Cameron Ponsonby looks into a career that has promised so much, for so long. And why regardless of whether Crawley succeeds or fails, his time has come.
Okay, campers. Rise and shine and don’t forget your booties, ‘cause it’s cold out there!
Well, it’s Ashes squad announcement day, again. Where we all wait for Chris Silverwood to emerge from his post-summer hibernation and announce the England squad that will let us know if we should expect six more weeks of Jonny Bairstow this winter.
And so with a wink, a nod and a press release, the squad is announced. Right arm seamers that bowl about 80mph pour out of every crevice of Silverwood’s being, two finger spinners are chosen and gulp nervously having been sentenced to five Tests of hard labour. And a top order that’s short of runs readies itself for a chastening experience.
“Do you ever have deja vu, Mrs Lancaster?”
“I don’t think so but I could check with the kitchen.”
However, whilst the squad announcement has the feel of Groundhog Day for the general population. For Zak Crawley, it could be closer to Judgement Day.
Crawley’s career has been building towards this series. His involvement in the England set-up has long been based on the promise of tomorrow as opposed to the realities of today. In the seven Test matches he has played in 2021, his average of 11.1 is the lowest of any England top-six batter to play 10 innings in a year, ever. And yet, when he was dropped halfway through the summer, it was with one eye on protecting him from any further mental damage ahead of the Ashes where he was expected to resume his position in England’s top three.
Imagine that. Experiencing statistically the worst year an England batter has ever had in the history of time immemorial. And your removal from the side is with one eye on bringing you back into the side.
But there is a reason for this. Two of them, in fact. The first is that Crawley is a beneficiary of what’s known as attractiveness bias. The idea that as humans we view attractive people more positively than unattractive people. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley both average 28 in Test cricket. One has a beautiful cover drive and is on the plane to Australia. The other has been left out and is nicknamed the Fridge.
And swoon we do when Crawley plays his cover drive. His fifty against India in Ahmedabad this year was one of the most aesthetically pleasing mornings of TV on Channel 4 since they showed that “best of” episode of Grand Designs.
“Honestly don’t think I’ve seen a better fifty,” a friend texted me.
“He’s just so good”, said another.
And I didn’t disagree. We forgive Crawley for his misgivings because his upside makes us feel so happy. He is the batting incarnation of e-numbers. Immediate short-term joy and satisfaction traded off at the expense of potential long term damage to England’s top order. We know that there might be other batters out there who could match the number of his runs in terms of quantity, but not in aesthetic quality. “It’s not how, but how many” say sage experts across the land. Okay mate, now watch this drive.
The other reason is that it has become one of the great truisms of the modern game that Crawley’s technique is well-suited to Australian conditions. Michael Vaughan has written it here, Shane Warne has said it there, and pundits across the land muse on the topic as an automatic reflex to whenever his name is mentioned on commentary. Whether it is true or not, Crawley benefits from having a hell of a PR team. His mentor is Rob Key, he went to the same school as former England selector Ed Smith and his dad plays golf with Shane Warne. We all have our fans and our enemies. It’s just that Crawley’s biggest fans were the selector of the national side and two blokes who have a microphone and an audience of millions. Combine that with his obvious talent and ability to make the nation go all doe-eyed and you have a player who we all believe to have the highest ceiling of anyone in the country despite a first-class average of 31 from 112 innings and a Test average of 28 from 26 innings. Those are not small sample sizes.
Ultimately, the arrival of the Ashes means the arrival of tomorrow for Crawley. So far, his dominant performances against South Africa in Johannesburg, Pakistan in Southampton and India in Ahmedabad have neither been regular nor rare enough to be considered Crawley’s exception or his rule. Is he a stunningly good batter nowhere near fulfilling his potential? Or just a good one who occasionally exceeds his ability spectacularly?
The answer to those questions will found in large part over the next two months. If Crawley succeeds in Australia, then all the talk of his suiting to the conditions and of a player ready made for the big time will be justified. If he doesn’t, well then we’ll have a cricketer for whom as hard as he may try, tomorrow just refuses to arrive.