On the first day of the third Test, Shaheen Afridi seemed to be breathing fire. As usual, Mohammad Abbas was impeccable with his line and length, giving almost nothing away. There was the quick and impressive Naseem Shah to come and the wily leggie Yasir Shah was waiting in the wings as well.
This is a quality Pakistan attack. They may lack some experience but they can make you dance around. England had first-hand experience of this in the first Test. But Zak Crawley was up for the challenge. The minute he walked out to bat in this Test match, you could sense he was on.
He batted through the day, scoring an unbeaten 171 and became the second-youngest England batsman after to score a 150+ in a Test match from the middle-order.
Zak Crawley is the second-youngest England batsman to make 150 or more from the middle-order in a Test match.
— Stat Doctor🩺 (@stat_doctor) August 21, 2020
On the second, he went on to get a mammoth 267, he broke that record and piled on the misery. He batted so fluently that it just didn’t feel like he would get out. You needed to pinch yourself when he got out and that he missed out on a triple was a slight surprise. In fact, Crawley could have made history by becoming only the fourth player in the history of the game to convert his maiden ton into a triple.
It is a special one, not because of the records but an England top-order batsman scoring a ton, especially one at No. 3 is rare these days. Since 2015, before Crawley, only Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow had made hundreds at No. 3 and none since November 2018. Their top-order has always been under the scanner.
Even though England’s top order has started to find its feet, it has been a sort of hit and miss. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley have shown they are here to stay and they can be trusted upon. The duo have got decent scores this summer and over the course of the last 12 to 14 months.
But Burns has had his issue with the front foot coming across. While Sibley can bat, bat and bat, he tends to get in a tangle and gets caught down leg-side. The No. 3 spot has been a merry-go-round this summer.
In fact, we often talk about England’s openers and their instability and how it’s been an area of concern with the Test side trying out multiple players over the last few years. The No. 3 is another vulnerable are for England.
Since the start of 2015 (till the start of the third Test against Pakistan), England have had as many as 14 players who have batted at No. 3. It is the second-most after Sri Lanka who’ve had 16 players at that slot in this period. And out of those, only Craig Overton has come in as a night-watchman. Out of the other 13, only Root has played more than 10 innings at No. 3 and the fact is, that the current England Test skipper prefers to bat at 4 and does not want to bat at 3. However, he has had to on multiple occasions, given the vulnerability of England’s No. 3 position.
England’s No. 3s have scored a mere four hundreds and out of those, Root has scored two. In fact, only West Indies (two), Zimbabwe (two) and Afghanistan (one) have had lesser hundreds at No. 3 than England. And their innings/hundred of 35.5 which is the second-most after West Indies’ 43.5.
England will hope Zak Crawley makes a hundred here.
They have struggled to identify a no.3 who scores 100s.
Since 2015, England's no.3s have just 4 tons and the second-worst Innings/100 ratio.
— Stat Doctor🩺 (@stat_doctor) August 21, 2020
Take a look at some more numbers. England have played the most Test matches since 2015 and their No. 3s collectively average 32.89. New Zealand, Australia, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan have had better averages at No. 3. And it is Root who covers that average up as well. At No. 3, no other player apart from Joe Root who played has played more than one innings at No. 3 averages more than 40. No one is even close to Root’s numbers.
Jonny Bairstow averages 38.83 but has played just three innings. Moreover, he has had his issues in Test cricket and has been out of the Test team this summer. Jason Roy scored a 72 against Ireland but that’s his only innings at 3 and his Test career seemed to have lasted for just one summer. There was Ian Bell but his Test career is over while Gary Balance did look like the future for some time faded away. Thus, England have struggled to find a No. 3.
This summer, it’s been Denly, Crawley and Root at No. 3. However, it is Crawley’s ton who has given England some hope of finally putting their No. 3 woes to rest. He has shown there is some light at the end of the tunnel after all.
Every time a hundred is scored by a player, you tend to talk highly about that player and you tend to use clichéd phrases like, ‘he is here to stay’, ‘proves his critics wrong’ and so on and so forth. You could say, the same is happening with Crawley.
However, it’s different in the case with the Kent batsman. Not only because of the hundred in this Test against a high-quality Pakistan attack which he converted into a daddy hundred (171 not out at the moment) and played with great ease and fluency, but over the course of his short Test career Crawley has shown he can get better.
There have been barely a few Test matches where Crawley has played by himself. In his eight-Test career so far, he has come in to fill a spot in almost every Test. He played in the Hamilton Test because Jos Buttler had troubles with his back. He featured in three Tests in South Africa as Burns was ruled out with a ligament tear. He played in Southampton in the first Test against West Indies because Root was on paternity leave. He came into the side in Southampton against Pakistan in the second Test as Ben Stokes was unavailable.
Hence, Crawley has constantly been in and out of the side. Yet, he has found ways of bettering himself every time he has taken field. In his first five Test matches, the Kent batsman went past his own highest score and recorded career-best scores. It was only in Manchester against West Indies in the second Test that the sequence broke. Moreover, Crawley’s batting position hasn’t been fixed. He started at 6 then moved up to open, then down to four and then at No. 3.
When he came into the side in the second Test against Pakistan, he batted at 3 and showed great discipline even though the ball was hooping around and Yasir Shah was troubling the batsmen. In the third Test, he showed his range as a batsman. Right from the get-go, he looked fluent and looked in total control.
Walking into bat at 12/1, Crawley weathered the storm and, in the process, shifted the momentum and put the pressure back on the Pakistan bowlers. He was busy at the crease and constantly rotated the strike with the odd boundary here and there.
And the way Crawley went through different gears was remarkable. He raced away to 45 in just 46 balls but grinded it out in the last half an hour before lunch as he took 34 balls to get to fifty. After that, he ticked along nicely. But once England lost Root and Pope in the space of three overs, Crawley took charge. While he did have the fluent Buttler at the other end, it was Crawley showing great temperament and solidity as he drove England from a position on uncertainty into a position of strength. He reached his hundred in the first over after Tea and at one stage, Crawley had scored nearly 58% of England’s total – he had made 123 out of England’s 213 runs. And then along with Buttler, Crawley just consolidated that position. He once again moved through the gear moving up and then coming back down as the end of the day’s play approached.
One of the notable aspects of Crawley's innings has been how he has moved up, down, up and down again through different gears. He has the game to dominate attacks but also absorb pressure. #ENGvPAK pic.twitter.com/y2xMeXOMmj
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) August 21, 2020
Hence, Crawley’s 267 has just solidified his position in this England Test team and can be England’s long-term No. 3. The 22-year-old offers a great deal batting at No. 3. He has all the shots in the book. Crawley can drive well on both sides of the wicket, he can cut and pull well too, he can play the punch off the back foot, he can nudge around against the spinners and attack them as well. He is someone who can be aggressive yet weather the storm and consolidate. Moreover, the Kent lad allows Root bat to his preferred No. 4 spot and not worry about going back to No. 3 again.
Only Tip Foster (287) scored more runs than Crawley’s 267 during his maiden ton. Moreover, with just one innings, Crawley has more runs than any player in this home summer despite playing just four Tests. He averages the most as well.
Thus, Crawley has proven why he is rated highly and despite not having outstanding numbers in County cricket, why he was included in the Test team early. It was just his fourth first-class Test but one, that might just go on to mark the emergence of a long-term top-order or rather No. 3 batsman for England. Zak Crawley has well and truly arrived.