Martin Crowe: Graceful, classy and very, very human © Getty Images
Martin Crowe: Graceful, classy and very, very human © Getty Images

Martin Crowe, born September 22, 1962, was one of the greatest batsmen produced by New Zealand. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this superbly graceful cricketer who brought glamour into the largely faceless Kiwi outfit of the 1980s and 1990s.

Not much to Crowe about

It rained and it rained and it rained. Then it rained some more.

It was already the fifth day at Basin Reserve, and the 19-year-old boy with the infectious curls crowning a youthful face had waited four days for his first hit in Test cricket.

There had been five hours of action and the hard-nosed professionals of New Zealand cricket of the 1980s had been in no hurry to give their wickets away. The boy had been slotted to come in at No. 6. He had watched the veteran but still intimidating duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson bowling their short stuff, in particular giving opening batsman John Morrison a severe battering.

Finally, his turn arrived just before lunch on the fifth afternoon, when Bruce Yardley trapped Jeremy Coney leg before for a tedious 31-ball 1. The youngster trotted out to join skipper Geoff Howarth.

No, it was not a reassuring sight to see the captain at the other end. Howarth had his own way of keeping the lad ‘motivated’. The old-school way of handling of the greenhorn. “Hey, pretty boy”, Howarth would call from the corner of the dressing room. When he was pushed to bat No. 3 for New Zealand on his first ever journey to the wicket in a One Day International, Crowe had struggled for a while before edging Terry Alderman to slip for 3. “You’re just a show pony, Crowe,” had been the captain’s words. That had not helped. In the second ODI he had scored 7.

Now, Crowe nervously tickled Yardley for a single and then forced the Australian skipper Greg Chappell for four through square leg. The Aussie captain had had enough. The second new ball was due, and he promptly threw it to Lillee and Thomson.

In ran the duo, sniffing blood. Particularly Thomson from the RA Vance End, with his curious slingy action that made it near impossible for the boy to pick his line. Twice he jerked his head back to avoid thunderbolts, and the helmet flew off in the direction of square leg. Once the ball struck the back of his head, his ears rang from the impact. Rod Marsh walked up from behind the stumps, “Jeez, those things make a helluva noise, mate,” he offered.

A bouncer was followed by a yorker, and the boy just about managed to get his bat down in time and watched amazed as the ball sped to the boundary in front of the wicket. It did nothing for his nerves. All he realised was that Thomson was bowling at frantic pace. And apart from Bruce Laird at short leg and Graeme Wood at point, all the others were behind the wicket. The match was dead and drawn, but the Australians were not prepared to give any quarter.

Then it happened. He pushed Thomson to the vacant mid-on, rushed down three quarters of the pitch, only to be sent back by his captain. He was helplessly stranded. The baptism by fire had lasted 29 minutes and had amounted to 9 runs.

The kid was persisted with. At Auckland he fell to Lillee for 2. He walked after being caught bat and pad, after the umpire had ruled not out. The following day Lillee walked towards him during a break, “Thanks for walking yesterday, mate, it was real gentlemanly. Don’t fucking do it again.”

At Christchurch he was caught napping without his gear, and a flurry of wickets forced him out to the wicket fumbling with his gloves and helmet, at serious danger of being timed out. He managed to avoid that embarrassment and lasted 10 balls before falling for a duck, out in the famed manner — caught Marsh bowled Lillee. In the second innings he scored 9.

After that, he was dropped and his elder brother took his place.

After 3 Tests, Martin David Crowe’s career showed 20 runs at 5.

At that moment, few could have predicted the events that would unfold.

The first of these was utterly unexpected and off the field. A self-proclaimed ’rock concert promoter’, Darryl Sambell, started managing the affairs Crowe and his brother Jeff. At the age of 20, without a double-figure score in Test cricket, the kid had his own manager, getting on the front cover of more publications than Richard Hadlee.

But, more was to follow. After the two brothers had hit unbeaten 40s in an ODI win against Sri Lanka, they were both selected for the Prudential World Cup the following year.

Martin arrived in England before the rest of the team and drove to Leeds to put in some time at the nets and prepare. He had enjoyed a successful season for Bradford in the Yorkshire League the previous English summer.

The hard work paid off. He played all the matches of New Zealand, and only Howarth scored more runs for the Kiwis in the tournament. And the 97 against Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Graham Dilley as the rest of the batting folded marked him out as a special talent.

