Cricket: Crawley chases new highs for England

THE ASHES 97: A stylist from Lancashire refuses to entertain any negative thoughts as he takes on Australia at Edgbaston; Adam Szreter meets a batsmen with a classic pedigree confident of helping his country succeed in today's crucial Test series opener
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When John Crawley scored 286 for England A against Eastern Province at Port Elizabeth in 1994, the highest score by an England player on any tour for more than 30 years, it seemed only a matter of time before the full England team would be benefiting from his runs. It has been a matter of time, and patience, and hard work, and even dieting, but the 25-year-old Lancashire batsman now appears to be the genuine article.

With two Test centuries under his belt, and a style and elegance that will be matched only by Mark Waugh in this Ashes series, Crawley is as confident a character as you are likely to meet. Only the packet of Silk Cut that he rushes off to find after a long, hot day in the field at Leicester could perhaps be perceived as a sign of tension in his armoury as he looks forward to today's match.

"I've never played at Edgbaston in a Test," he says. "I've batted against Warne quite a bit. He's a phenomenal bowler really, without doubt the best leg-spinner in the world, which is saying something. McGrath I haven't really faced that much but he's got a great record so he's bound to be a danger. They're a strong side, probably the best in the world."

For an England player, Crawley's CV is about as complete as it could be. Like the captain, Mike Atherton, he went from Manchester Grammar to captain Cambridge University. Then it was England Under-19, England A and finally his Test debut against South Africa at Lord's in 1994. He was in and out of the side over the next two years, but after reaching three figures for the first time, against Pakistan at The Oval last summer, he was a regular and increasingly reassuring presence at No 6 during the winter.

At the moment cricketing brothers are all the rage, and Crawley himself is the youngest of three. Mark, the eldest, captained Oxford when Atherton captained Cambridge. He went on to play for Lancashire and Nottinghamshire, while Peter, the middle brother, played under John's captaincy at Cambridge.

Mark Crawley is now a foreign securities trader in the City - "I don't really delve too much into that, it's all too complicated for me," says John - and although he never played for England himself, big brother has nevertheless made a significant contribution to his country's cause. "He gave me a role model to follow," John said.

"He was always four or five years ahead of me so I could set my targets and aims four or five years into the future. I followed his career closely and then tried to match it or do better whenever I could. I don't think we played any first-class matches together, but I might be mistaken," he added.

Looking back to his days at Cambridge, where he read history at Trinity College, Crawley said: "Cambridge is a good place to start playing. A lot of people frown upon it and say it's a weak standard of cricket, the counties don't try. But the mere fact that you're playing a county XI means it's a pretty decent standard attack you're facing most of the time. The only problem was that the pitch there was very slow, very low, so every year in early July I had to come back to Lancashire and adjust to the quicker pitches, which I prefer to bat on anyway."

After captaining the England Under-19 side in a drawn series against an Australian team that included Greg Blewett, Michael Kasprowicz and Adam Gilchrist of the present tour party, it was off to South Africa with England A and the famous innings in Port Elizabeth. Crawley, however, is anxious to play down the significance of that day and admits to having felt the pressure.

"That was the only time really, because there was so much written after that A tour," he said. "The standard of the teams we played in South Africa was actually very poor. I think only Orange Free State and Northern Transvaal had what they would call a full XI, and although you've got to get runs, the runs I got on that tour were probably overvalued a little bit.

"I was lucky enough to get selected in the England side the following summer against South Africa, but I then had a very sketchy year. I had some good knocks on the Australian tour but my technique was not quite prepared for Test cricket.

"Everything has to be at a maximum level in Test cricket. Generally the standard of bowling is so much better than any domestic cricket anywhere and you've got to play straight, very simply, and defend with soft hands. They're the things I worked hardest on."

The Ashes tour to Australia in 1994-95 was not exactly a picnic for any of the England players, but according to some sections of the media, Crawley was still tucking into more than his fair share of the hamper. His fielding came in for heavy criticism and, hard though it is to believe of someone as wiry as Crawley, it led to accusations of a weight problem.

"I'll start off by saying I wasn't as mobile then as I am now, because I was carrying about three-quarters of a stone extra. It's not that much. I dropped a catch in a Test match somewhere and there was bad press for being a bad fielder, and then it was just a general vicious circle. They all latched on to it and criticised me for being a lardy, overweight pig really. But none of them printed a picture or anything, which was a little bit weak on their behalf I thought."

But was it true that a special diet then followed? "In a way, yeah. Just eating sensibly, drinking a bit less, training twice a day for two months. Nothing especially mind-boggling really. But after watching the South Africans field, I knew the standard of fielding that you needed to be at and I definitely feel much better now than I did then."

Crawley, who bats at No 3 for Lancashire, is unlikely to bat higher than six for England in this match, though his true vocation probably lies somewhere in between. But he admits to no preference, and whenever the time comes for him to enter the arena all negative thoughts will be far from his mind. "There's a national desire for the England cricket team to do well, which is natural, and if you're picked for your country you're going to give it everything, whatever happens.

"You can play good cricket and still lose or draw, but we're going to go out all guns firing from the first ball at Edgbaston and if things go right, if we catch our catches, get runs on the board and 20 wickets in the game, then we can put one over on them."