Zak Crawley’s confusion is a symptom of England’s top-order batting malaise

Zak Crawley’s confusion is a symptom of England’s top-order batting malaise

It was hot and close when England’s openers got out to the middle, headache weather, heavy and oppressive. The team were already in some trouble, 85 runs behind, and it was about to get a whole lot worse. It turned out that slender lead was just about as much as New Zealand needed. Rory Burns, England’s one in-form batsman, went first. Burns has been playing so well that he seemed to forget that he was supposed to start all over. He threw a bold drive at the second ball of the innings and sliced it behind to second slip.

That sparked a fire that burned through the evening session, as panic, indecision and poor thinking seemed to leap from one batsman to the next. Forget the Ashes, by stumps, English cricket was already reduced to cinders and dust. The third day of the second Test will go down as one of the sorriest they’ve had in a home Test match in a long time.

Zak Crawley was in next. It’s worth stopping on Crawley’s innings. Not because he is the problem, but because he is symptomatic of it. Crawley was picked to play Test cricket 18 months ago on the strength of his potential. He had a first-class average of 32, but a game that made wise men nod their heads, and shots that left the rest of us purring. Eighteen months later, he’s still living off his promise, that one monumental double century against Pakistan at Southampton last summer all the evidence we have that he might become a great Test batsman. Since then, he’s made it past 20 once in 12 innings. Coming into bat here, he was on a run of 0, 9, 5, 2, 2, 0.

Crawley spun his bat in his hand, stooped, settled into his guard. He was muttering to himself, “watch the ball”. Matt Henry was bowling. Henry, 29, doesn’t get into New Zealand’s first team, and has a Test match bowling average in the low 50s. But he’s fast, whips the ball off the seam, and he knows how to bowl in England because he’s had long, successful spells playing in the county championship for Worcestershire, Derbyshire, and Kent, where he was Crawley’s teammate. They have a sense of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Not that Crawley’s flaws take much knowing. He’d already got himself out three times in this series chasing the ball outside off stump.

So of course the first ball was wide outside off. Crawley left it. The second was too, but the third was straighter, and he stood tall and tapped it away square for a single. Up in the commentary box, Sky’s analysts were watching to see whether Crawley was using a trigger movement. When he made that 267 he’d tapped his front foot before every shot, but recently had stopped doing it. Now he seemed to be in two minds. Sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn’t. It was a microscopic detail, a sign of the intense scrutiny he’s under, but it was a telling detail because it revealed the confusion in his thinking.

This is an old problem, one he should have ironed out some place other than in a Test match. His mentor Rob Key has said that it was a problem for Crawley way back when he was 18 and playing for Sevenoaks. Crawley said then that he couldn’t tell if he was moving too much or too little. Key told him to go into the nets, try batting both with and without a trigger movement, and work out which felt better. Five years later, he still seems to be trying to make up his mind. In the meantime he’s struggling. They say a man ought to know his limitations, it feels like Crawley has become overfamiliar with his in these last few months of Test cricket.

You could see the hesitation in his choice of shots, he never seemed sure whether he ought to be playing or not, he hit two sweet straight drives down the ground, played and missed at two similar deliveries, left alone a couple more that weren’t so very different. Six balls, all much of a muchness, met in three different ways. He’d made it to 17, his second-best Test score since last August, when he got out, lbw, to a ball that Henry angled back into his pads. Joe Root seemed to urge him to take a gratuitous review, which only confirmed what Crawley and everyone else already knew. It was plumb.

Crawley wasn’t the only culprit. Like Dan Lawrence, Ollie Pope, and James Bracey he comes across as gifted kid trying to scrape by on talent and instinct. They’ve played too little first-class cricket to understand how to adjust to the challenges of batting in a Test match, have techniques they can’t trust because they’re all being pulled in different directions by the competing needs of trying to succeed in three different formats, and are growing up in culture that seems to have told them that despite it all, it’s enough for them just to back themselves, however unusual or idiosyncratic their methods might be.