'I was the type who would be very, very good or not so good'

Former England batsman John Crawley talks about playing against Australia, his best innings, highs and lows with Lancashire, and teaching history

Interview by Scott Oliver |

"That hundred at Lord's against India was a major milestone for me" © PA Photos

I never really thought about the Mike Atherton comparisons. It never preyed on my mind. We just shared a very similar development pathway - Manchester Grammar, Cambridge, Lancashire and so on - and that's the way that I saw it.

I had two elder brothers who played lots of cricket, and we were very fortunate that when we returned to the north-west my dad put a net in the back garden, so we were playing all the time. They were three or four years older, and didn't pull any punches, so that gets you up to speed pretty quickly.

I felt all the way through my career that I had been given decent opportunities and could have made more of them. And when I was left out of the team, it was for exactly the right reasons: not only that I wasn't scoring runs but also it looked like I wasn't going to. And if I'm very honest with myself, I probably felt like I wasn't going to score any runs because my confidence was low.

I did enjoy the Lancashire captaincy, but all teams are easier to captain when they're in their pomp and playing well.

"I'm very interested in situations where people, through a lot of self-sacrifice, can provoke a huge amount of change in a system that's very hard to change, through words and deeds"

The sheer harshness of the cricket on that 1994-95 Ashes tour was a bit of an eye-opener. Finishing with a pair didn't help. I started smoking on that trip - a bit of trying to lose weight, a bit of just touring, and other guys around doing that sort of thing. Very different to what it is now.

It was enjoyable to face guys like Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Brett Lee. They were super quick, but they'd try and get you out more or less every ball, which created scoring opportunities without having to do anything too different. Very different to the likes of Glenn McGrath and Curtly Ambrose, who'd put the ball back of a length, metronomically, and really dried you up. I really struggled with them.

I was always got on well with Raymond Illingworth. Of all the supremos, coaches, managers, or whatever name you want to give them, he was the only one who gave me - not a guarantee but a vote of confidence.

Cricketers always try to improve, and sometimes you tinker too much and forget what got you there in the first place. I was certainly guilty of trying to work around a few weaknesses.

The one thing that always puzzled me at Lancashire, and the thing I tried to do as captain, was to get the team to play better in the longer form of the game. Had it not rained so much in consecutive years that we couldn't play a single home game for the first month of the season, I'm absolutely convinced we'd have won the Championship back in '98 and '99.

"The sheer harshness of the cricket on that 1994-95 Ashes tour was a bit of an eye-opener" © Getty Images

Most of the players knew something had happened, but weren't aware exactly what the cameras had picked up. There were a lot of whisperings. I'm sure Athers probably was trying to get the ball to reverse, but I always say: "What difference is there between sprinkling a little bit of dust on the ball and a spinner rubbing his hands in the dirt and then over the seam?"

The only time I felt slightly hard done by was after the 2002-03 Ashes, when I sustained a freak injury against Australia A. I got hit on the hip bone, pulling a ball, and couldn't move for three or four days. I said to Duncan [Fletcher] and Nass [Nasser Hussain], "I'm really not sure I can play. I can't run around". I didn't think they took kindly to that. I think they thought I was pulling the wool over their eyes.

People tend to forget that the England team of the 1990s competed on a par with pretty much every team in the world apart from Australia.

It all started to unravel at Lancashire with the intense difficulty of trying to manage the exit from the game of a number of very, very loyal and excellent people. The way that the club was structured and the way that expectation was really, really high meant that there was a really ruthless element within the cricket committee, which wanted to do away with a number of high-quality cricketers, just like that. I thought there were better ways of doing it. And the same with Bob Simpson, an excellent coach who I thought was very harshly treated. There was a clear conflict of interests with many on the committee, who were very happy to air their criticisms of their day job through Sky Sports or whoever it might be.

"I felt all the way through my career that I had been given decent opportunities and could have made more of them"

I teach a lot of history now - I was at Oakham for over three years, and am at Oundle now - and was previously taught by some very interesting people at Cambridge, particularly Tony Badger, who took a course on the American civil rights movement. I'm very interested in situations where people, through a lot of self-sacrifice, can provoke a huge amount of change in a system that's very hard to change, through words and deeds. So meeting Nelson Mandela in Soweto was a very special moment.

I didn't feel that a committee structure lent itself to running a cricket team. Fine when you've got good people. When we got not so good people, it created all kinds of problems.

Coming back in and making that hundred at Lord's against India was a major milestone for me, not only proving that you could overcome some pretty serious adversity - being very, very close to understanding that I might never play cricket again with all the turmoil that was going on at Lancashire that winter [2001-02] - but also to get my name on the Lord's honours board was hugely satisfying.

In many ways, the 156 against Sri Lanka was my best Test innings, but in many ways it wasn't. I should have been out first ball. Muttiah Muralitharan bowled something that dipped, as he normally does - it takes a little while to get used to, even though I'd played against him in the nets at Lancashire for years - but it was a no-ball.

Nelson Mandela meets the England players in Soweto in 1995; a

Nelson Mandela meets the England players in Soweto in 1995; a "very special moment" for Crawley © PA Photos

I made two triple-hundreds, both against Notts.