He came back from the summer, having played in all the Tests against England, yet to score his first half century. After 7 Tests, his aggregate stood at 183 at 15.25. However, he had got a couple of hundreds in the tour matches. Perhaps in certain teams he would not have been persisted with any longer. But, Crowe was lucky. The selectors did retain their faith in him.

And then slowly the investment in youth yielded results. Back at Basin Reserve, Crowe batted four hours to score a back-to-the-wall hundred against Botham and Willis. He had arrived.

Coming of Age

The first reward was a contract with Somerset, to fill in for the star recruit who would be busy in the Tests during the summer. The name of the star? Vivian Richards.

Walking in the enormous shoes, the supremely talented New Zealand youngster did not really stumble. As a matter of fact, he blazed through the summer scoring 1,870 runs at 53.72 with 6 hundreds. The highlight was probably the incredible 70 not out and 190 against Leicestershire, when Somerset chased down 341 in the final innings against an attack containing Andy Roberts. The duel between Roberts and Crowe during that match is stuff of legend. He was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year.

Yet, for long it seemed another promising but unspectacular career at the highest level as had been the case for so many New Zealand cricketers. There were some meaty performances, but not really setting grounds on fire. The quickness of feet, the grace of timing and the enormous potential was for all to see. But after 20 Tests his record still stood at 902 runs at 28.18 with one solitary hundred.

The process of transformation took off at Guyana, against the fearsome West Indian attack of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Joel Garner. The first Test at Port of Spain had seen him moving a bit too much and falling for 3 and 2. A change in technique came about. Crowe remained still, focused and unmoving as he shaped to play the ball. He batted nine-and-a-half hours for 188. The first glittering gem of his career.

But for all that, he managed an average of just 31 in the series in the Caribbean. The potential was palpable. What was needed was consistency, getting more of those big scores.

This final adjustment was made before the summer of six Tests, three away and three at home against Australia. Glenn Turner was the coach of the New Zealand side, and he passed on the crucial tip. Switch off between balls. Stay fresh for each delivery.

Added to this was the Rudi Webster classic Winning Ways.

Crowe started the tour with 242 not out against South Australia. Then as the Australians were defeated 1-2 at home and 0-1 in New Zealand, Crowe hit 188 at Brisbane, 71 and 42 not out at Perth and 137 at Christchurch.

A century at Lord’s resulted during New Zealand’s 1986 summer trip, and then with the mighty West Indians visiting in early 1987, there were 119 at Wellington, 104 at Auckland and 83 at Christchurch. His career average had been hauled through to the early forties. In 1987 he joined the ranks of Don Bradman, Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammond, Denis Compton, Bill Edrich and Len Hutton by scoring 4,000 First-Class runs in a calendar year.

And that was just the start of greatness.

Martin Crowe was by now the second-famous face of New Zealand cricket, beside Richard Hadlee. A bona fide great, a genuine master. The 7 Tests against West Indies had brought him 544 runs at 45.33, against the most frightening of bowlers. He had passed the test of greatness for his era.

And this was just about the beginning of a saga of greatness.

There would be trials down the line. Salmonella infection, injury worries with curious names like osteochondroma and spondylolisthesis, problems with the authorities, the regulation hounding by the media, outbursts including ‘Do you think I am a homosexual?’

But, his bat would conquer the best of them, and would be deemed unconquerable by the best of the bowlers. He would be the first to master the reverse swing of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.

He would be the highest run-getter for New Zealand in the Reliance World Cup, take one of the most fantastic of catches to dismiss David Houghton, and then take charge of the side in the following World Cup and lead them to the semi-final with some splendid tactical improvisations. He would go on to add 467 with Andrew Jones and become the only batsman to fall for 299 in Test cricket. He would retire undisputed as the greatest New Zealand batsman till then. He would become one of the most astute commentators on the game. And he would go through an emotional battle with lymphoma that would ultimately claim his life.

All through this he would remain one of the greatest and most admired names in New Zealand cricket. And all through this he would remain very, very human.

Wisdens as a kid

Crowe was born in Auckland into a cricketing family. Father Dave played First-Class cricket for Canterbury and Wellington, a left-handed opening batsman and a crafty leg-spinner. He also collected Wisdens.

Martin was attracted by the statistics of the game very early, perhaps what made him an astute analyst beside being an exceptional cricketer. By the time he was seven-and-a-half years old, he knew the greats of the game like Jack Hobbs (a lesson for some current-day commentators who do not know these names even at 50), Don Bradman, Wally Hammond, Garry Sobers, Fred Trueman and others. At the age of 8, he told his father that he wanted to score a century at Lord’s. At the age of 23, he did.

