Cricket: Crawley's refined appetite

Simon O'Hagan meets a renaissance man ready to reach his creative peak
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The Independent Online
England cricketers have to be so fit these days that it is with a certain apprehension that one sits down to have lunch with one of them. All the more so when the player in question is the once famously overweight John Crawley. Isn't he bound to be on some fancy diet dreamed up by a crack team of nutritionists brought in by the new regime? As for drinking, forget it surely.

In fact, neither of these preconceptions is justified, and the 25-year- old Lancashire batsman is as relaxed about his food as he appears to be about his cricket, and indeed life. "We've been told we can eat what we like," he says. "So long as we work it off afterwards." Not that Crawley exactly over-indulges - a smoked salmon starter, lamb, no pudding ("I'm full"), a glass and a half of red wine, and coffee.

We are meeting in London, where his girlfriend lives. When he is not playing he divides his time between her place and his, which is a flat in Didsbury in Cheshire. He likes to get away when he can. "We quite often go to Paris if I have a weekend off. We head straight for the area around the Eiffel Tower. There are lots of nice little hotels in that part, not too expensive."

Crawley is a man of educated tastes. He wanted to read modern languages at Cambridge University, but the course would have interfered with his cricket. So he had to settle for history. He retains his interest in French and Russian literature - in translation, he makes clear. He's a Dostoevsky man, and at the moment is into the American crime writer Jonathan Kellerman.

The Crawley story is not without its own twists and turns, for all that the game seems to have come easily to him. He is the youngest of three sons (Mark used to play for Lancashire and Nottinghamshire and is now a banker; Peter plays club cricket and is a policeman in Nottingham) who grew up in a house in Warrington where the garden was big enough for them to have their own full-size net. "I think having older brothers played a big part in my development. Their standards meant I was pushed a little bit harder. If you're 11 and they're 15 or 16, you have to improve."

It was in the family net that Crawley first came across Mike Atherton - he was a friend of Mark's from Manchester Grammar School - and it became Crawley's lot to follow in the footsteps of the future England captain, to the same school, the same university, the same degree course, the same county and on into the Test team. One senses Crawley could have done without that. "People are always drawing comparisons, but it's coincidence more than anything."

It helps that they are very different types of batsmen - on the one hand the accumulator, on the other the flair player. Crawley reckons that, from the point of view of technique, Atherton is "way above anyone else in England", whereas his own method has run up against problems he is at a loss to explain. A "natural" in most people's eyes, he felt very unnatural when he first got into the Test team, against South Africa in 1994.

"I was fine playing on the onside, and had a pretty solid defence, but nothing else. I couldn't guarantee playing low-risk shots on the offside. My top hand had come right round, and my wrist and elbow were locking. I've no idea what was causing it."

As a result, Crawley made a fitful start to his Test career. The following winter, in Australia, his weight problems showed up and he fielded poorly, and although, after being left out of the first two Tests, he came back to score 72 under pressure at Sydney and 71 at Adelaide, he bagged a pair in the final Test at Perth and was out of the team again when the West Indies arrived in 1995. "I was disappointed about that. I'd felt I'd progressed in Australia."

He got back in for the last three Tests of the series, lost his place to the ill-fated Mark Ramprakash for the first two Tests in South Africa, and when he returned at Durban promptly pulled a hamstring. His winter was over. The pattern then continued at the start of last summer. He was named in the 13 for the first Test against India, didn't make the team, and on returning to county cricket pulled his other hamstring.

Having missed a month because of it, and without a first-class hundred to his name, Crawley says he was surprised to be recalled for the fourth time in two years, for the second Test against Pakistan. But he was benefiting from what he believes is an improved selection policy. On the training week in Portugal earlier this month, the new management - Atherton, David Lloyd, John Emburey and John Barclay - told him that they were now working on identifying, first and foremost, Test-quality players and then giving them a decent chance. "That's a fillip to anyone. All one can ask for is a bit of continuity."

Crawley thinks he is now "technically as good as I can be", and certainly he is more established in the Test team than at any time. Even in a summer when Nasser Hussain and Nick Knight also came to the fore and Alec Stewart was at his imposing best, no England batsman looked as extravagantly gifted or as temperamentally at ease as Crawley did in the gem of an innings that was his 53 at Headingley and in his maiden Test hundred at The Oval.

The circumstances were hardly ideal. Crawley was on 94 at the close on the first day, and rain delayed the start of the second until the afternoon. To pass the time Crawley turned to his guitar, which is clearly as important to him as any bat. Wayne Morton, the England physiotherapist, and Alan Mullally both play, and in January and February, when he was nursing his hamstring, Crawley took the chance to teach himself.

So he sat in the dressing room strumming away - "Oasis, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, what you'd expect really" - while the rain came down, and then he went out and hit an all-run four off Waqar Younis to bring up his hundred. It had taken him 18 Test innings. You wouldn't bet on him going quite so long before the next one.