The gunshot crack of leather on willow reverberated across Edgbaston. Zac Crawley’s authoritative cover drive off Pat Cummins on the very first ball of the Ashes opener not only screamed BazBall, but also affirmed why Rob Key, Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes wax lyrical about the beanpole of a dasher.
Crawley has a stratospheric ceiling. His performances, although sporadic, are impactful. When he comes good, Crawley scores at a pace that can bother oppositions, putting him right up the alley of the current regime that values intent over consistency.
England place a premium on shot-making ability, the abundance of which explains the faith shown in Crawley, who went 16 innings without a fifty after notching a ton in the West Indies in March 2022. However, in recent times, a technical glitch had hamstrung his ball-striking caliber, the very quality that has earned him a long rope in the face of low scores. Having totalled 58 in four innings versus New Zealand in February 2023, Crawley surpassed that aggregate in just one trip to the crease against Australia. The secret sauce? A narrow stance adopted in consultation with England batting coach Marcus Trescothick.
Led by Nasser Hussain, the Sky Sports commentary team did a split-screen analysis of the change Crawley had made to his set-up heading into the Ashes. He was standing with his feet wide apart earlier, transcending shoulder width. Such an extravagant distance hampered the ability to flex his knees enough, and thereby his balance at the point of release with the bodyweight falling on the heel instead of the ball of each foot.
Martin Crowe wrote ‘The best way to get on to the balls of the feet is to flex the knees. Straight legs send the weight to the wider part of the foot, including the heel, a sure way to slow movement. By flexing the knees and feeling the pressure on the balls of the feet, the body has its engine room fired up and ready to pounce.’
Batting coach Toby Radford concurs in his manual Getting to Grips that adequate knee flexion is essential for a batter to be dynamic and primed to move, highlighting that the lack thereof creates a static position, which was exactly the case with Crawley at the start of the year. The insufficient bend in his knees because of the faraway stance had a ripple effect. His upright torso meant the front shoulder could not dip forward adequately to bring his head and bodyweight forward and closer to the front foot, translating into a braced front leg that left him with no option but to play the ball in front of his body.
How Zak Crawley changing his stance has helped him improve 🏏👇 pic.twitter.com/slJFSflhfV
— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) June 18, 2023
Making contact with the ball from a stable base provides control and maximizes the power in the shot. In order to nail the timing and achieve optimum control the batter ought to meet the ball under or close to the head, with the head over or beyond the front foot. The freeze-frame of Crawley’s push depicts the premature interception point, hence an imaginary straight line can not be drawn from his head, through the bat to the ball.
His hands have to reach out as he lunges forward, a consequence of the braced front leg. When a batter fails to strike the ball ‘right under his nose’ and makes early contact instead, the probability of an uppish shot escalates. Moreover, since you are not allowing the ball to come to you, there is less time to deal with any movement in the air or deviation off the pitch.
By waiting and playing late a batter buys an extra split second to gauge the finishing line of the ball and make last-minute adjustments, whereas by committing early you run the risk of meeting the swinging or seaming ball halfway in its path – the danger zone. Connecting later also keeps edges from carrying, rendering the practice a key survival mechanism in England and New Zealand where the ball hoops around corners. Ajinkya Rahane was India’s top scorer in the recently-concluded World Test Championship final in London, and much of his success was tethered to the belated interception points – an average 1.49m from the stumps as compared to 2.04m, the mean for the rest of the Indian batters.
Crawley’s rectified alignment wasn’t put through the wringer as pacers extracted a modicum of movement at Edgbaston, but the fact that he raced to an attractive half-century against a fearsome attack means it worked like a charm. Crawley’s funk and flair came to the fore with the fundamentals having undergone a much-needed course correction.
His feet were now at a comfortable distance from each other, triggering a positive chain reaction. Knee flexion improved as the new stance encouraged a crouch with Crawely no longer being as stiff, shifting his weight marginally over the front foot to enable quick and efficient movement in both directions. Besides freeing up his legs, the shortened stance liberated his upper body to facilitate the dip of the front shoulder as well as the head towards the bowler’s stumps.
Technical correctness underpinned the brute of a cover drive that Crawley hit off Cummins’ opening salvo. A straight line could be drawn from his head through the bat to the ball. The front knee was appropriately flexed at the point of contact, ensuring supreme weight transfer into the shot. The heel of his back foot arising off the floor serves as glowing evidence of the transmission of energy. A figure 9 is visible between the shoulders, front elbow and the bat. With all the checkboxes ticked off, Crawley was bound to find the sweet spot. And so he did, getting Ashes underway in the most resounding fashion.