aAnd frankly, weren’t we entertained? There were times during Zak Crowley’s blustery, stormy second inning at Headingley that made you wonder if we were witnessing a kind of scintillating performance art, perhaps even a kind of interpretive dance in which a 24-year-old attempted to fully express himself. Is. Human emotion only through the edges.
Either way you could argue that there’s no player in this England all-singing team to more fully fulfill their brief than Crowley.
Ben Stokes can have star power. Jonny Bairstow can have valor and courage. But even they tend to play only one shot at a time. Crowley has all of that and wants to play them all at once: a performer who captures the unique complexity of Test batting while still convincing us that anyone can do it.
Crowley scored 25 runs in 33 balls on Sunday evening. He hit six fours. Just based on those numbers you can probably imagine his innings without even seeing a second. But it was a masterclass in high farce, even by Crowley’s slapdash standards: trying one man’s innings, and failing, and failing harder, and possibly playing himself out of a Test career in the process.
England will take on India on Friday in the fifth Test of their delayed 2021 series. Had Crowley gone for a duck on the second ball, his place would probably have been safe. But it was an innings that changed minds. It was dropped to 0. He was almost run out. He played almost twice. He survived three lbw shouts ranging from hopeful to solid. And of course, he was actually his opening partner, Yorkshire-born Alex Lees, playing the Test at Headingley for the first time.
Earlier, he had played a single deliberate scoring shot. And so naturally, with the pitch still playing well and England chasing another historic target, you wondered if it could just be Crowley’s day. You guessed it, for all of his travels he was shining with the new ball, mainly from the side of his bat to pieces. At which point Crowley scored a comfortable 16 off a Trent Boult over, and for a few minutes the clouds parted and the wind whispered “Zak”.
This is the second part. Talent. Or at least that’s what we think we mean when we talk about talent, namely the ability to line up a cricket ball and leather it for miles. This is the talent Ricky Ponting was talking about after watching Crowley Blaze during last winter’s Ashes Fantastic 77 At Sydney Cricket Ground. “He probably shuts himself down for a few more years of Test cricket on the strength of an innings,” Ponting said. “He showed courage, he showed fighting, he showed intention.”
Ponting is a good judge of a player, but he clearly didn’t see much of Crowley. Almost every innings of Crowley begins with subtlety and fighting and intent. He uncovers some spectacular boundaries with a schoolboy’s pancakes.
Long levers, easy power, keen eyesight, sharp hands: it all fits into the narrow parameters of what we call “talent.” Sometimes he keeps going. Sometimes he even scores. once that too 267. got till, It all feels so natural and satisfying that we forget about his first-class average of 31, we forget all the time he made us dream and then slipped one.
And then he nixes one for slipping. Or, as here, he tries to hit Michael Bracewell through cover against the spin, and is caught. And you realize that talent at this stage is much more than just hand-eye coordination. Crowley has been an international cricketer for almost three years now and literally has no idea how to make an innings, how to organize his temper, what ball to hit, how to get along with a partner To bat, how to play a position. How to adapt to the circumstances. This too is talent. And in 24 Tests Crowley has provided little evidence of this.
Or how to rotate strike. As a Test opener, Crowley has scored 60% of his runs in boundaries. this is too much. Rohit Sharma had 55%, Abid Ali 53%, Tom Latham 50%, Dimuth Karunaratne 49%, David Warner 48% in the same period. Warner is particularly a prolific runner of the opening singles, demonstrating intent and manipulating the field. Crowley, in contrast, wants char or nothing. Perhaps one reason he was so nervous when Lees ran down the pitch in search of a quick single was that he had not remotely considered the possibility that one might turn.
Perhaps, there is a certain irony that the batsman who is perhaps most aligned with the ethos of the Stokes/McCullum regime is probably the worst performer under it. But really England’s new approach isn’t about pure hitting as it is about empowerment: encouraging players to get out of their shell, let go of their inhibitions. Crowley has no need for this. Whatever it is, this is a player who can frankly do it with a complex or two. Those who need to be a little more afraid of failure. Who needs to go back to county cricket and grow up a bit.
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