Zak Crawley sets a frenetic tone at Ashes with a brilliant first-pitch explosion | Ashes 2023

A silence falls before the first ball, and Edgbaston is quieter in these final moments than it will be until the place is empty in the evening. Some of the fans here bought tickets for this match nine months ago and have been waiting for it all through the fall, winter and spring. Now it’s almost there, and the atmosphere of the final seconds is impatient and apprehensive. All eyes are on the middle and the volume in the Hollies Stand has dropped to a whisper. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but everyone’s excited that we’re finally about to find out.

This year’s Ashes felt particularly unpredictable, the Aussies clearly had no idea what to expect from this England side, and it’s not much more apparent even to their own supporters. No one knows how their easy-going, easy-going approach will stand up to an Australian squad that includes the three highest-ranked Test batsmen in the world, four excellent fast bowlers and the most prolific finger player in history. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. No one really knows anything except that it will be entertaining.

Pat Cummins has finished softening up and is ready for the end of his run. Zak Crawley has marked his guard and stares at him, mostly motionless, body cocked and bat ready. Cummins throws the ball from his right hand to his left, then passes it again as he takes his first step to the crease, two, three, four, five, six more follow, crowd cheers now, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, and roaring as he collects in his action, lands on his front foot, brings his arm up and sets the Ashes of 2023 rolling.

The story goes that the first Ashen Ball can set the tone for the whole series, and sometimes it really does. In 1994, Phil DeFreitas served a pretty decent delivery to Michael Slater, who went over the point for four, and England lost the series 3-1, buried under an avalanche of runs. In 2006, Steve Harmison pulled him so far that he stole straight from the field off Andrew Flintoff on the slide, and they were beaten 5-0. And in 2021, Mitchell Starc beat Rory Burns with a delivery that beat him on the back of the legs, and England were beaten 4-0.

All of this, on reflection, might tell you more about the fatalistic nature of your average England supporter than it does about whether a ball can really determine what happens in the next five Tests.

Crawley, of course, is supposed to be the weak link in this England team. After 34 Tests he has an average of 28. In the entire history of English cricket only two batsmen have played more Tests while maintaining a worse average, one was Mike Brearley, who played 38, and had the good excuse of being a great captain, and the other was Mark Ramprakash. But Ben Stokes doesn’t have time for all that, he swears by Crawley regardless of the stats. It’s not the once-in-two inning that Crawley drops to single digits that he’s interested in, it’s the once-in-five inning where he shoots and takes the team on a flyer.

Zak Crawley celebrates half a century for England on the first day of Ashes
Zak Crawley celebrates his half century for England on the first day of Ashes. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

Here is the ball. It’s a little short, a little wide, not that different, in fact, from the one DeFreitas threw at Slater all those years ago, and now, as then, you have to reckon most openers would be quite happy to leave him alone.

But not Crawley. He bends down and (what, surely not?) punches him for four through an extra blanket, where he slams into the boundary like a champagne cork ricocheting off the ceiling. The fans around Edgbaston erupt, while on the English balcony, Ben Stokes does a double take as the players around him burst into laughter.

Crawley was also on strike for the top of the second, and this time he put Josh Hazlewood out for another four, thanks to the square leg. It was the first time in Ashes history that England had hit four on the first balls of the top two Australian bowlers.

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