Zak Crawley: I was out of nick but Ashes unlocked my bravery

Zak Crawley of England looks on during the England Nets Session at The Kia Oval on July 25, 2023 in London, England

Zak Crawley’s position at the top of England’s order was under threat heading into the series – Getty Images/Ryan Pierse

After England’s tour of New Zealand in February, during which he felt “really out of nick”, Zak Crawley felt “very vulnerable” in England’s XI heading for the Ashes summer ahead.

But, says Crawley, coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes had been “hammering away” at him for a year, providing relentless affirmation that he was their man at the top of the order.

“The messaging was always the same from them,” Crawley tells the Vaughany and Tuffers Cricket Club Podcast. “So I decided to fully buy into it a bit more. To give myself the best chance of success, I was going to be braver in this [Ashes] series.”

It worked, to an extent that perhaps not even Crawley can believe. He ended the series with 480 runs, more than any other Englishman, at an average of 53.3, the highest on either side, and a strike-rate of 88.7. In every Test, he made a score of at least 44 and, from the moment Crawley cracked the first ball of the series from Pat Cummins through the covers for four, he looked at ease against Australia, and for that he credits his new mindset.

“It was certainly in the back of my mind that I wanted to be positive and if it was there to hit I was going to try to get it away, because I thought it would send a really good message,” he says of the first ball of the series.

“I wasn’t going to swing at it wherever it is, because that would have been reckless. But if it was in my area, I was going to try to put my hands through it. Luckily it hit the middle of the bat. I wanted to make an impression and show them that we were going to keep playing the same way. I am thankful it came off.

“I’ve certainly had that mindset [not fearing getting out] more this series, and that was the best I’ve done it this series in terms of my bravery early. I feel against great bowlers it’s easier to be brave. I felt that if I just sat there against Cummins, [Josh] Hazlewood, [Mitchell] Starc, [Scott] Boland, there is going to be a good ball in there. I have probably done that too much in my career against great bowlers, allowed them to bowl at me and there is a ball in me that will have your name on it.

“I thought if I could put them under pressure a bit more, it might give me more of a chance. I was certainly braver against them, and that was on purpose. The pitches were good early in this series and thankfully it came off on a few occasions.”

Crawley is outwardly unflappable, rarely looks out of form, and avoids all forms of media – both social and traditional – so is largely oblivious to his divisiveness. But he admits he did doubt himself earlier this year.

England's Zak Crawley strikes the ball for 4 runs on the first ball of the day during day three of the fifth LV= Insurance Ashes Series test match at The Kia Oval, London

Crawley ended as the series’ top run scorer – PA Wire/Mike Egerton

“I have always felt like I have netted well, and I couldn’t put my finger on why I could net well, and not score runs in the game,” he said. “There have been times where I’ve felt badly out of nick in the game. I felt out of nick in New Zealand. More the mental block, that fear of failure. I didn’t have the right game plan against certain type of bowling, I couldn’t unlock that over a period of time. Thankful I’ve done that over a series, and I’ll try to unlock some of the things I did in this series more often.

“It won’t always come off, there will be time I will get out early and it’ll look reckless. But if I play like that I think I’m better off.

“When I put pressure on myself I feel worse. I didn’t allow myself to do that this time.”

On the podcast, Crawley also admits that England had a “good break” in the final Test, when a new ball chosen by the umpires swung and seamed more than the one it replaced, and lifted the lid on England’s celebrations, which saw the two teams mix in a nightclub rather than the changing room after a breakdown in communication.

“There wasn’t a Freddie Flintoff [who got very drunk celebrating the 2005 Ashes], it takes a lot to get there,” he said. “We had a great time, enjoyed spending time together after a hard fought series. It was a bit more muted than your [Vaughan’s] one, you won the Ashes and this time the Aussies retained it.

“It was a shame, the timings didn’t work. Both teams do a debrief. Ours is usually a bit shorter than on Monday night. Stuart Broad leaving, Moeen [Ali] leaving, and one of the physios Griff leaving as well. It was a normal debrief plus send-offs. In there a bit too long, so it didn’t quite work for the Aussies. The timings didn’t quite work.”

Moeen: I would have lived to regret not returning for Ashes

On day two of this week’s Oval Test, England coach Brendon McCullum checked that Moeen Ali really did want to retire from Test cricket. Moeen fired back a prompt “no, that’s me done”, and walked away from the longest format for a second – and surely final – time content.

Moeen’s Test career ended after 68 matches, walking off arm in arm with another retiree, Stuart Broad. He signs off with a middling record (averaging 28.1 with the bat and 37 with the ball), but having provided England fans with countless memorable moments and done just about every job in the team with good grace and humour.

“I was a little bit embarrassed to be walking off with a great,” said Moeen. “It proves the man he is. I didn’t want to do it and he said I had to. I was really reluctant, but it was great.”

England do not play Test cricket until January, when Moeen will be in South Africa on a lucrative contract with Joburg Super Kings, not India with England.

“No I’m not going, there’s no way I’m going,” he said. “That’s me done. It’s nice to finish like this and be part of an amazing day [on Monday].

England's Moeen Ali celebrates the dismissal of Australia's Mitchell Marsh on day five of the fifth Ashes Test match between England and Australia, at The Oval cricket ground in London, Monday, July 31, 2023

Moeen agreed to come back to the Test arena after the injury to Jack Leach – AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

“They knew from the start [that I was retiring]. Especially when those India venues came out! Baz asked me again when I had my day off on the second day. I said no. Test cricket is the best cricket, I wish I could rewind time. Although my career has been a bit up and down, I wouldn’t change it. I’ve loved it.”

It was a typically eventful series for Moeen, with two injuries (to his finger and groin), batting as low as No 8 and as high as No 3, and picking up vital wickets – including on the last day of the series – but still coming away with a bowling average of 51.4.

“A hundred per cent,” he said, when asked if he was glad that he came back. “I would have regretted it later in life. It was quite daunting, because I’ve never done well against Australia. I still don’t believe I’ve done that well, but it was great to finish like this.”

That said, Moeen added that if “Stokesy messages me again, I’m going to delete it”, about another retirement U-turn.

“As soon as I got that milestone, my dad checked out,” he said. “He wants me to do well, but he checked out – he was just buzzing. That was the one thing in his head more than anything. Things happen for a reason, and it was meant to be.

“It’s a great list to be on. It feels a bit weird. Those great names and me. Something is not right.

“When I played a few nice shots I thought ‘I can still bat!’ You forget sometimes when you’re batting seven and eight, but I was reminded that I can bat. I can duck and move out the way, and that might have been my weakness once. White-ball cricket is great, I love the leagues, but there is nothing better than playing against the best attack with a new ball in their hand.”

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