Crawley welcomes promise of new dawn

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The Independent Online

Time was when the onset of a new cricket system was a moment to appreciate a haven of conservatism, to be reassured in an age of relentless technological advances that at least some part of life remains more or less as it has always been.

As the 2002 season begins, however, cricket's resistance to change has noticeably weakened. Next summer, some matches will consist of a mere 20 overs per side, a once unimaginable phenomenon. The radical call from Wisden, itself an institution, for the County Championship to be scrapped in favour of the city versus city game may be some way off but the need to attract a new audience has been grasped.

Other traditions, too, are under attack. Could it have been considered possible, in another era, that a player who captained Yorkshire to a County Championship in one season would play for Lancashire in the next? It will happen this year as David Byas, tempted out of retirement, swaps the white rose for red.

And could it have been imagined that a captain of Lancashire, a seemingly staunch loyalist, would ask for his contract to be torn up and sign for a southern rival? That has happened, too. John Crawley, under whose command Lancashire twice had the sniff of a first unshared Championship for 65 years, is a Hampshire man now.

Crawley, released one year into a five-year contract, has been hailed as the Jean-Luc Bosman of cricket in some quarters, while others regard his move as bringing a football-style transfer system a step closer, breaking down another barrier.

The player himself sees neither comparison as valid. Unlike Bosman, Crawley's attempt to secure his release through the courts – on different grounds from the Belgian footballer – was an expensive failure. Lancashire let him go of their own accord, reasoning that to keep an unhappy player they had sacked as captain was futile, and although Hampshire footed part of the bill for Crawley's contract buy-out, he bore some of the cost himself.

"It was not a transfer fee but the settlement of a dispute," Crawley said. "And if it was all about challenging the system by which counties keep players, why would I have signed a five-year contract with Hampshire, rather than something shorter.

"So long as loyalty on one side is rewarded with respect from the other, I believe in the contract system." Behind that sentence lies the contentious detail of Crawley's sour fall-out with Lancashire, ending an 11-season relationship that yielded 10,000 first-class runs at an average above 50. It is not a subject he wishes to revisit, preferring to look to the future.

If there is a precedent he would like to set it has more to do with proving that a 30-year-old batsman discarded by his country as a technically-flawed under-achiever can revive his international career even after a gap of three years or more.

Despite three centuries in 29 matches and an average of 31.64, his last Test appearance was in Sydney in January 1999 at the end of a disappointing Australian tour. For all the talent that had seen him score 1,000 runs in under-19 Tests, the first to do so, and to announce himself at the next level with an innings of 286 for England A in South Africa, even he sensed he would not play for the senior side again. He thinks differently now.

"On a personal level, my burning ambition is to re-establish myself as an England player," he said. "I would be extremely disappointed if my 29th cap was my last.

"In some ways, looking back, I blew my chance. Having made three Test hundreds, I've no doubt about my ability. But I needed to perform more consistently.

"I don't think I was given as many chances perhaps as others have had, but I can understand that the selectors had to decide at some point to look at other players. Having had to make selection choices myself as a captain, I know that difficult decisions have to be made.

"The challenge for me now is to score enough runs for Hampshire to put myself back in their thinking. I have worked hard on getting technically more correct in the last couple of years, with help in particular from Bob Simpson, who has been fantastic, and I'm looking forward to continuing to working with Jimmy Cook here.

"I'm probably more excited about this season than any in my career. It is a progressive club with brilliant new facilities. The main body of the playing staff here are in their 20s and there is the potential to challenge for the Championship.

"Hopefully by putting some consistent form together I can help towards that target. Then perhaps future rewards will follow on a personal level too.

"Every young cricketer dreams of playing for England and I wanted Test cricket to form a large part of my career. If I cannot still achieve that, it will not be for lack of trying."