Zak Crawley’s arrival in a different league

It was probably fitting, on the day Colin Graves made a valedictory visit to the Test squad, that a man from one of the smaller counties should announce himself to the cricketing world.

For, earlier this week, Graves gave an interview with The Telegraph in which he suggested there were too many first-class counties. He “just didn’t see the point” in some of them, he said, with those at the “bottom end of our red ball game… producing nothing”. A reduction from 18 to 12 was his suggested solution.

Never mind that, just before play, he had made a presentation to Stuart Broad – who started his career at Leicestershire, who were bottom of Division Two in 2019 – to commemorate his 500th Test wicket. And never mind that a glance at last year’s Division Two table would have told Graves that the bottom division included Lancashire, the club where James Anderson developed, Middlesex, the club where Eoin Morgan developed, Worcestershire, where Moeen Ali plays, and Northants, where Olly Stone, Ben Duckett and David Willey have all developed in recent years. And certainly never mind that Graves’ defined duty, as chair of the ECB, was to safeguard the future of those same 18 counties he was now undermining.

But maybe, as Graves saw Zak Crawley – a man who has developed through the Kent system from U11 level – register a maiden Test century of the highest class, he will have reflected that the smaller counties – usually defined as those that do not host Tests or were not allocated hosts of The Hundred – can contribute rather well to the national cause.

Or maybe reflection isn’t Graves’ thing. For if it was he might have realised that his plea for a nomination as ICC chair on the basis that he would help the less affluent nations was in stark contrast to his behaviour as chair of the ECB. Ultimately, it’s deeds not words that count and Graves has hardly proved the defender of the poor.

But for English cricket, Graves now belongs to the past. And Crawley is the future.

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It would be hard to overstate the quality of this innings. England have seen some contributions from top-three batsmen in recent times, not least Rory Burns’ resilient century against Australia at Edgbaston and Dom Sibely’s century against South Africa in Cape Town.

But this was a different league. Against a fine attack, in demanding conditions, Crawley didn’t just eke out a score. He thrived. Despite the fact that, at one stage, England were 127 for 4 and Chris Woakes and Dom Bess were padded up, he batted with a freedom and fluency that has probably not been seen at any other time this summer.

At one stage, he had scored 119 out of the 213 runs scored by England. It was the first century by an England No. 3 since Jonny Bairstow’s, against Sri Lanka, in November 2018 and the first in England since Joe Root’s, against Pakistan, in 2016. Crawley also becomes just the 17th England man aged 22 or younger to register a Test century. There are no guarantees, of course, but it would be a major surprise if this is not the first of many. It felt like the coming of age of a major talent.

There’s a lot to like about Crawley. For a start, he has all the shots. And when you can hook the fast bowlers, drive off both feet, sweep both sides of the wicket, and come down the pitch to seamers and spinners alike, it can prove desperately hard to contain. When Trevor Bayliss, the former England coach, saw him play for the Lions last year, he immediately remarked on the power with which he hit the ball. “That’s how the top players hit it,” he said. He was keen to select him towards the end of the Ashes.

But there’s a lot more than natural talent at play here. There is applied knowledge and thinking and experience. So, against Shaheen Afridi for example, Crawley took a middle-and-leg guard with a slightly open stance. This allowed him to account for the inswing and avoid being trapped behind his front leg. But against Mohammad Abbas he took a middle-stump guard and often came down the pitch to disrupt the bowler’s length and negate his movement.

This determination to learn and improve has been the feature of his Test career to date. He was taken on the New Zealand tour largely to gain experience: a selection based on potential, not achievement; this was only his fourth first-class century, after all. But he played in Hamilton because Jos Buttler suffered a back injury and he played in Cape Town because Burns suffered a ligament injury. He made a new career-best score in each of his first five Tests and, by demonstrating an ability to learn and improve, endeared himself to the team management.

Even before that, though, Crawley had shown a hunger that marked him out as different to so many of his peers. When he struggled against spin after his early county experiences, he paid for himself to go to India and spend time on a spin camp. And, eager to test himself in the competitive world of Grade cricket, he has made repeated trips to Australia and formed a lasting relationship with the celebrated batting coach, ‘Noddy’ Holder.

More than that, he moved to a flat bordering the Kent ground in Canterbury so he could spend extra time in the nets. Locals say the sight of him, setting up the bowling machine and working on his game, is common. And so impressive was his fitness in New Zealand, he left senior members of the squad for dead when they did laps of the ground.

His long-term mentor, however, is Rob Key. Key was, until today, the most recent Kent player to make a Test century but will have celebrated this century as warmly as anyone. He’s thrown countless balls in the nets, had endless conversations and provided consolation on the tough days and congratulations on the good.

“He has a lot of really good attributes,” Key told ESPNcricinfo. “He’s humble, but he’s tough. And while he works incredibly hard, he loves the game so much he never thinks about it as anything other than fun. He’s a student of the game and he learns very quickly. It’s all there, really.”

Paul Downton, Kent’ director of cricket, agreed. “He’s going to have a 10-year international career,” Downton said. “He’s going to be a major player for England.

“His mind-set is very unusual for a young man. The dedication he brings to his game and his relentless appetite for scoring runs is different to most. And it’s certainly different to most young players.”

Both Downton and Key agree his game – particularly strong on the back foot and containing a strong hook – should be well-suited to Australian pitches. And while Asia might prove more of a challenge, that work ethic should stand him in good stead. This innings will have cemented his place in the side for the foreseeable.

His partnership with Buttler – who has scarcely played better in Test cricket than this – has earned England a strong position in this game and in this series. But maybe, in the longer term, this game will be remembered most for the emergence of a high-quality player. Suddenly, England’s top six is looking a bit more solid. Suddenly, there’s no pressure on Joe Root to move back to No. 3.

Those smaller counties keep delivering. Only a fool would talk of dismantling them.

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