'One of the finest batsmen of his generation, it was a pleasure to have seen him bat live': Watch Ayaz Memon's (@cricketwallah) tribute to Martin Crowe, who lost his fight to cancer on Thursday
Martin Crowe played most of his career in the dark days before cable and satellite television came to India. He also only played three Tests in India at the very end of his career, a series in which he averaged 16.66, so watching him in his prime wasn’t an option.
We heard about him, though. Along with the great Sir Richard Hadlee, news of Crowe’s exploits flew out of New Zealand and around the world. I remember reading in awe of his ridiculous 299 against Sri Lanka in Wellington in the second innings when New Zealand were trailing by 323 after the first. Together with Andrew Jones, Crowe shared in a then world record 467-run partnership. Such was his brilliance that day that Wisden reported “Everybody, including the Sri Lankans, was disappointed that he did not reach 300”.
My primary memory of Martin Crowe though, is the semi-final of the 1992 World Cup where, after scoring 91, he chose to rest his injured hamstring in anticipation of making the final instead of taking the field as captain to shepherd his team’s defence. Watching him watch Inzamam ul-Haq rip up the script and take Pakistan into the final on his home ground was one of those rare times when I wished sports would stick to a script (Pakistan fans will no doubt feel differently).
New Zealand hadn’t just been the best side in the tournament until then, they had been the most inventive and therefore the most fun to watch. An off-spinner opening the bowling; opening batsman attacking the new ball instead of merely taking the shine off it?!
These are old hat now but back then it was crazy time. And very exciting. You tuned in because you didn’t know what you might see next. And Crowe, as their leader and best batsman, was at the heart of everything they did.
But that loss and Pakistan’s eventual victory in the final meant the tournament would forever be remembered for Pakistan’s great escape, with Crowe (the leading run-scorer in the tournament), and New Zealand’s revolutionary cricket, relegated to a supporting role.
In a way, that match was a microcosm of Crowe’s career. A strong, muscular batsman with all the shots and the footwork of a boxer (a batsman needs the footwork of a boxer, he used to say), Crowe is undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s finest-ever cricketers and one of his generations finest batsman.
An average of 45.36 from 77 Tests with 17 centuries is a Test record nine out of every 10 batsman would gladly accept. Yet injuries forced him into early retirement at the age of 33 at a time when he had averaged 50.52 over the previous 10 years. In other words, something great might have been greater still.
At his peak, between 1985 and 1993, Crowe averaged 54.75 and scored a century once every 3.21 Tests.
The late Peter Roebuck once wrote that Crowe could “soar like an eagle” at the crease. Gideon Haigh, in a masterly tribute to Crowe on ESPNcricinfo, describes Crowe’s 188 against Australia in 1985 thus:
“I can see him now — tight, upright, playing pedantically in the V, the sleeves buttoned to the wrists, the distinctive white headband beneath the distinctive white helmet, as understated and soaringly magnificent as a Doric column.”
No one was harder on Crowe than Crowe himself. In his second autobiography, Raw, published in 2013 after he had been diagnosed with cancer, Crowe admitted he had led a somewhat tortured existence. Calling himself the “the world record holder for grievances", he said he suffered an "ongoing problem of mine — a disconnected spirit and soul overwhelmed by the ego and the emotional instability created from my unfinished teenage development".
Yet he was also one of the finest thinkers of the sport and grew into a skilled writer, expounding eruditely on technique, individual players and the state of the global game. In his tribute, Haigh reveals that Crowe was “an astonishingly assiduous correspondent, hugely motivated to become a better writer, always wanting to know what you thought of his work, endlessly encouraging of your own”.
Crowe was particularly insightful when it came to the inner life of a batsman. In a column titled Minding the Gap, he wrote: “The gap between balls, that 30-second time span between when the last ball became dead and the next ball becomes live, is arguably the most important period in a batsman's innings.”
He also wrote movingly about his own career and his love for New Zealand cricket even as cancer ravaged his body. And he was a ceaseless advocate for playing cricket with respect and for the right reasons. His final column for ESPNCricinfo in May 2015 was fittingly, titled ‘Ain’t No Time to Hate':
“What we can strive for is to restore our sport's lost integrity and loving feeling, so the fans can be lifted once more from their daily grind. International cricket, nation vs nation, is about patriotism and a bit of tribalism but not hate. It does no harm to remind ourselves of why we play the game: for the love of entertaining every fan. We play to satisfy our pride of place, where we live.
It was clear he cared deeply about the game of cricket and wanted the best both for the sport and the players.
His inventiveness followed him into retirement and he created a precursor to Twenty20 cricket in Cricket Max, a three-hour format but with two innings of 10 8-ball overs per side. One of the rules was a free hit after a no-ball, something that is now common currency in limited-over cricket today. Crowe came up with it in the mid-1990s.
He was also generous with his time, not only as a mentor to the next generation of New Zealand cricketers but also to complete strangers, such as fellow Firstpost writer Dennis Freedman, an account of which you can read here.
Whatever demons Crowe had to deal with throughout his life, it appears he had conquered them at last before dying of cancer at the age of 53. A marvellous batsman but in the end, a better human being.