With Jos Buttler suffering a back injury, England have been forced to rejig their batting line-up for the second Test with New Zealand. In comes Kent’s Zak Crawley, an opener by trade who will bat at No.6. Taha Hashim profiled the 21-year-old in issue 25 of Wisden Cricket Monthly, after his selection for the tour.
Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss, England’s selectors have generally opted for two types of opener. We’ve had those forcing selection with dominant seasons in county cricket (Nick Compton, Adam Lyth, Mark Stoneman); and a few punts based on butchery against the white ball (Moeen Ali, Alex Hales, Jason Roy). Zak Crawley is a man out of place.
Just 21 and barely two seasons into his career, Crawley finds himself on a Test tour, carrying a record which is by no means spectacular. His first-class average sits at 31.27, and while this summer was a breakthrough of sorts – Crawley hit two centuries and five fifties in the County Championship – he has yet to grind attacks into the ground in the manner of Dom Sibley. He hasn’t played international limited-overs cricket either, nor been remotely close to doing so. It appears, on the surface, that Crawley is set for an educational trip, with Sibley becoming the latest man in the line of fire.
Indeed, some may look at the numbers and wonder if Ed Smith, like Crawley a man of Kent and former Tonbridge School alumnus, has been hasty. But this is not a charitable handout. Strikingly tall, Crawley gets fully forward on the drive, plays well down the ground, is strong off his legs and, according to former Kent opener Dave Fulton, “likes it when they bang it in”.
Congratulations to @KentCricket‘s Zak Crawley!
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) November 28, 2019
He has looked the part since his promotion to the top of Kent’s line-up in August 2018. Having spent his early red-ball career in the middle order, he responded immediately with a quick 96 against Derbyshire, and a few weeks later 168 against Glamorgan – his maiden first-class ton. For the Kent hierarchy, it was the fulfilment of a plan hatched to protect Crawley’s talent as he moved through the professional game. “We always felt there was an opening batsman there, it was just a stepping-stone process,” Kent head coach Matt Walker tells WCM. “To chuck him at the top in his first season, on bowler-friendly wickets, it might have pushed him back a step or two. I think we got it right in that sense, to let him have a year in the middle order to find his feet in first-class cricket and, very quickly, he’s moved on.”
A winter of grade cricket in Australia followed, with Walker offering a simple message to the youngster. “There was one key area we wanted Zak to work on: to play straighter through mid-on. He got out a lot the previous year lbw, playing across the line. It was just a simple discussion; not much else seemed to trouble him. It was just a case of getting him to play a little bit later, looking to play longer straighter.” Crawley returned not only having tightened up that glitch but with a 42-ball T20 ton in New South Wales Premier Cricket. He is, as Walker says, capable of excelling across formats.
Walker is unashamedly effusive about his player. It’s expected to a certain degree, but even down a crackling phone line, his fondness of Crawley is clear. “He’s a grounded, humble kid who will, bit by bit, work his way towards becoming not only an England player, but one of England’s finest,” Walker says. The statements get bigger: “He could possibly captain his country.”
There is plenty to work on – Walker wants to see him improve his conversion rate and make big hundreds – but, then again, a Test tour this winter wasn’t the expected plan. “Initially, it seemed it was going to be a Lions trip for him,” he says. “We’d spoken to Andy Flower [England Lions coach at the time] and that seemed to be the route he was going to go.”
Not any more. Eschewing the safe option, England’s restless think-tank has trusted instead to pure talent. Only three Englishmen since 1948 have opened in a Test match before their 22nd birthday; Crawley could yet become the fourth.
First published in issue 25 of Wisden Cricket Monthly.