Crowe started playing local cricket alongside his brother from the time he was around five. The boys registered at Cornwall Park for Saturday morning cricket, with mother Audrey, herself gifted in tennis and golf, having everything ready for them around 8 in the morning. The pitch he favoured was towards one side of the field with a short leg-side boundary, which is the reason Crowe stated for his penchant for the pull stroke.

One of the first cousins of Martin and Jeff, also possessing the surname Crowe, was Russell. However, this cousin made it big on the silver screen.

Crowe attended Auckland Grammar School and besides captaining the school cricket team was also a wing in rugby union. Besides, he played for New Zealand schools in the Kookaburra Shield against the Australian state sides, becoming the first player to score 407 runs in a week, and breaking the record for most runs set by Dirk Wellham.

At 17, he made his impressive First-Class debut for Auckland, scoring 51 against Canterbury. The following year, he was named New Zealand’s Young Cricketer of the Year.

The early days for Auckland were enjoyable in the company of future Test players, Trevor Franklin and Phil Horne. However, the arrival of John Bracewell changed all that. It was the off-spinner’s constant needling and tantrums as the close-in fielders crouched to his bowling that made Crowe bitter and finally move to Central Districts. It did not take long for him to be recruited for more serious duties.

Mastering reverse-swing

Through the latter half of the 1980s and till the end of his career in 1995, Crowe remained one of the leading batsmen in the game. He got runs with equal aplomb against the Australians at home and away, against the Englishmen as well as the West Indians.

But perhaps his greatest feat was achieved against the Pakistanis in 1990-91. It was the first time Crowe was appointed captain. A depleted and demotivated Kiwi side travelled under him to the hostile, unfamiliar conditions of Pakistan. Imran Khan called them a B side, and Crowe admitted that it was not far from the mark.

In the first Test, Wasim and Waqar blew them away. Crowe battled to 68 not out in the second innings.
The second Test at Lahore was following a similar script. Crowe, as he watched Akram bowl to Trevor Franklin from the non-striker’s end, was astounded to see the ball completely devoid of colour and, also, leather. Surprisingly, the innings was only about 20 overs old. And the ball swung in a long way when the grip made Crowe expect it to go away. That evening, he faced a couple of bouncers that swung dangerously close to his face, even as he expected them to swing harmlessly away.

The following day, Crowe wore a visor. And he played for the in-swinger, holding his bat inside the line of the ball, thus avoiding the edge to the one that swung away and playing the one that came in. He fought to score 108 not out, although when he picked up the ball after an Abdul Qadir over he saw it completely mutilated on one side, with two or three large scratches gouged out, ‘presumably by a sharp instrument’.

It left a bitter taste in the mouth after an innings of incredible quality. The Pakistani pacers generally acknowledge Crowe to be the one who had mastered reverse-swing.

Martin Crowe in his trademark white helmet © Getty Images
Martin Crowe in his trademark white helmet © Getty Images

That one run

This series was followed by the home showdown against Sri Lanka. At Wellington, Crowe and Jones added 467 for the third wicket, but it ended in a story of horror for the Kiwi maestro.

That 299. The single run that remained elusive, that stopped him from becoming the first ever Kiwi batsman to score a triple hundred, that caused Crowe more pain than the satisfaction from a massive innings. He threw his bat at a wide one from Arjuna Ranatunga, and looked back in horror to see Hashan Tillakaratne diving full-length to glove the ball a centimetre from the ground. He could not believe it.

On his way back to the pavilion, Crowe smashed a sign, hit a fire hose with his bat and then hurled his willow skyward on reaching the dressing-room. “It’s not fair, the bloody game,” he screamed while tears streamed down his face. That dismissal haunted Crowe till the very end of his days.

As I said, he was very human. And he was not afraid to come across as one.

Forget all the ‘selfless cricket’ and ‘team versus individual’ pontification meant for people who have never held a bat in their lives. This is how sportsmen gear themselves for the pinnacle of achievements. The road to the top is a lonely one and the trek is fuelled by ambition. Crowe had almost got to an exclusive peak, and slipping near the top was painful. And unlike many of the cricketers from the greater cricketing country neighbouring his, he was not shy of documenting his disappointment in poignant terms.

