England consider Zak Crawley return with Mark Wood set to play Boxing Day Ashes Test

Crawley has not kicked on since his remarkable 267 in 2020 but will get another opportunity

Credit: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

England are considering a recall for Zak Crawley as part of a rejigged top six for the make-or-break Boxing Day Ashes Test.

Crawley has not played Test cricket since he was dropped against India in the summer averaging just 11 this year, a bitter disappointment to England after his 267 in 2020 led them to believe they had finally found a young batsman who could make the grade.

He has looked good in practice, which is all England can go on with no cricket outside of the Test series, and scored 45 in the warm up match against the Lions last month.

“I feel in a good place with my batting. If I start or don’t start, I will keep doing the same things so I’m ready to perform if and when,” Crawley said earlier in the tour.

Crawley could replace either one of the openers or slot into the middle order for struggling Ollie Pope. Dan Lawrence is another candidate or Jonny Bairstow if England think they need to make more than one change to the batting line up for the Boxing Day Test.

It was reported on Wednesday night that England’s batters were made to rewatch 14 out of the 20 wickets that fell in Adelaide as part of a post-match debrief to highlight failures in not leaving balls that didn’t need to be played.

According to The Guardian, head coach Chris Silverwood played the dismissals on a TV screen in the dressing room. Eight of the 14 wickets to fall from England’s top seven fell to catches between wicketkeeper and gully off Australia’s seamers.

Mark Wood will return to add pace to the attack and Jack Leach is in line for a recall with England requiring variety after the predictability of Adelaide. 

Crawley’s Test career has been an enigma. Clearly talented and with the game suited for Australian pitches, he was too loose against India in series home and away this year. He lacked a plan and did not give himself a chance to build an innings. Time away has given him the opportunity to rethink his batting and at 23 he has a long career ahead of him if he can get over this blip.

Joe Root is the last England batsman to fully establish himself in the Test team and he debuted in 2012. It has been a barren run that has held the team back and left the captain to carry the burden of run scoring alone.

The problem for England is the complete lack of proper cricket for their reserves. Crawley should have played in the Lions match against Australia A during the Brisbane Test but instead did 12th-man duties at the Gabba. The Lions match against England descended into nothing more than middle practice and that is all the cricket he has played since a championship match for Kent at the end of September. It will be a huge challenge for any of the reserve batsmen to walk into the Boxing Day Test to face the Australia attack so underprepared which is why England may be reluctant to make many changes. 

Scott Boland, the Victoria seamer added to the Australia squad on Tuesday, could make a shock debut if the hosts believe Jhye Richardson or Mitchell Starc needs a rest after Adelaide. Australia are wary of over-bowling their seamers, a mistake they made against India last year. Josh Hazlewood is clearly not in contention but Pat Cummins will return. Boland is an MCG specialist with a good record bowling on flat pitches in Melbourne. He is 32, old for an Australian debutant, but has 16 wickets at 10 in the Sheffield Shield this season.

Will Crawley’s return make England’s brittle batting line-up any better?

By Tim Wigmore

Ever since Zak Crawley made his Test debut two years ago, England have believed that his qualities are ideally-suited to Australia. On Boxing Day in Melbourne, Crawley will get to put that theory to the test.

Crawley has been absent from the first two Tests down under for a simple reason: his derisory form in 2021. Scoring 267 against Pakistan in his last Test innings in 2020 seemed to mark Crawley’s elevation into a Test cricketer of substance. Instead, this innings rapidly came to feel like a brilliant dream: in seven Tests in 2021, Crawley has only mustered 156 runs at 11.1 apiece, leading to England dropping him before the second Test against India last summer. 

Dominic Sibley, another member of England’s underperforming top three, was dropped one match later. Yet the circumstances in which the two were dropped were very different. While with Sibley, the sense was of a cricketer who was not quite of the requisite class for Test cricket – a perception that he has ample time to challenge yet – with Crawley the sense was of a player in a funk, but who would come again.

Crawley has endured a miserable 2021 in Test cricket because of two pronounced weaknesses. The first is against spin bowling, especially orthodox left-arm spin; against Lasith Embuldeniya and Axar Patel in Sri Lanka and India, Crawley lost his judgment of when to play at balls and when to leave them alone, and his attempts to use his feet were unconvincing. Crawley’s second weakness, exposed by New Zealand, was his propensity for booming drives at the start of his innings. 

Zak Crawley has endured a dismal 2021 so far

Credit: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

In Australia at least Crawley will be safe from left-arm spin, against which he averages just seven in Tests. While Australia’s seamers will test his judgment and defence at the start of his innings, Crawley will face far less movement in the air and off the pitch than in England.

Among English top-order players, Crawley is unusual: he is more comfortable dealing with the ball moving up than moving sideways. 

As a schoolboy, Crawley identified that playing high pace would be crucial to his ambitions of playing international cricket; he practised against short balls assiduously in Kent’s indoor school, and developed his game by playing club cricket in Perth. 

Crawley’s backlift is modelled on Ricky Ponting, who was ruthless against short balls. His 6ft 5in frame gives Crawley the reach and power to pull off the front foot. This was a feature of Crawley’s play in South Africa two years ago where, on similar pitches, he improved quickly against the pace of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, and averaged 32.6 to help England to a 3-1 series victory. 

