On the eve of the first Test, at the ground that carries his name, the great Sir Vivian Richards was asked about the absence of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad but instead decided to largely ignore the question and deliver a hymn of praise for Zak Crawley.
“A magnificent player,” purred Richards, urging England to give the 24-year-old time to flourish; to accept that, as a tall right-hander with an array of attacking shots at the top of the order, the first phase of his Test career may be hit and miss.
The talents that caught the eye of Richards were in evidence on the fourth day, Crawley strumming his second century for England that, along with 84 not out for Joe Root, gave England control of the match heading into the final day.
The tourists closed on 217 for one from 63.2 overs when rain lashed down at 5pm local time, having given themselves a sniff of victory through a lead of 153, even if the draw is clearly the heavy favorite on this moribund pitch.
Trickier surfaces lie ahead but Crawley’s elegant unbeaten 117 from 200 balls should do plenty for his confidence, having gone 21 innings without a three-figure score since his 267 against Pakistan in 2020. The smile upon reaching the milestone here, nudging Jayden Seales into the leg-side for two precious runs after tea and delighting the visiting supporters with it, suggested as much.
“It means an awful lot,” Crawley said. “It’s been a while since my last one and there were times last year when I didn’t think I’d get another. We are going to try and win the Test match. It’s something we’ll discuss but I think we’ll want a minimum of 65-70 overs at them.”
An unbroken second-wicket stand of 193 from 52.1 overs between Crawley and his captain also represented a boon for a top order that was shredded in Australia and last year found itself five down for 67 runs or fewer on eight occasions. So while conditions helped immensely, there was still pressure here.
Winkling out the final West Indies wicket first thing – the hosts finally bowled out for 375 from 157 gruelling overs – England were staring at a deficit of 64 runs. In light of those recent struggles, one could not rule out the possibility of faces being left as red as some of those among the Barmy Army.
There was an inauspicious start to their innings too, Crawley’s new opening partner, Alex Lees, seeing his Test debut end with scores of four and six. For the second time in the match, Kemar Roach followed a succession of outswingers to the left-hander with one that speared into his front pad.
Having seen seven decisions overturned by this point in the contest, Lees reviewed instantly but instead became the first England opener to make two single-figure scores on his debut since Hugh Morris in 1991; at least historical comfort can be drawn from the fact that the last Yorkshire-born cricketer on this list was one Len Hutton in 1937. He went OK.
With this came the end of England’s third-highest opening partnership of the winter – just 24 runs – but Root strode out in his new position back at No 3 and soon qued any concerns, with he and Crawley calmly pushing their side into the lead by lunch, reaching 72 for one, and then 146 for one by tea.
The runs came quicker than the previous day and the West Indies attack were left searching for answers once the ball went soft. Crawley was in murderous mood when they strayed, his 16 fours crisply struck either square of the wicket or behind, taking 100 balls to reach his half-century and then 81 more to double it. Even on a road, his execution was still rewarding for those present.
It was the left-arm spin of Axar Patel that led to Crawley’s career stalling in India last year but with the pitch failing to break up here, his equivalent, Veerasammy Permaul, could offer no such threat. When Kraigg Brathwaite then started bowling his achingly slow off-spin from the other end, freebies were in abundance and both set batsmen helped themselves.
Having earlier overturned an lbw shout from Roach with the new ball, the only other heart in mouth moment came when Crawley was on 71 and a flick to leg off Permaul ended up in the hands of slip. West Indies went up, convinced it had struck his boot on the full before the catch. But with an on-field ‘soft-signal’ of not out, the TV umpire, Leslie Reifer, did not have conclusive evidence to give it.
Otherwise it was a cruise for Crawley and Root, and perhaps a degree of vindication for the bowlers who 24 hours earlier had canvassed in the absence of Mark Wood; a bit like Spike Milligan’s epitaph on his gravestone: “I told you I was ill”.
For England there was still optimism that Wood may be able to bowl on the fifth day after the elbow injury that has sparked fears over his continuation in this three-Test series. Whether this would be wise, given the likelihood of a stalemate, is another matter.