1992 World Cup

And then there was the World Cup, which New Zealand co-hosted with their Trans-Tasman neighbours.

Crowe batted like a man possessed as he led from the front. 100 not out as the Australians were overcome, 74 from 43 balls as the match against Zimbabwe was truncated and New Zealand could bat 20.5 overs, 81 not out as the West Indians were vanquished, 73 not out against the Englishmen and 91 against the Pakistanis in the semi-final.

More than that, there were his strategies. Mark Greatbatch launching his bat at the short boundaries early in the innings, Dipak Patel sending down his spinners with the new ball, the incredible use of mill-medium pacers like Gavin Larsen, Chris Harris, Willie Watson and even Rod Latham.

Martin Crowe was Player of the Tournament in the 1992 World Cup © Getty Images
Martin Crowe was Player of the Tournament in the 1992 World Cup © Getty Images

And yet, his hamstring snapped as he batted in the semi-final and he was not in the field as Pakistan batted. Would it have helped? One does not know, but Inzamam-ul-Haq snatched the match away with some unbelievable batting. Crowe’s ‘Mission Impossible’ campaign had almost pulled through, but was stopped on its rampaging victorious march. Crowe was named Man of the Tournament, but it was scarce consolation.

Later, Crowe said in 2014 that his decision to bat first had tormented him for two decades.

His batting record as captain was brilliant, 1,466 runs at 54.29 in 16 Tests as captain with 4 hundreds, 1,634 runs in 44 ODIs at 45.38. However, his outstanding run in the World Cup notwithstanding, his success as the nation’s captain is limited. New Zealand won only 2 of the Tests he led and lost 7. Although they did significantly better in the ODIs by winning 21 and losing 22, it was not a spectacular record.

The final days

A couple of seasons later, after two rather ordinary series with the bat, Crowe gave up captaincy to concentrate on his batting. He was still New Zealand’s leading batsman by some miles.

It resulted in 142 at Lord’s and 115 at Old Trafford when New Zealand toured England in 1994, but a fighting 83 at Johannesburg proved to be his last hurrah as a Test batsman. He finally toured India for a Test series in 1995, but did little in the Tests in the rain-affected matches. He did hit 107 in the first ODI to take New Zealand to a galloping victory at Jamshedpur, and scored a run-a-ball 63 in the final ODI of his career at Nagpur.

Crowe’s 5,444 runs in Tests is no longer a Kiwi record, and Brendon McCullum has gone past his 299 as well. His 17 centuries still stand as the highest for New Zealand. However, Kane Williamson is closing in, and Ross Taylor may also have a few more hundreds in him.

It was not only the runs that made him one of the pillars of the New Zealand side. The style with which he made them gave an aura of individualism to a faceless side. He was one of the most elegant of batsmen and his batting was marked by a free flowing technique based out of the strongest fundamental principles. ‘Graceful’ was the way to describe his strokes that live on in video clips and memories.

He bowled a bit of medium-paced in-swingers in his early days, and was good enough to pick up 14 Test wickets and 29 in ODIs. However, he was too much of a stylist to stick to something that did not come across as effortless and elegant.

Among other notable statistics, Crowe scored a century every 5.88 First-Class innings, which stand third after Bradman’s 2.89 and Graeme Hick’s 5.81.

And as an analyst and writer he was astute, insightful, fluent and articulate. One of the very best in business before it all ended in that tragic premature death.

But amidst all these feats, he was plagued by his own pledge. The last words of his autobiography read “Be the best you can be, always.” He tried to follow that dictum, and his quest for perfection proved an obsession. Even while coasting on the high crest of form and performance, he was seldom satisfied. Often, he was troubled. Yes, again, he was very human.

Students of Auckland Grammar perform Hogan's haka to honour Martin Crowe as his casket was led away at his funeral © Getty Images
Students of Auckland Grammar perform Hogan’s haka to honour Martin Crowe as his casket was led away at his funeral © Getty Images

Nevertheless, he had plenty to be satisfied with in his career. The last page of his autobiography also says, “I feel good about what I have done and that makes me think I can continue to live happily in this wonderful country of New Zealand.”

Yes, no one would dispute that he had done enough for a long and happy life. Unfortunately, fate demurred and made it a short one, and one full of struggle.

But, while brief, Crowe’s was an incredible life. A life full of achievements and conflict, of doubts, despair and diligence, of extraordinary talent and very human reactions, of magical highs and a tragic end. A life worth living.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)