Cricket: Crawley quick to display credentials: The batsman with the best average of England's tourists will try to improve it in today's A Test against South Africa

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JOHN CRAWLEY is tall, blond and went to Cambridge University, but central casting would have never sent him along to audition for Brideshead Revisited. His accent is not quite pukka.

Neither, even though he is from Warrington and plays for Lancashire, would they have sent him to Coronation Street. He sounds no more suited to a cloth cap than he does to a mortar board. But they might have sent him to the satellite drama, Blood in the Caribbean, and, when the bones begin to shatter, England's selectors are likely to do the same.

Back in September they preferred to send Crawley on the A team's South African tour. Originally cast in a supporting role, he has stolen the show. The 22-year-old has quite simply looked the best batsman of any nationality currently in South Africa. Going into today's final match, the 'Test' with South Africa A, he is averaging close to 75, having scored two of the tourists' four centuries, including a mammoth 286 on his previous visit here.

He has been absolutely devastating off his legs. The dictum 'You don't bowl to Creepy there' has often been heard in the England dressing-room as one South African seamer after another has painfully found his strength. He is also more than useful on the off stump although he is caught behind far too often, driving or slashing at workaday medium-pacers.

Not that he needs telling. Both his team-mates and a bowling machine have been harnessed during the tour in an attempt to curb the stroke. Defensively he is very sound. If he has not quite made the 'four or five scores of 150' he hoped for early in the tour - and he would still be topping the averages at 50-plus without that 286 - he is the one player who has always looked like making a hundred whenever he has been at the crease. He has made the two biggest scores for or against England: the double- hundred against Eastern Province as England built a winning score and 128 to save the match against Orange Free State.

'That is what the England selectors are looking for,' his captain, Hugh Morris, said. 'Big scores, not reasonable ones. They were very different innings. The 286 was a mammoth effort of concentration when he applied himself on a good wicket. In Bloemfontein there was more pressure, he had to bat for at least two sessions and showed a maturity and responsibility beyond his years. He has had an excellent tour and is clearly good enough to play Test cricket now.'

Crawley has been the recipient of such praise since his days as a Young England player when Pakistan's Majid Khan picked him out as a teenager. The Australian coach, Bobby Simpson, joined in after his summer century against the tourists, and team-mates and opponents have been effusive on this tour. Even the troubled Mark Lathwell was able to forget his own struggles to comment: 'He is a tremendous player, I have thought so since he was 19. I would never profess to play, or try to play like him.'

Crawley, so far, has coped modestly with all this praise. 'It will never be a burden to me if people in high places say things like that.'

There will come a time when he is recognised outside the game but it would seem he will be level- headed enough to cope. While he does not have Michael Slater's bubbling charm he is polite and good- natured with a sense of perspective and priority. 'Cricket is my life,' he said, 'but there are some things that, because of what they are and where they are, are more important.' Such as attending his graduation ceremony last summer instead of captaining the Combined Universities against the Australians. 'Some people in cricket cannot really fathom that.'

In that, as in many ways, Crawley is similar to Michael Atherton, whose path (same school, university, subject and class of degree) is uncannily similar. 'It is just a coincidence,' Crawley said. 'It means we can discuss shared experiences, but Michael is too objective to show any favouritism.'

Just as Atherton was sent on an A tour (to Zimbabwe) instead of the West Indies in 1990, Crawley was sent here, partly because he has yet to complete a full county season.

As a central part of his course concerned the American civil rights movement he has found South Africa more absorbing than most tourists, although the hectic round of training-playing-travelling has left little free time. Much of that, in the way of sports teams, has been taken up with sunbathing and golf: he went round Sun City's Million Dollar course last month in less shots than Ian Woosnam.

Golf was on his agenda again on Tuesday as the team interrupted their bus trip here from East London with a round. Yesterday it was back to the nets to prepare for the last challenge of the tour, but for Crawley not necessarily the last of the winter.

(Photograph omitted)