I felt that in 2003, '04, '05, I was a much better batsman six or seven years earlier.

The pitch at The Oval in 1994 was absolutely lightning quick. I didn't bat for very long, but I remember being hit in the throat by Craig Matthews. Now Matthews is just a trundler, but he got one right beneath the grille, and I didn't get hit very often, so that tells you how quick it was. Then Dev came in, all revved up, and Gary Kirsten got one right at the top of the bat handle, the ball lobbed up, and I was getting ready to catch it at short leg when all I can hear is Dev come thundering in, shouting, "Mine, mine, mine." Dev's not the best catcher of a cricket ball, so I'm thinking, "Should I catch it…?" but in the end I just got out of the way.

My maiden Test hundred was against Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed. I remember having to come off and be in the 90s overnight. It was a bit rainy the next day, and I had to wait a long time to get back out there and have a go at it. But it was an amazing feeling, especially to do it against an attack like that on a typical Oval pitch that went through and turned. In the second innings I didn't get a ball in my half from Waz.

"Warne had this massive ability, like a lot of Australians, to take things deadly seriously and yet treat the game as a game, to take it back to when they were doing it for the love of it"

The great thing about the Lancashire one-day team was that everyone knew their roles very clearly, partly because it was filled with Lancastrians who'd grown up together and played together for many, many years. There were never too many decisions that had to be taken by the captain.

After my debut, against South Africa, Ray Illingworth said to me: "Don't worry, it's a very good attack, but you'll be going to Australia in the winter. Give it your best shot, and try and learn as quickly as you can."

I don't think the England selection policy of the 1990s did anyone any good, although I suppose it motivated those that were playing county cricket - only to think, "You never know…" It certainly kept the doors open for those who were aspirational; for those who were in situ, I can't imagine it ever created a sensible team environment.

"I felt slightly hard done by after the 2002-03 Ashes" © Getty Images

Lancashire were very sensitive to the sudden death of my mother. They gave me some time off, then I came back the day after the funeral to play in the Roses match. Both teams were very nice about things. But it did coincide with a lot of other stuff that was going on, and perhaps made me more sensitive to the need to look after people.

When I made my debut, in 1994, I felt that I could have benefited from a little bit more first-class cricket. But that's what it is: you get selected, you get on with it and try your best.

Shane Warne had this massive ability, like a lot of Australians, to take things deadly seriously and yet treat the game as a game, to take it back to when they were doing it for the love of it. He had this insatiable appetite to never have a dull cricket match. Quite often we'd go into the final day of a county game 50 ahead, none down, game going nowhere, and he'd say, "Look, it doesn't matter if we're all out. We need to go out and tee off, get 250 ahead by lunchtime, then we're going to declare." We lost a couple but won a lot more.

"I don't think the Australians saw me as a soft touch. I was always preparing myself for the battle against them"

I was the type of player who would be very, very good or not so good, because, technically, I wasn't as strong as other players who were around. I had good hand-eye coordination, but from a technique point of view I was way behind some of the best players around. Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick were far better players than I ever was.

Bumble [David Lloyd] was incredibly supportive of the players and was in many ways a breath of fresh air for the team.

In my second Test, Athers had told the batsmen who were out there we needed a lead of 300 by lunch. I was on nought and hooked a bumper to long leg. It was the right thing to do - to get the team where it needed to get to as quickly as possible - but in hindsight, with the way selection went, I'm not sure there were too many who'd have done the same thing at that stage.

I don't think the Australians saw me as a soft touch. I was always preparing myself for the battle against them. In '93 I remember having that massive battle - picking the battle with Merv [Hughes] and Tim Zoehrer. I got really fired up then, but I suppose I played some of my best cricket when I was fired up. The Aussies are not stupid, and quite often didn't say anything to me. Perhaps in hindsight I should have tried to whip it up a little bit.

"The great thing about the Lancashire one-day team was that everyone knew their roles very clearly, partly because it was filled with Lancastrians" © Getty Images

The most disillusioning thing happened a month after the 2002-03 Ashes trip. Hampshire had written to the ECB, thinking I would go onto the central contracts list, so they could do their financial planning properly, and I didn't hear anything. I must have rung Duncan Fletcher five or six times to ask for some feedback on why I was out in the wilderness - if it happens at that age, it is for good - and I never got a reply.

I can see now why that South Africa tour [1995-96] went so badly wrong. Quite often we'd have the team bus waiting while the families' bus was loaded up with prams and all this sort of stuff. The convoy was three 50-seater buses.

Of the captains I played under - and there were lots of good ones - Warne was by far and away the best. He had a bit of the rogue about him. He knew what made people tick. He knew when things were going wrong and how best to motivate somebody. As an all-round package, he was an incredible leader.

When I went wrong at the highest level it was when I didn't take on the short ball. When I was growing up I was absolutely compulsive. I pulled and hooked really well. Then in my first two seasons at Lancashire I got out six or seven times caught on the boundary. And I'd come back into quite a hard-nosed dressing room that would say: "You just can't do that. Next time you do, you better walk the other way." So I put it in the locker, which meant I was negating an opportunity to score at the highest level. So if I could have my time again, I'd back myself to do what I do well rather than bat how other people thought I should bat.

Scott Oliver tweets here

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