Zak Crawley doesn’t do consistent.
In his 70 innings as a Test cricketer he has passed fifty just 13 times and only gone on to score four hundreds. In over half his knocks he has been dismissed for less than 20. Six of those were ducks.
But he can do special, as all those who watched his 189 from 182 balls against Australia at Emirates Old Trafford – his first century in 18 innings – will testify. It was a performance that had shades of his Test-best 267 against Pakistan at The Ageas Bowl in 2020.
Those special knocks may come too infrequently for the liking of a number of England fans but they have come enough for the team hierarchy to keep showing faith in him.
“To me, he is a rare talent,” England head coach Brendon McCullum previously said of Crawley. “I don’t think there are too many people in world cricket that can play like he does.”
Crawley has opened in every Test under McCullum and captain Ben Stokes, during which time he has mixed a plethora of low scores with a sprinkling of game-altering innings.
His terrific knock in Manchester was up there with the most game-altering of the lot, alongside his 86-ball ton against Pakistan in Rawalpindi in December as England piled on 500 in a day.
Crawley’s 93-ball century – the second-fastest in Manchester in Tests, behind only Sir Ian Botham’s 81-ball effort against Australia in 1981 – was clinched during an afternoon session in which England smashed 178 runs in 25 overs at rate of 7.12 against their increasingly frazzled opponents. Of those 178 runs, Crawley notched 106 of them.
With the game set to be affected by wet weather over the weekend, the speed at which Crawley powered his runs could prove crucial.
Crawley attacked Australia from the off, in keeping with the team mentality. He was brave and fortune favoured him. There were wafty drives, inside edges past his stumps, outside edges over the slips. An overturned lbw dismissal on 20. It was far from chanceless.
His false-shot percentage in his hundred was 25, the sixth highest for any Test ton since 2006. One of those centuries above him was struck by McCullum, whose false-shot percentage was 33 when he nailed a Test-record 54 ball hundred against Australia in 2016.
McCullum is not always the most outwardly emotional but even he would have struggled to contain his glee after seeing one of his disciples show exactly why he has been retained despite a Test average of less than 30 and continued chat about his place in the XI.
Crawley showed his full repertoire of strokes as his innings progressed.
Flowing drives were unfurled later on after he picked up most of his runs on the leg-side early in his knock as Australia gifted him a host of hit-me balls on the pads. We saw reverse sweeps and slog sweeps, confident whips through midwicket.
Crawley: I am good enough for this level
Crawley told Sky Sports Cricket: “I rode my luck at times – well, quite a lot of the time – but I hit a lot of good shots along the way. I do doubt myself but I have to keep being me, keep backing my game.
“I am going to have streaks of low scores if I am taking a punt but if I try and be more consistent I might not have a day like today.
“I have tried to be consistent and it hasn’t worked for me. I would much rather it this way. I think at my best I have shown I am good enough for this level.”
Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting added: “Crawley’s ball-striking was outstanding. I think a lot of people around English cricket have known what he is capable of.
“Yes, it has probably been a bit lean here and there but Stokes wants to pick people with special things ahead of them and what Crawley has produced here is very special.”
Sky Sports’ Nasser Hussain added: “There have been so many critics of Crawley but England have stuck with him because they know he can play this sort of innings. They want someone to put quality bowlers under pressure and he did that.”
When Crawley is in this mood, he looks every inch the Test batter.
His tall stature and dominance of bowlers is Kevin Pietersen-esque. He is dominating excellent bowlers, too – averaging around a hundred against Pat Cummins. There may be county openers with better first-class averages than him but could any of them do what he is capable of at his best? England certainly think not.
And, say it quietly, but there has been an element of consistency for Crawley throughout this Ashes. He is now the leading run-scorer in the series, albeit thanks principally to his Manchester daddy ton.
Before his 189, he had only fallen for single figures twice in six innings, with a half-century in an Edgbaston Test England would have won if not for a glut of fielding errors and then a second-innings 44 in a Headingley Test they did win to keep the Ashes alive.
But consistency is not what he is in the side for.
“Zak’s skillset is not to be a consistent cricketer,” McCullum said last year. “He’s not that type of player. He has a game which when he gets going can win matches for England.”
Consistent? He might end up getting there. Special? Definitely.
Watch day three of the fourth Ashes Test, from Emirates Old Trafford in Manchester, live on Sky Sports Cricket on Friday. Build-up begins at 10.15am ahead of the first ball at 11am.