For all his problems elsewhere, Crawley has thrived against short bowling so far in his Test career. Crawley has faced 313 short deliveries in Tests, scoring 173 runs and only been dismissed once.  

It is a record that suggests that Australian conditions should suit  him. But even if he is a good fit for the conditions, the greater question is whether Crawley can cope with the quality of bowlers – and a seam attack that will be even more relentless with Pat Cummins returning. He has made technical tweaks since being dropped, designed to improve his balance and transfer of weight when playing on the front foot against seam. 

Australia’s attack will scrutinise how durable Crawley’s refined technique is. His challenge will be amplified by his dearth of meaningful cricket in recent months. Since the end of the English summer, Crawley’s only innings in the middle was 45 in England’s intra-squad warm-up game before the first Test, which wasn’t even first-class. 

It is in keeping with England’s entire tour that Crawley’s preparation in recent months has been limited. But he can take heart that, when it comes to readying himself for the cauldron of the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day, really he has been preparing for years.

Mark Wood: I was ready to play in Adelaide – and I’m ready for the MCG, too

By Nick Hoult, in Melbourne

Mark Wood says England intend to restart their tour at the MCG after a “kick up the bum” from the coach.

Wood will return to the attack after the Adelaide defeat and shake up a bowling unit that was too predictable in the second Test.

With cloudy weather forecast for Boxing Day, similar to when England knocked over Australia for 98 in 2010-11, and the head groundsman describing his surface as a seamers’ pitch, Wood could be granted the perfect conditions for a return although it depends on England winning the toss, and then making the right decision.

It is a shame it is too late. The most perplexing decision of this tour – and that is quite something – was to hold Wood back when England had to win in Adelaide to keep alive hopes of regaining the Ashes.

Wood says he “was ready to go” and back up his performance in Brisbane, where he dismissed Steve Smith and bowled at high pace throughout. He has produced good back-to-back performances before. He played consecutive Tests in Sri Lanka in January in soporific heat, toiling through 28 overs in the second match in Galle taking three for 84. His Johannesburg match-winning performance of nine for 100 in early 2020 came a week after playing in Port Elizabeth.

“I have managed to play back-to-back Tests in the last couple of years. It’s something I’ve worked hard at with my fitness and things like that,” said Wood. “Obviously with the times where I’ve broken down, I’ve tried my best to make them less and less. I was ready to go if required but the decision was made that I would be left out. I accept that. We’re all part of a team here that’s trying to win the Ashes. If that was the best decision for the team, that was fine.”

Mark Wood is fit and raring to go at the MCG – but he was fit for Adelaide, too

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

There are always fitness worries given his injury record, and this is a long five-Test tour, but after losing in Brisbane England had to pick their strongest attack and that includes Wood.

Instead they were too predictable and Australia won by 275 runs and the captain publicly criticised his attack for bowling too short.

That led to Ricky Ponting questioning Joe Root’s leadership skills as Australians rounded on the tourists, sniffing blood and a 5-0 whitewash but Wood thinks honesty was needed after such a drubbing, with pundits such as Michael Vaughan suggesting it is too cosy in the England set-up.

“Chris Silverwood spoke, put some footage up at the end of the game. We don’t usually look at footage there and then. Stokesy and Rooty spoke honestly to the group about things we felt weren’t going well and what we’d do better. It was a conversation that isn’t usual for us,” said Wood.

“We obviously review the game, things we could do better, things we’ve done well, but this was more a kick up the bum to say look we are 2-0 down now, the same mistakes keep on happening. It was a good discussion. It could go one of two ways, but people having those brutally honest conversations and accepting that within the group is something I feel like the team are open to and respect; the fact we can speak to each other like that. I think we probably needed it.”

Wood dismissed Steve Smith in Brisbane for 12, and had him hopping around in the lead-up. Smith looked uncomfortable, and with five men on the leg side, Wood bowled one in the channel that he nicked with limited footwork.

The occasion can get to players on Boxing Day and although the crowd is expected to be around 70,000, down from 90,000 on recent Ashes tours as fans stay away due to Covid, it will still be the biggest that Wood has played in front of.

“If I do play that’s something you can say is special in your life, and I can tell my son one day that I got up in front of that many people in a massive sporting occasion with everything on the line, and if that’s the case then I’ll give everything I’ve got, 100 per cent charging in, to try to get us the right result to get us back in the Ashes.”

Wood will be one change but England could make up to four. Two batsmen could go and two bowlers from Adelaide. Haseeb Hameed and Ollie Pope are the most vulnerable in the top six with Jonny Bairstow, Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence the options. Crawley scored 45 for the Lions in the intra-squad warm up against England before the Test series. Jack Leach and Wood could come in for Chris Woakes and one of James Anderson or Stuart Broad. It will depend on how the bowlers are physically after Adelaide. Craig Overton and Dom Bess are fresh but have not been in contention so far.

There was one bit of good news for England, who won concessions from Cricket Australia on Wednesday over the bubble restrictions in Melbourne. They are now allowed to meet people outside of their bubble but must not sit inside restaurants or cafes.

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