WELLINGTON — Zak Crawley’s England career is hanging by a thread after he ended this tour of New Zealand with yet another failure on the fourth day of the final Test at the Basin Reserve.
England coach Brendon McCullum, who backed the opener throughout a lean home summer until he hit 69 in his final innings against South Africa at the Oval, may say his innings of 24 here was a vital contribution towards the team’s pursuit of 258 to win this match.
But in reality, Crawley is a batter of diminishing returns, with one century in 27 innings and only Stuart Broad and Jack Leach averaging less than his 14.50 in this series.
At times, the 25-year-old looked a tortured soul during his final contribution of this tour. Indeed, Crawley could have been out three times before he was eventually bowled through a gaping chasm between bat and pad by Tim Southee.
Crawley has been lucky that while his own form has been poor, England have been on a winning run, with an 11th victory in 12 Tests within their grasp heading into the final day in Wellington.
With the Ashes coming up this summer, McCullum and captain Ben Stokes know they cannot afford passengers against the Australians. There is also the issue that someone in the top seven will surely have to make way for England to squeeze a fit-again Jonny Bairstow back into this batting line-up.
The idea that wicketkeeper Ben Foakes might make way while Crawley keeps his place seems perverse. Indeed, Foakes, who produced another wicketkeeping masterclass to help England eventually dismiss New Zealand for 483 in their second innings on day four of this Test, is a vital cog in this team with both gloves and bat in hand.
Dropping Crawley, as England did with his former opening partner Alex Lees at the end of last summer, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his international career.
He is young enough to come again. Yet an average of 27.60 from 33 Tests should be a big enough sample size to conclude he needs to go back to county cricket to rebuild his confidence and game.
Removing Crawley would leave England needing to find another opener to partner Ben Duckett this coming summer. And maybe the travails of Stokes in this final Test suggests moving the captain to the top of the order isn’t the craziest idea in the world.
The extent of Stokes’ injury to his left knee is unknown but the fact he bowled just two overs as his team were kept in the field for 162.3 during New Zealand’s second innings suggests he may bowl very little in Test cricket until he has rectified his knee issue.
The sight of Harry Brook, rather than Stokes, running in to bowl 28 minutes after tea on the fourth day suggested as much. Brook bowled eight overs in all and remarkably took the key wicket of Kane Williamson, who was set on 132, with what Joe Root has previously described as his “filthy medium pace”. Yet Stokes should have been the game changer with the ball.
Stokes has always been a selfless cricketer and he demands the same from his players. So, with the hosts piling up the runs in Wellington to make a game of this final Test, he would surely have felt compelled not only to chip in and help out but lead by example.
So often in the past, Stokes’ efforts with the ball have bailed England out of perilous situations. His deeds with the bat during the 2019 Headingley Ashes Test are now seared into English cricket’s collective consciousness. Yet it is what he did with the ball in Australia’s second innings in Leeds, bowling 24.2 overs – more than anyone else – and taking three wickets that set up the thrilling one-wicket win that was ultimately sealed by his unbeaten century.
Perhaps the most important question for England managing director of cricket Rob Key in the coming weeks will be whether Stokes really should fulfil his £1.6m Indian Premier League deal with Chennai Super Kings.
The IPL starts in March but with Stokes so obviously struggling, Key will have to weigh up whether allowing him to travel to India for a two-month tournament is the best preparation for the Ashes.
The answer may be unpopular with the player but Key, who has got every big decision right since taking on his role last year, should not be discouraged from doing what he thinks is best for England’s Ashes prospects this summer.