Paul Thomas

Martin Crowe: Requiem for a Perfectionist

Mar 11, 2016 | Featured, Sports

Two of the new faces in the 1977/78 Auckland cricket training squad were a journeyman all-rounder (me) and a 15 year old Auckland Grammar boy named Martin Crowe.

When I arrived at Eden Park for the first training session, Crowe was having a warm-up net with some schoolmates. He wasn’t like any 15 year old batsman I’d ever seen.

He was big for his age, technically advanced and elegant yet decisive. (Elegance is usually a by-product of exceptional hand-eye coordination and ball sense but those attributes can also encourage lazy footwork. Englishman David Gower, Australian Mark Waugh and New Zealand cricket’s lost boy Jesse Ryder are prime examples.)

I was joined by John Cushen, a hard-bitten fast bowler who represented Auckland and Otago in a first-class career spanning 20 years. “He looks shit-hot against his little mates,” growled Cushen, the unmistakable implication being that the upstart was about to get a torrid introduction to cricket as played by grown-ups. As it transpired, in terms of ruffling either Crowe’s blond curls or his equanimity, Cushen fared no better than the Grammar lads.

The first thing to be said about Martin Crowe, who died last week aged 53, is that he was a genuinely great player. Like most great batsmen he had an all court game: he was as proficient on the back foot as the front; he had the full range of shots and an immaculate defence; he could survive or dominate depending on the bowling and the conditions. By contrast, there was always a suspicion that Brendon McCullum’s headlong aggression was partly prompted by a lack of trust in his defensive technique.

The English test umpire Charlie Elliott said of West Indian Viv Richards: “He’s a proper batsman – if you bowl short, he whacks it.” Elliott meant that the great batsmen don’t allow themselves to be intimidated. Crowe’s presence at the crease mightn’t have matched that of Richards (has anyone’s?) but it was powerful nonetheless.

His test average of 45 is misleading. In his day the West Indies had more great fast bowlers than all the cricket playing nations put together currently have, while pitches were more bowler-friendly. Crowe in his prime against today’s bowling attacks in today’s conditions wouldn’t be a fair contest.

He was also an intense, complicated character. In 1988, when he was returning to the game after a serious bout of illness and his older brother Jeff, then the New Zealand captain, was under pressure due to a lack of runs, I wrote about them for Metro magazine.

They were a study in contrasts. Jeff was casually obliging but not particularly forthcoming. Martin was as wary as a forest animal: hoops had to be jumped through and obstacles negotiated before he agreed, without perceptible enthusiasm, to be interviewed. Once underway, however, he was an interviewer’s dream in that he wanted it to be a worthwhile exercise for both of us.

(I’d asked Jeff how he was coping with the steady media speculation about his hold on the captaincy. He replied, “I don’t read the papers.” When I put this to Martin, he rolled his eyes: “We all read the papers.”)

The old saying that “a miss is as good as a mile”, the notion that failure is failure regardless of the margin, ignores the agony of falling just short and the complex emotions around personal performance, especially in cricket, simultaneously a team game and an individual sport or, as some would have it, an individual sport masquerading as a team game.

It’s indicative of Crowe’s turbulent career and sometimes contrary personality – Joseph Romanos, a predecessor in this space, titled his 1995 unauthorised biography Tortured Genius – that his greatest achievements were also his bitterest disappointments. Against Sri Lanka at the Basin Reserve in 1991 he was dismissed one run short of becoming the first New Zealander to score a test match triple century. For years afterwards his anguish over the run he didn’t make outweighed the satisfaction he derived from the 299 he did make.

The 1992 World Cup was his finest hour as both a batsman and captain. His tactical innovations, notably giving off-spinner Dipak Patel the new ball and opening batsman Mark Greatbatch a licence to bludgeon, caught other teams on the hop. His creative captaincy and majestic batting gave the New Zealand team a belief and momentum that few saw coming and which almost carried them all the way.

Batting in the semi-final against Pakistan at Eden Park Crowe pulled a hamstring. The injury curtailed his innings – shortly afterwards he was run out for 91 – and prevented him from taking the reins in the field when Pakistan batted. New Zealand had posted 262/7, a decent score in that era, but Pakistan got there with an over to spare thanks to the 22-year-old Inzamam-ul-Haq who announced himself on the world stage with a scintillating 60 off 37 balls.

Speaking to the media afterwards, Crowe allowed frustration and disappointment to get the better of him: his insistence that New Zealand would’ve won had he not been injured and assessment of his side’s performance in the field amounted to a slight on stand-in skipper John Wright, a key figure in a great era of New Zealand cricket and a stalwart who’d put his body on the line for 15 years. Given Crowe’s personal contribution to New Zealand’s campaign it must have been hellishly hard for him to sit hamstrung on the sidelines watching the game and the dream slip away, but this was an episode he came to regret.

Crowe came out of the old school but was in the vanguard of the new wave. In his 1990 autobiography Wright compared our special ones thus: “In many ways Richard Hadlee is an ordinary, unremarkable person who happens to be a cricketing superstar. Martin is more aware of it and enjoys it. His clothes, his gear, his on and off field demeanour are all part of his search for perfection. He puts a lot of pressure on himself through his quest for perfection and simply living up to his self-image.”

In recent years Crowe admitted the quest for perfection wasn’t a path to happiness. His premature death is desperately sad but at least in later life he found a serenity that helped him face the adversary he knew he couldn’t overcome with immense fortitude and amazing grace.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.