On Zak Crawley and being ‘a natural’

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The notion of being a natural at something is a wonderful and seductive and funny and misleading thing.

Let’s say that you wanted to start playing an instrument again. You used to play the flute when you were at school but then subsequently neglected it and you haven’t picked the thing up in years or even decades.

Now if you fancy yourself as ‘a natural’ at music, the one instrument you definitely should not take up at this point in your life is the flute because this is the one instrument for which your natural talent has already been shown not to exist. If you’d been a natural at the flute, you’d have made rapid progress. People would have instantly spotted your ability. You’d have been if not a great and successful flautist, then at least a lost and mourned flautist.

So if you think you might be a natural at a musical instrument, you do not pick a flute. And you probably do not pick up any other blowing instrument either. Or maybe it was the twiddly finger bit that you didn’t immediately come to terms with. Maybe you should steer clear of twiddly finger instruments. Perhaps you’re a natural percussionist.

This extends to every sphere of life. Anything you currently do and pride yourself on being really quite good at – whether work, sport or creative endeavours – unless you’ve literally just taken it up five minutes ago, you’re not a natural. You’re striding down the wrong road. You’re investing effort in the wrong area.

Everything you’ve ever attempted where you haven’t exhibited instant and breath-taking aptitude is a waste of time. All the things you have ever done are the only activities in the world where you can be 100 per cent certain you are not a natural. If you want to be the absolute best, try something else.

Dom Sibley is not a natural. This much is obvious. With his awkward technique and predisposition towards not actually hitting the ball, he is clearly a man who has worked and worked to get the most out of himself. It does not look like the game comes easily to him.

Zak Crawley however. He’s a natural. You can see it in the speed at which he concludes, ‘oh yeah, that’s a driving ball’ or ‘oh yeah, that’s a leg glance for four ball’ and the ease with which his body acts on those thoughts.

Where Sibley punches the ball front of square, a Crawley drive is ‘unfurled’. Sibley’s movements are mechanical; Crawley’s moves are natural.

Zak Crawley was born after Dig Your Own Hole came out and he’s already learned how to flow into a 90mph in-swinger with no body part out of place. You can’t learn to do that, in that way, in that span of time, unless you’re a natural.

Except all Rob Key talks about on commentary is how Crawley has the greatest work ethic he’s ever known; how he’s always first in the nets and pleading for more throw-downs when moonlight starts to exceed sunlight. Apparently he actually moved to live next to the ground so he could do even more of this.

George Dobell says that when Crawley struggled against spin a couple of years ago, he paid to go on a spin camp in India and that he has repeatedly returned to Australian grade cricket to toughen himself up.

So maybe that’s the other route to being a natural. You pick a lane, you work, you practise. Sometimes you progress quickly, sometimes you progress slowly. Sometimes you go backwards and then when you go backwards you try and work out why. You get lucky. You make the most of things when they’re good and you don’t get disheartened when they’re bad.

You stick at it, you try and enjoy it and you just see where you end up.


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  1. Crawley is a natural cricketer though. Tall, big leavers, I can’t wait to see him swinging it next time he visits NZ.

  2. Surely no one is a ‘natural’ at batting, it’s a deeply unnatural act.

    What Crawley (and Pope) are is good, young, and as yet unblemished by significant past failure.

    1. I suspect that Josh Butler of Guernsey and Jacob Butler of the Isle of Man ARE related, APW.

      I can’t quite get my head around how it works, but I’m guessing that the best tax dodge in the world is having part of your family in one tax haven and another part of your family in another tax haven.

      Bert can explain the mathematics of it. It’s probably something to do with irrational numbers.

  3. As for the discussion on who or what is “a natural”, there are some really interesting points in there.

    I agree with the view that batting (along with most activities requiring dexterity, such as playing musical instruments) is not a natural thing but of course some people are born with more aptitude for the multiple skills required than others.

    Because these complex activities require a variety and mixture of skills, the bit that is difficult for everybody is finding a way to achieve what you want to achieve by building on the bits that come more naturally and working through some of the bits that come less naturally to you.

    But there is an element of your piece above, KC, which implies that taking up high-skill activities is all about being utterly exceptional at them. But to me one of the great things about sport (and music) is that they are enjoyable things. I returned to playing cricket in middle-age, not because I ever thought I could be good, but because I enjoy playing the game and I had opportunities to play a bit and train a bit and I wanted to challenge myself.

    Real tennis is a similar thing for me – I know I’ll never be objectively good at such a difficult sport but I can improve and I can get to play at a “good enough” level that is challenging, fun, interesting and (in normal times) sociable.

    Ditto music – hence my recent uptake of four-string guitar playing and singing – at which I can get good enough to enjoy myself and amuse others without offending ears. (I’ll never return to the violin again, that was traumatic for me as a schoolboy and highly offensive to listeners’ ears as well as my own).

    Returning to those with the ability to reach the highest level at cricket, one of the many impressive things about Zak Crawley seems to me to be his self-awareness at such a tender age of the bits that he wanted/needed to improve and his self-determination to work on the bits that he would need to turn himself into an international-level batsman. If he remains this level-headed and continues to work on his game, he can be a great player…

    …as can Sibley (differently) and as can Pope. I think we have a rich crop of batting youngsters in England at the moment, which bodes very well for the future.

  4. If you debunk the myth of “naturals” you remove an important psychological crutch for those of us of habitual mediocrity.

    You are a cruel and heartless cricket journalist.

    1. You could take it that we’re saying it’s a rich and heady brew within which an ability to get to grips with something quicker than many others is an important ingredient.

  5. Flautist, huh? So not a flooter then? Once again the English language disappoints all by choosing the less funny alternative.

    1. But if it was flooter, we’d lose one of the best Flight of the Conchords rhymes:

      So you think maybe you’ll be a prostitute
      Just to pay for your lessons, you’re learning the flute
      Ladies wouldn’t pay you very much for this
      Looks like you’ll never be a concert flautist

      1. Top reference, APW.

        That Conchords lyric was the first thing that popped into my head when I read the line about learning the flute in this KC piece. Well done you for referencing it.

        An absolute classic song, Inner City Pressure – vid below –



      2. Thank you gents. Any excuse to rediscover the Conchords again will always lift my day.

        Sort of apropos of test related comedy clips, did anyone else pick up on Straussy saying “Damp Squid” yesterday?

        One wonders if he also places women on pedal-stools, as per Reynholm vs. Reynholm


  6. Birds build nests, which makes nests a part of nature. In the same way, nuclear power stations are natural. There is literally nothing that can ever be done that isn’t natural.

    (This reply was brought to you by Philosophy Takedowns Inc, for all your pedantry needs. Someone raised a perfectly legitimate point that you want to nullify without adding anything to the discussion? Understand exactly what they’re driving at but still feel the need to miss the point completely? Not enough people think you’re a wanker? Now with added smugness to ease you through those first few hours of consequent loneliness.)

    1. This is a truly excellent-sounding service, Bert. Just what the doctor ordered in these unprecedented, socially-distanced times.

      What are your fee rates for the service? (I’m asking for a friend).

      1. When a full sentence is used parenthetically, the full stop goes inside the brackets.

        As this is part of our entry-level basic Grammar and Punctuation package, the fee is waived in this case.

      2. Imagine a dash between the question mark and the left bracket, Bert – is the phrase in parenthesis a full sentence?

        Nevertheless I appreciate the freebie. But it does feel a bit like a freebie offered by a drug dealer outside the school gates; I’m hooked. Are there any BOGOFs or multi-buy offers available? – (still asking for a friend).

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