Cricket: Confident Crawley is ready to graduate: Glenn Moore in South Africa assesses a batsman revelling in his further education

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THE CHANCE to lead the Combined Universities against the Australian tourists ought to be the highlight of any student cricketer's career, but last summer John Crawley turned it down.

As Crawley is demonstrating on the present England A tour of South Africa, he is no ordinary cricketer.

'The first day of the match clashed with my graduation ceremony,' Crawley explained last week. 'At Trinity (College), the ceremony is followed by a graduation festival, which is like a May Ball held in the daytime. I tried to compromise and said I'd give up on the festival and come along after the ceremony. As that was in Cambridge at 9am it would have meant me arriving in Oxford about an hour late for a three-day match.

'But they said if I was captain I had to be there all through. I offered to step down as captain but they said if I was going to play at all I had to be there all the time.

'I felt I would have other opportunities to play against Australia but I would never have another chance to attend the ceremony.'

Mark Waugh, who saw Crawley take a century off the Australians at Old Trafford and steer Lancashire to victory, says: 'John Crawley was the best young player we saw all summer. Big Merv (Hughes) gave him a working over, but he took him on and smashed him.'

Within two years, Crawley, given his distinctive, handsome looks, will surely join those elite sportsmen who are recognised in the street - 'I don't think it will happen for a while,' he said, 'but it is part of the job. I'll just have to go to quiet restaurants.'

When it happens, he will be better equipped than most to deal with it, partly thanks to his university education but also because he has played and worked with people in a different environment.

'I think going to university has given me a broader perspective on everything,' Crawley said. 'It helps you enjoy life and deal with failure better.

'Playing university cricket showed me a different way of playing the game. You are with people who play for enjoyment, not from necessity, and they can enjoy the good times and the bad times in a way that does not happen quite as much in the professional game.'

Crawley very nearly did not go to university. Having begun playing colts cricket at nine, and league cricket for Warrington at 14, he had decided on a professional career by the time he was 16 - following his brother Mark (now at Nottinghamshire), and his Lancashire team-mates Michael Atherton and Gary Yates, all of whom also went to Manchester Grammar school.

'I was always going to do A levels, but if I had not got into Cambridge or Oxford, where the cricket is first-class, I might have gone straight into county cricket,' he said.

It was still a big decision to go but Crawley believes 'it was the right one', from a cricket as well as a personal point of view. 'I was able to play regular first- class cricket from an early age.'

He may have been selected for the tour of the West Indies, a prospect which held no fears for Crawley. While Mark Lathwell asked not to be picked for England last season, Crawley takes a different view of selection: 'If they think I'm ready, I'm ready.'

In the event, after a half- season with Lancashire, he was selected for the England A tour of South Africa.

David Lloyd, the former opening batsman for Lancashire and now the county coach, says: 'Once you've seen one Manchester Grammar boy, you've seen the lot. He's very similar to Atherton, but more outgoing. He makes his own decisions and he works things out very quickly. He simply oozes authority and confidence in a nice, arrogant way. Though a predominantly leg-side player who favours the back foot, he knows he is not the finished article. He is magnificent to work with, always trying to bring his game on another notch.'

Mike Watkinson, his captain at Lancashire, says: 'It's difficult for a player who has had rave reviews throughout his development to come straight into a county side from university. John was very determined to make the transition both on the field and in the dressing- room. He spent ages against the bowling machine in the indoor school to try to get used to the quicker pitches at Old Trafford after the porridge tops at Fenner's. He's no prima donna and does all the new-boy jobs, like carrying the medical kit around or fielding at short leg, without a moan.'

Going into the game with Northern Transvaal, Crawley was averaging close to 100, having made 474 runs in his five first-class innings, 286 of them in one go. He has looked the best batsman on tour by some distance and, having moved ahead of Lathwell, is challenging the more experienced Alan Wells and Hugh Morris.

At last week's press conference for the touring squad to the West Indies, Keith Fletcher, the England manager, picked out Crawley as the man most likely to fly to the rescue of the Test side should there be injuries to batsmen.

'I am pretty pleased with the way I'm playing, with the scores and with the consistency,' Crawley said.

An unassuming yet confident 22-year-old, Crawley has been a popular tourist. He has also continued to attract acclaim. Malcolm Marshall joined the list after the match in Durban, commenting: 'He looks a hell of a player, good against the quicks and very good against the spinners.'

Praise indeed and, on the evidence so far, justified. Even if he does not get the Caribbean call, Crawley's name ought now to be inked in for the Test team to play New Zealand next summer, and to play for many summers to come.

(Photograph omitted)