Phil Walker examines Zak Crawley’s curious career so far, with his overall record at odds with his obvious class.

Zak Crawley gets you going. One way or another, Zak Crawley gets under your skin. If you’re of the mind to not yet be riled by Zak Crawley, then you can guarantee that the other cricket person in your carriage, mad-scrolling through the Championship averages over there, is very riled indeed. He slips right in there, does Zak Crawley, our very own one-man top-order culture war. We may as well slap his face on the side of a bus: LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM, YOU CAN’T NOT WATCH HIM! One suspects, moreover, that Zak Crawley, at 24 a man who’s never seen the need for a Twitter account, might be a little alarmed to find all this out.

There are days when watching him bat can be a dispiriting experience, when you’re pretty sure it can’t last and you’re fairly certain he knows it too. There can be a whiff of the airy adolescent about him, as if every coltish waft, booming drive and goofy self-admonishment are mini acts of subversion against the ageless fundaments of Test match batting. He does play a lot of shots.

Last year, across a horror run spanning a grim tour of India as opener and further miseries at home at No.3, he came to be seen as evidence of the cosiness of English cricket, a flighty strokemaker riding on the rails of his enviable background and the public patronage of media darlings such as the new director of English men’s cricket. But for all that Rob Key is suddenly a more than useful man to have in your corner, Crawley will have to define himself outside of that relationship now. Ultimately, Key and the rest will do what they have to do. And he has, after all, been dropped before – it’s a misnomer that he’s had a free run and limitless rope. Whichever decisions are taken from here will come with dollops of empathy. Crawley is still starting out, learning as he goes, literally the hardest batting gig in the game.

His numbers are, well, unusual. If robots picked cricket teams, he’d be nowhere. As a first-class player he has as many hundreds for Kent as his opening partner Ben Compton, who debuted six weeks ago. As a Test batter he averages 28.6 from 21 matches (remarkably, broadly the mean for English top-order players in recent years). A quarter of his whole Test run-making output came in two astonishing days at Southampton. Across eight Test matches in 2021, he averaged under 11.

In any other era such a record would be enough for now, thanks very much. But in this one, where nothing’s certain, he hangs in there, inoculated from outright derision by the awkward fact that no one else makes many either. The argument about ‘potential’ does little to quell the masses; as a colleague put it to me this week, if his whole life has been geared to unlocking it and it’s still unrevealed, then perhaps it’s not really there at all.

This season for Kent has been a tricky sell for his advocates. As the country’s batters feasted against dud Dukes balls on tracks curated for runs, Crawley has been a ghostly presence, either not playing at all, or drifting out of the picture before you’ve remembered to turn on. His most recent outing is a case in point: a sprightly first-morning 62, a highest score of the season, ended soon after lunch with a footless prod outside the eye-line to a nothing ball. By the end of the day his lesser-discussed teammates had again upstaged him and that meaningless 60-odd ended up being held against him.

So why can’t England quit him? How come he’ll still be opening the batting at Lord’s against New Zealand’s seamers, merrily boom-driving his way through the first hour? Well, there have been a few moments of measurable substance, enough scores to keep us interested. But something else is afoot, something maddeningly undefinable that trails Crawley wherever he goes, a single one-syllable hand grenade that some people hate and other people cling to: it’s because Zak Crawley has class.

I know, it’s an easy get-out. But it’s there, no point denying it – in that punch to a good length on the rise, and the flick-pummel with a straight bat through mid-wicket, and the flat-bat check-pull to the quicks well in front of square. (He likes the short stuff.) It’s there in that pistol-crack echo when he hits one clean and the way he moves against real pace. He plays shots against good bowlers that you don’t forget in a hurry. Most English openers look to survive, and sometimes they do. Crawley looks to do, and sometimes he survives.

This is what class does. It illuminates the commonplace. It opens up possibilities. After Crawley (having talked himself up) made a fluent 77 on the final day of the drawn Sydney Test, Nasser Hussain, not normally given to such terms, had seen enough. “Crawley reminded everyone what a class act he can be,” he said, adding that he had to be worth “sticking with” for the future.

Four knocks later, he made his second Test century. It was flat at Antigua but England still needed someone to deliver. Joe Root was with him throughout, exhorting him to bat like a grown-up, and he did just that, positioning himself on off-stump and eschewing the tempters outside his zone. He batted for four-and-a-half hours. At Barbados he was a touch unlucky in the first innings, and caught on the pull for 40 going for quick runs in the second. The final match, however, saw the return of bad-Zak, out twice to schoolboy drives, the first skewed to short-cover, the second a wild jab nicked to slip. It’s this last match, rather than the good stuff that went immediately before it, that remains the abiding motif of his career to date.

Cricket is littered with good players doing it wrong. Marvan Attapattu made one run in his first six innings. Mark Waugh’s mates called him Audi when he went four ducks in a row. Graham Thorpe had two hundreds from his first 34 Tests. After 26 matches Steve Waugh’s highest score was 91. Ultimately all you can do is identify your best players, stick with them and hope for the best. In a notoriously tough time for opening bats, Zak Crawley has played 21 matches, made 17 single figure scores, hit three overseas fifties and a ton, and chucked in one of the greatest innings of the century.

He may yet land up in the drawing room of the doomed, reading the love poets and reminiscing with Ramps, JV and Ravi about those days when it felt all too perfect. Or he may become a quality, attack-minded Test opener with a knack for doing match-changing things on his day. It’s a mark of the times that both possibilities seem entirely feasible. In the end, as with all of these things, you have to pick a side.