He labelled Zak Crawley “argumentative”.

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The Ashes 2023: Zak Crawley repays England faith with stunning century

Before the Ashes began, Ben Stokes was asked to describe each of his England team-mates in one word. He labelled Zak Crawley “argumentative”.

For so long the only argument, among fans at least, was whether Crawley was worth his place at the top of the order.

But on a thunderous Thursday at Old Trafford, with the fourth Test and the urn on the line, the opener repaid England’s unwavering faith with a swashbuckling 189 that may have provided the decisive swing in the momentum of this series.

It was last summer, after England’s defeat in the first Test against South Africa at Lord’s, when Crawley’s average dipped to its lowest point of 26.06 that coach Brendon McCullum produced his unequivocal backing.

“I look at a guy like Zak and his skillset is not to be a consistent cricketer,” said McCullum. “He’s not that type of player.

“He’s put in that situation because he has a game which, when he gets going, he can win matches for England.”

Astonishing Crawley century stuns Australia
Quiz: Name the players to take 200 wickets and score 3,000 runs in Tests
A year later, Crawley picked the most crucial moment to prove McCullum right.

The Kent man had already been responsible for a key act in this battle for the urn. His crunching drive for four off Pat Cummins’ first ball of the series was a right hook statement of intent. If England win, it will go down in Ashes folklore.

This knock, though, was an awesome demonstration of what Crawley is capable of. An innings most hoped he could play but very few believed he could. Transformed from the second coming of James Vince to a pitch-perfect impersonation of Kevin Pietersen.

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The strokeplay was scintillating. Sashaying down the pitch to whip through the leg side. Drives Lewis Hamilton would be proud of. Brutally slog-sweeping the part-time off-spin of Travis Head into the stands. His running between the wickets was magnificent.

There were times when Crawley rode his luck. Then again, for a man who says Ronnie O’Sullivan is his hero, perhaps it is little surprise he has mastered the trick shot of inside-edging past his own stumps.

The worry before this day began was that England, having done the hard work with the ball, would focus on the bad weather forecast for the weekend and go too hard, too soon with the bat.

But Crawley eased through the gears like a supercar and, once he found top speed, Australia did not know where to bowl to him.

He took lunch on 26 from 46 balls. In his next 47 after the break, Crawley smashed 74 runs. He moved from 50 to 100 in 26 deliveries. A 93-ball hundred is England’s second-fastest by an opener (Crawley holds the record for the fastest) and the second-fastest in Tests at Old Trafford. Only Gilbert Jessop and Ian Botham have made swifter Ashes tons for England.

Australia were rattled, changing tactics two or three times in the same over. Captain Cummins scattered fielders from Deansgate to Altrincham, usually following wherever Crawley had just hit the ball.

In the absence of a frontline spinner, Head was employed as early as the 23rd over. Cummins, the world’s best fast bowler, was taken for more than five an over for the third successive innings. Steve Smith huffed around like a man suggesting he could do a better job as skipper.

It ultimately took something freakish to end the Crawley pyrotechnics, a ball from Cameron Green that kept low and was chopped on. He left to an Old Trafford acclaim befitting one of the great Ashes knocks.

Crawley was set on his way by a gutsy partnership of 121 with Moeen Ali. They were an unlikely second-wicket pair, two men who began the match with Test averages below 30. One short of runs, another out of retirement.

Just before the second Test at Lord’s, England captain Stokes revealed Crawley and Moeen had been involved in a two-day argument, with Crawley on Thursday explaining it was over whether the north or south of the UK produces the best T20 cricketers. At times Crawley, the southerner, was batting like he was trying to prove his point.

A year ago, Moeen published his own children’s story, The Legend of Sparkhill. What the all-rounder has been through in the past month is little short of a fairytale.

His first press conference after answering England’s SOS was delayed by a fire alarm, leaving Moeen standing on the street outside Edgbaston in full whites. He missed a day of training in Birmingham to collect his OBE, then got into trouble during the first Test for using a drying agent on his hand.

Struggling with a nasty gash on his spinning finger, Moeen was left out of the second Test, only to be helped by a fan who sent a honey-based lotion that healed the wound.

Now, after volunteering to bat at number three, Moeen’s first Test half-century in four years was greeted by an emotional standing ovation by a crowd thanking him for coming to England’s rescue.

If Moeen’s 54 was unexpected, Joe Root’s 84 was inevitable from the moment he arrived at the crease.

Australia tried to bounce him out on his arrival and, by the time they realised their mistake, it was too late. Root was off and running, driving, dabbing and reverse-scooping. The only consolation from the mully-grubber he got from Josh Hazlewood is any uneven bounce could help England in Australia’s second innings.

If Stokes and Harry Brook were ideal candidates to continue the England charge, their discretion in seeing off almost 11 overs before the close leaves them primed for the morning. Australia will have nightmares about the havoc England could wreak first thing on Friday.

This was one of England’s most special Ashes days, lapped up by an Old Trafford crowd that moved through nervousness to hope, then disbelief and unbridled joy.

Spectators hung off the balconies of their hotel rooms like holiday makers around the pool in Magaluf. The viewing gallery of the Point, a building seemingly designed to resemble an enormous scart lead port, was never anything other than heaving. The sprawling temporary stand hosted a party that could have stretched all the way to Stretford.

By the end, England had manoeuvred themselves into a position from which they can level the series. If they do, it will end a winless run in Ashes Tests on this ground that dates back to 1981.

It might be that their most dangerous opponent is not men in baggy green caps, but the Manchester climate, with bad weather due on Saturday and Sunday.

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Even if it does rain at the weekend, this was Crawley’s day in the sun.

“I am stubborn, and I like a debate on things, so maybe Stokes is right,” said Crawley. “I feel like you are only argumentative if someone is willing to have an argument with you, so maybe he’s argumentative.”