Smothered by England's unwavering support, Zak Crawley is running out of ways to fail

Zak Crawley took a couple of catches in the slips, but dropped one from Hanuma Vihari off Matthew Potts
July 02, 2022

Backed to succeed regardless of whether he fails. Failing regardless of opportunities to succeed.

On Saturday, Zak Crawley recorded his latest failure of the summer. India's stand-in captain Jasprit Bumrah strutted in, sending down a searing delivery that, all told, Crawley had lined up pretty well. Alas, the ball straightened off the seam after pitching, and no adjustment was forthcoming from the batter. The right-hander did check his shot, but still went hard at the ball, edging it to Shubman Gill at third slip.

It wasn't really the time to be driving, with cloud cover and rain in the air assisting the Dukes ball that, for all its criticism, still does what it does when as fresh as four overs old. Plus, it wasn't one to drive, per se. Perhaps only on the up, which you don't really do in England, in these conditions, against this bowler.

Crawley's latest dismissal for 9 made it 23 single-figure scores in a career of 45 innings and counting. The manner of it suggested it's not simply a case of failing to learn from mistakes. Such is the torment of a player in disarray, it reeked of forgetting what he knew.

Crawley now averages 13.71, the goodwill following his 77 at the start of the year against Australia and 121 in the Caribbean six Tests ago long disappeared into the ether. But now more than ever, that doesn't really matter.

"To me, he's a rare talent and I don't think there's too many people in world cricket that can play like he does," Brendon McCullum effused after last week's Trent Bridge Test against New Zealand. "He's never going to be a consistent type of cricketer. He's that dynamic that he's not going to be consistent. But when he has his day, he's going to win matches.

Those sentiments were echoed by Ben Stokes in his pre-match briefing to the written media a couple of days ago: "This team and this squad is going to be given a lot of time to perform. Zak Crawley is still in my plans. Brendon's plans going forward, to make this Test team great again."

And yet, if you're an opener in the County Championship, particularly one of those chewed up and spat out by the Test side recently, you'd be right to be peeved by all this. A player originally picked on potential, already flush with opportunities to get it right, has found himself in the most accommodating elite environment for generations, perhaps ever. McCullum and Stokes are only concerned about Crawley's high ceiling, showcased by a fine 267 against Pakistan in the summer of 2020. Even if they have to find out how low the floor is along the way.

What jealousy there is, however, should only be professional. Because it is hard to watch Crawley and wish you were him right now - tetchier than ever out in the middle, anxious with his running, and head bowed trying to shut out the sighs that whisk around the ground at each dismissal, like the whispers when you enter a room that only exacerbate your paranoia.

He seems almost imprisoned by the best intentions of his superiors, hindered by their holism, drowning in their love. Even McCullum's comments, that he will never be a consistent player, might jar Crawley because all any batter wants is the good kind of consistency rather than the bad kind he is enduring now. He exists at this moment in a peculiar hell, trapped in his own allegory of the long spoons, with endless amounts of support but unable to use it to feed himself.

Crawley had already made technical changes to move away from an off-stump guard. Now he is making universal tweaks. This Test is the first with number '6' on his back as he made the decision to relinquish "36". His preferred number - 16, which he wears at Kent - was occupied by Eoin Morgan at the time. It's in keeping with the 24-year-old's timing at present that the request to change was made and granted before news of Morgan's retirement earlier this week.

One of the key tenets of Stokes' captaincy, which he outlined at the very beginning, was the duty of care he wants to instill. That his role is as much about looking after the person as it is about encouraging performance. Before the match, he spoke of doing "the right thing, if it is pumping his tyres up or whatever it is", when things are not going well for someone. But he also appreciated that, after a while, "it almost sounds like a broken record when you keep saying [it]". And as headstrong as Crawley may be, there will come a time when the best (ergo, healthiest) thing for him is to be taken out of the XI. Not just to rediscover his wares, but also breathe a little easier before coming again.

There is, unfortunately, another aspect to Crawley and the antagonism around him that seems to be at play here. Something that in some quarters is only exacerbating the criticism of a current run of 11 scores without a fifty, of which eight have been single figures.

He attended a fee-paying school - Tonbridge School, in Kent - and his father, Terry, was at one point the fifth-richest Briton on the Sunday Times rich list after switching one floor for another when he became a city trader following years as a carpet fitter.

That level of affluence meant that he could invest more than time and effort into his son's cricket. Crawley was able to buy a flat on Kent's St Lawrence ground in Canterbury for regular access to their training facilities, and pay for trips to India and Perth to improve his game against spin and pace.

In many ways, it is a great example of not wasting your privilege. And it comes reinforced by a work ethic that has Crawley as one of the fittest in the England squad. He's regularly top of the two-kilometre time trials, and there is a thought among conditioning coaches that his Yo-Yo test showings could best Sir Alastair Cook, who held the record pretty much throughout his international career. On Wednesday, while the majority of the team who played against New Zealand at Trent Bridge took the option of a light training session, Crawley was first in the nets to take throws and regain some semblance of touch.

Of course, none of this would matter if Crawley was scoring runs. And perhaps none of it should matter, really. But with his opportunities unaffected by runs, and the presence of his mentor Rob Key at the top of English cricket, a necessary conversation about form is being spiked with something neither he nor this team should expect to digest.

Being caught in the crosshairs of the world's best opening bowlers, as well as societal talking points of privilege and favouritism, is an unenviable and unfair position for Crawley to find himself in. He can only affect the former.

He has one innings left in this match to do so, which will be high pressure given England are five-down and trailing India by 332 in their first innings. Regardless of what he scores, he will almost certainly be in the squad for South Africa in August.

The six-week break before then may help, whether that's going into white-ball cricket, beasting himself in the nets or simply getting some time away from the game altogether. He will know Stokes and McCullum's opinion of him won't change in that time. Instead what he needs to work out is how to make their unwavering support feel less like a burden.

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