadium in Amsterdam. While some players struggled with the biosecure bubble, gazing out at their workplace every night, Crawley was very much at home.
ZAK CRAWLEY was born in Bromley on February 3, 1998. His background looks stereotypical – commuter belt, comfortable home, private school – but again there’s a twist. His father, Terry, was a carpet fitter who became a futures trader, earned millions and had his day in The Sun, under the headline “Rugs to riches”. He was a scratch golfer, while Zak’s mother, Lisa, and sister, India, played netball and lacrosse. But he inherited more than an eye for a ball. “My dad always said I wasn’t working hard enough at my sport,” he told The Times. “Without realising it, I was soon working harder than other people my age.”
At seven, Zak played for Sevenoaks District Under-10s as a seamer; at ten, for Kent Under-11s when someone dropped out (the story of his life). By 11, he was a batsman, and had been to the final day of the 2009 Ashes at The Oval – “Flintoff’s run-out and Swann taking the last wicket”. But he wanted to be Kevin Pietersen. “I can relate to his height, not his playing style.” By 15, he was in the Tonbridge XI and the Kent Academy. “I’d go to the indoor school” – he points across the outfield – “three times a week for five years.” It made him a back-foot player. “It’s really quick in there, so I felt decent against pace.”
He missed out on England’s teenage teams, but landed a county contract at 17. “I was better at 17 than 18.” Why? “This horrendous trigger movement – going across, getting lbw. A bit of natural talent meant I could get away with it.” At 19, statuesque again, he made his first-class debut against the West Indians at Canterbury. “Got 60-odd, batted nicely.” Watching Tests on Sky, he reached two conclusions: the best players shone against pace and spin; and, of England’s teams, the Test side were “probably the easiest” to break into. He went to Perth to be coached by Neil “Noddy” Holder, and spent a week facing spinners in Mumbai, observed by his mentor, Rob Key. “Found a way of using my feet and my wrists a bit more. Being wooden and English doesn’t work.”
In 2019, he made 111 against Nottinghamshire at Tunbridge Wells – “probably the best innings I’ve played”. He also hit 69 at The Oval, against Morne Morkel and Sam Curran. The national selector, Ed Smith, who was there, felt Crawley improved as the standard rose. Playing for the Lions against the Australians – at Canterbury – he scored 43. When Smith rang to say he was going on tour, Crawley assumed he meant the Lions. “Then he mentioned Chris Silverwood.” He called his father, and walked round to tell his mother, who had come to watch him. Those were the days.
On tour in New Zealand, Jos Buttler hurt his back in the gym, handing Crawley a Test debut, at No. 6. He made only one, but landed another chance in South Africa, when Rory Burns was injured playing football. Opening with his friend Dom Sibley, Crawley began with four, 25, 44 and 66 – going up and up, if not away. After lockdown, deputising for Joe Root, he stroked a classy 76 against West Indies, only to collect a golden duck when he finally made the first-choice XI. Squeezed out for two Tests because Ben Stokes couldn’t bowl, he studied the Pakistan attack on video.
When Stokes flew to New Zealand for family reasons, Crawley made 53. Then, suddenly, the strands of his life came together – Tonbridge and Canterbury, Perth and Mumbai, Key’s guidance and Smith’s belief, his own talent and drive. He mastered pace and spin, reaching 67 as England wobbled, and making 200 more after being joined by Buttler. When nerves struck in the nineties, and again on 197, he kept Crawley calm. He hit 34 fours and a single six, a sublime chip over mid-off. As he passed 221, Key’s Test best, “Mark Wood shouted from the boundary.” In a full ground, the shout would have gone unheard.
When Crawley was stumped, it was the first time he’d not minded being out. He had the biggest score by an England No. 3 since Wally Hammond in 1932-33, but the highlight had been simply reaching three figures. “All the nets I’d done, all the times I’d gone on my own to hit some balls – it all seemed worth it.” Back at Kent, he rattled up big Twenty20 runs at high speed, including another century at Southampton. Crawley was living the dream, but when had the dreaming begun? As a boy, after a game, Zak had a ritual: lobbing his socks at the laundry basket in his bedroom. If they went in, he told himself, he’d play for England. Did they go in? “It was quite a big basket.”