Zak Crawley and Dominic Sibley ended a three year wait for a century opening stand by England in Test cricket and in doing so provided further evidence that both are maturing in to international players.
There is still a long road for both to travel but the least that can be asked of young Test cricketers is an eagerness to listen and learn and both are willing students. Sibley and Crawley have improved in this series and regardless of the result in this match, England will leave South Africa believing they have made progress in easing their long standing top order problem.
Rory Burns has enough credit in the bank to be fairly confident of regaining his place when he is fit again next summer but Crawley and Sibley have the chance over the rest of this winter to ensure they remain in the side. The most vulnerable to being dropped is Joe Denly, with Crawley seen as a potential no 3 in the medium term by England. Crawley’s more free flowing style may be better suited waiting just that little longer to bat, particularly in England where the new ball is so dangerous.
Not only was this England’s first hundred opening stand since Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings in Chennai in December 2017 it was also the first time they had managed that milestone in the first innings of a Test since 2009. For Sibley and Crawley the biggest sign of progress was the fact this was the second time in a row they had batted through the opening session of a Test match. In both innings they have reacted to conditions, grinding it out on a slow pitch in Port Elizabeth, but leaving well on length on a harder, bouncier Johannesburg surface.
Crawley wore a nasty bruise to his head after being struck on the helmet by a bouncer from Anrich Nortje, and Sibley can also attest to the pace of the Wanderers pitch after being winded by a blow in the groin from the same bowler.
Crawley had lengthy treatment and had to pass a concussion test out in the middle before being allowed to continue his innings. The delay was caused by the struggle to find a new helmet big enough to accommodate the lump on his forehead. Eventually he had to borrow one from Dominic Bess “who also has a big head,” said Crawley afterwards.
The worry is that Crawley got himself in a tangle playing a pull. He hooks and pulls off the front foot which is fine in county cricket against slower bowlers but is dicier at Test level where batsmen are pushed further back by pace.
Crawley played some attractive drives through the off side but also scored all around the wicket managing it three times in one over against Dwayne Pretorius. Firstly there was a cover drive for four, then he was clipped Pretorius off his legs to the boundary and finally hit him back down the ground when he overpitched to move from 41 to 49 in the 23rd over.
His dismissal did not look good. South Africa pitched the ball further up and found some swing after the break and Crawley edged to slip trying to pull out of a shot too late.
“I’d have loved a hundred. But when you’re in the 60s playing for England it’s very hard not to think about that, so I’ll have to push those things out of my mind the next time,” he said. “This winter I’ve learned to just play your own game and mentally about playing the best bowlers in the world and seeing them off. When to attack and when not to.
“When I got out to Rabada in Cape Town, he only had a couple of overs left in his spell. You learn where the threats are, which maybe you don’t think about as much in county cricket. It’s more the mental game. The people who think the best in this game are the best players. So I’m trying to learn a lot from Stokesy and Rooty who score a lot of runs for England.”