“People think with this new way of playing – Bazball, or whatever they call it – that we are mad scientists who come up with all these different theories. That’s not the case at all. We want to free people up, not move them into positions they have never been before.”
Rob Key was being quizzed on whether there had had been any consideration to opening the batting with Ben Stokes to help facilitate the return of the fit-again Jonny Bairstow to the Test team. The answer was swift. “We had no discussions about that,” the managing director of England men’s cricket told Sky Sports News.
Stokes will stay in the middle order and Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett will continue as openers, with Bairstow slotting back in as wicketkeeper-batter, in place of the ever-so unlucky Ben Foakes.
Two openers familiar with that berth – admittedly one, in Crawley, who seems forever under the microscope – your key all-rounder at No 6, and a gloveman at No 7. For all of England’s red-ball trailblazing over the last year, that structure remains Test cricket 101.
It means Crawley and Duckett will head England’s batting order for the sixth straight Test when they stroll out at Lord’s for the four-day game with Ireland this week – the two having first been paired for the 3-0 sweep in Pakistan in December before partnering up again for February’s drawn series in New Zealand.
My failings in international cricket have been from putting too much pressure on myself. That is the only reason. Whenever I have gone out there with the right attitude I have done well.
‘Zak has had match-winning contributions’
Key continued: “Opening is a specialist position and we like that partnership as they have impacted games. Even if Zak hasn’t got the weight of runs, he has had match-winning contributions.
“We also like their complementary skills. Duckett is a shorter left-hander who plays square of the wicket. He cuts you and pulls you and will reverse sweep the spinner.
“Then you have a tall right-hander in Zak who likes to play down the ground and is good on the short ball. That becomes tough to bowl at.
[Being off] social media helps me get away from the average punter and what they have to say which, of course, I don’t care about anyway. I still see the pundits and the people higher up in cricket and I didn’t have to read the papers to know my place was under scrutiny.
“There were crucial moments against New Zealand, going out to bat under lights [in the day-night Test in Mount Maunganui earlier this year which England went on to win by 267 runs].
“When we did it, we were 50-odd for none, 60-odd for two. When New Zealand did it, they were three, four, five down.
“That was a match-defining partnership [from Crawley and Duckett]. It doesn’t translate to statistics and all that, but it helps us win games of cricket. That’s what we look at.”
The statistics actually make for pleasant reading for Duckett since he returned to the Test team in Pakistan after a six-year absence. He began with a century in Rawalpindi and has added four fifties since, with his average in his second incarnation as an England Test player 56.44 from five matches.
Consistency not key for Crawley, say England
For Crawley, who has played in each of England’s last 18 Tests, the statistics are grimmer.
His overall Test average is 27.60 from 33 games with three hundreds, while since his hundred and half-century in the Rawalpindi Test against Pakistan he has failed to pass fifty in eight innings. He went 16 innings without a fifty after notching a ton in the West Indies in March 2022.
England coach Brendon McCullum said last summer that England do not expect consistency from Crawley – and they certainly haven’t got that. But McCullum added, like Key has just done, that the Kent man has the ability to play match-defining knocks – and they have had some of them.
Key noted Mount Maunganui under the lights but there was also Rawalpindi, where Crawley’s 122 from 111 balls helped England race past 500 on the opening day, giving them time to ultimately prise out a memorable victory on day five on of the flattest and most docile pitches you will ever see.
At Edgbaston last July, as England chased a record 378 to beat India, Crawley’s 46 from 76 balls came amid a century stand with then-opening partner Alex Lees which set up a stunning win.
Later that summer, his free-scoring, unbeaten 69 at The Kia Oval clinched a 2-1 series victory over South Africa. England may have only required 130 but with the first three innings in that game seeing teams rolled for 118, 158 and 169, it was no foregone conclusion.
It is perhaps galling for those county openers eyeing an England call up that Crawley is afforded such faith, with those “match-defining contributions” preceded by periods of meagre returns.
‘Crawley can put pressure on bowlers’
Only a small group of regular openers – Kent’s Ben Compton, Durham’s Michael Jones, Leicestershire’s Rishi Patel – have scored more County Championship runs than Crawley’s 403 so far this season, with Compton the only one to do it in Division One.
Lancashire’s Keaton Jennings may have followed suit, only for a hamstring injury to sideline him since his 189 versus Somerset at Taunton in April.
Arguably none of them have the ceiling of Crawley when the current England incumbent is at his best. Tall, imposing, elegant, quick-scoring, possesses all the shots.
“To me, he is a rare talent and I don’t think there are too many people in world cricket that can play like he does,” said McCullum of a player who struck 267 against Pakistan in the summer of 2020.
Australia, England’s opponents in the Ashes from June 16, know all about that after his fluent 77 from 100 balls against them in Sydney during the previous Ashes series, a knock which Sky Sports’ Nasser Hussain said had made Australia legends Ricky Ponting and Mark Taylor go ‘wow’.
Of course, the currency for all batters eventually is runs. Lees found that out ahead of the Pakistan tour when he was ditched for Duckett and if Crawley’s fallow periods become even longer and his crucial knocks a little more fleeting, England may look elsewhere.
But it won’t be yet. The Crawley-Duckett alliance will continue into The Ashes.
“On their day, they can put bowlers under pressure, no matter who they are,” added Key. “It’s not about putting county bowers under pressure. This is about putting Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins – some of the best bowlers in the world – under pressure.”
Crawley can put pressure on, then, but he also feels he can soak it up. “I have got a good defensive technique. It’s not something I need to work on. It’s something I need to keep backing.”
Watch England’s Test summer live on Sky Sports Cricket. The four-day match against Ireland takes place at Lord’s from Thursday with the Ashes series then under way at Edgbaston from June 16.
Source : Sky Sports