Cricket: Crawley still hoping for an Ashes winter

Dave Hadfield meets a Lancashire batsman looking far beyond today's NatWest semi-final with Hampshire
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ALONGSIDE THE emergence of Andrew Flintoff and the resurgence of Michael Atherton, the contribution of another England batsman to Lancashire's advance on three fronts has been easier to overlook.

And yet those who have watched the county progress in three competitions to the point where they could win any or all of them would point to John Crawley as the biggest factor of all.

In Championship matches, the AXA League and the NatWest Trophy - in the semi-final of which Lancashire meet Hampshire today - Crawley has been full of runs.

In first-class cricket, only Mal Loye among English-qualified batsmen stands above him in the averages and only Graham Hick exceeds his five centuries. It has been a vintage summer for Crawley as well as for Lancashire.

"We've played well in all competitions this season," he says. "We've set our standards a lot higher. Of course, the Championship is the competition we would love to win most dearly. Having the game against Leicestershire washed out was a heavy blow to us, so if you were backing us to win something it would be one of the one-day competitions."

Lancashire, who, as everyone reminds them every season, have not held a share of the Championship since 1950 or won it outright since 1934, regained some of the lost ground by beating Gloucestershire in two and a half days last week.

But the NatWest is still their quickest route to a trophy - and Crawley's consistent form underpins their hopes in Southampton.

"I've been playing pretty well. I had a poor time in the West Indies and didn't play as well as I would have liked," he says. "I noticed there was something I was doing wrong technically - only a small thing but enough to make a difference - and I've put that right."

Having done that, Crawley might have expected a recall from the England selectors this summer, especially when the side was struggling through the early stages of the series against South Africa. That call has not yet come, but at 26 and with his prolific record this year, it surely will.

"That sort of thing doesn't really gnaw away at me. I realise that if I'm playing well enough the chance will come.

"You obviously always look at the way the side is going and wonder if you might get an opportunity. I thought I might when Graham Thorpe was injured, but I realised that Graeme Hick was in good form as well.

"It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. All I can do is to try to play better and better every season."

He has succeeded in that objective this time, not only doing his own job as a specialist No 3 batsmen superbly, but also filling in any number of other gaps for Dav Whatmore and his team.

At various stages this year, he has opened the batting, kept wicket and captained Lancashire. "A bit of a jack of all trades," he says.

"There's not really a lot of difference for me between opening and batting at three. You just don't have the ten or fifteen minutes sitting around waiting."

Captaincy is a role in which many see Crawley following in the footsteps of Atherton - another Manchester University and Cambridge man - while his ability to go behind the stumps in an emergency is an extra string to his bow.

It is one of limited usefulness as far as his England prospects are concerned, he feels, as he cannot see himself developing into a wicketkeeper-batsman in the Alec Stewart mould.

"I've done it when Warren Hegg has been injured, but I'd need a lot more practice behind the stumps. I'm not likely to get that at Lancashire, because Warren is such an integral part of our side. He's won one-day games for us on his own."

So has Crawley - and Lancashire will be looking for more of his winning formula against Hampshire.

"They have three out-and-out match-winners in Shaun Udal, Robin Smith and Nixon McLean - and Adrian Aymes is playing fantastically well in the middle order," he says of today's semi-final opponents.

It will be something of a reunion between Crawley and McLean, who crossed paths in the West Indies last winter.

"I faced him in the first Test we played and there's no doubt that he's quick - right up there with the fastest West Indian bowlers I've faced. When he gets it right, he can also move it away from the bat."

The sight of McLean steaming in might jog a few unhappy memories of an unsuccessful tour, but Crawley's focus will be firmly fixed on the future and this winter's Ashes series.

"That's the great tour to go on and it would be nice to get on it," he admits. You might imagine that one selector or another might have had a quiet word with him this summer to re-assure him that he is firmly in their thoughts.

"No, no-one has said anything to me," he says. Perhaps it is just too obvious to need spelling out.