Martin Crowe   s 107 was a saga of immense mental strength, supreme technique, unflinching dedication, tremendous application, and sheer genius    Getty Images
Martin Crowe s 107 was a saga of immense mental strength, supreme technique, unflinching dedication, tremendous application, and sheer genius Getty Images

December 8, 1992. A bomb scare outside the hotel at Colombo led to a split in the New Zealand squad, with several members returning home. Reinforcements were summoned, and the series got underway. After a drawn first Test, New Zealand collapsed at SSC and followed on. Battling a hamstring injury and leading a broken team, Martin Crowe was under severe pressure in the second innings, more so because a rookie off-spinner called Muttiah Muralitharan was turning the ball by the proverbial mile on a helpful pitch. Then he fought back in typical fashion to bring up what he would later go on to call his best innings to date , despite playing several innings of such brilliance that would put pale even the greatest of men. Abhishek Mukherjee narrates a saga of immense mental strength, supreme technique, unflinching dedication, tremendous application, and the genius of a colossus.

Prelude

Martin Crowe was not happy. First, they had to agree to a tour of Zimbabwe to help bring the country into mainstream cricket. Zimbabwe had, after all, been granted Test status earlier that year.

The tour was hectic: they had to play an ODI at Bulawayo, followed by a Test the day after. They got a day s rest, for the next Test was played in Harare. Since the second day of the Test was a Sunday, they decided to play an ODI that day.

In other words, there was an ODI sandwiched inside the Test. In 13 days New Zealand had to play 2 Tests and 2 ODIs.

It did not end there. They had to fly out to Sri Lanka directly. The route was via Singapore, in order to adhere to New Zealand Cricket s policy to save money. It took them forty hours.

The tourists checked in to the Taj Sundara Hotel in Colombo.

On November 15, a mere three days after the last ball of the Zimbabwe tour had got over, Crowe paid a routine visit to team physiotherapist Mark Plummer. It was barely past eight in the morning.

Plummer opted for acupuncture. Crowe lay there, face down, gazing at the vast Indian Ocean as Plummer inserted the needles into his left leg, one by one, when…

The earth shuddered. Suddenly, 60 metres up, the blast reached its height smoke everywhere, debris, shards of glass, metal scattering all directions, Crowe later recalled in his autobiography Out on a Limb.

The police arrived promptly and cordoned the area off. As Crowe made his way towards the hotel, Plummer in tow, he could not help but notice how a BMW had been reduced to merely a frame.

Crowe tumbled on raw human flesh: there were two corpses, sans heads and limbs, shreds of white uniform still clinging to their bodies, amidst their entrails, all soaked in a pool of blood that refused to stop.

Decisions

Any of us could have been jogging past that spot this morning, blurted out Mark Greatbatch, convenor of the players committee and a close friend of Crowe s.

Ken Rutherford and Dipak Patel, seniors of the side, maintained their calm, for the youngsters were visibly shaken.

Patel recalled the 1987-88 explosion. New Zealand had to abandon the Sri Lankan tour midway following an explosion at the Pettah Bus Station, killing over a hundred people. The team, led by Martin s elder brother Jeff, had passed near the location half an hour before the explosion. That tour had been called off three days after the incident.

No vote was taken at that stage, but the unspoken consensus was clear: it was impossible for the team to go on with the tour.

Team manager Leif Dearsley explained the situation: a terrorist, with bomb tied to his waist, had flung himself in front of a running car, causing the explosion; practice was obviously called off; there would be a meeting at half past six that evening, and the board would stand by the players irrespective of the consensus.

As expected, this led to a minor commotion. Greatbatch took charge, unleashing a volley of questions regarding the security of the players. The time of the meeting was bought forward, to one in the afternoon.

The players had probably expected only Dearsley at the meeting, along with Neil Perera, Secretary of Sri Lankan Cricket Board. They were taken aback when the British and Australian High Commissioners showed up, flanked by other officials.

It lasted two hours. The Australian High Commissioner warned that if the players went home, they would not be allowed to visit London too, for London had been hit by explosions in recent past.

But the cricketers were not convinced. London had her share of attacks earlier that year, but this was different: the incident took place in front of the hotel, and the players almost experienced the blow firsthand. And if the Vice-Admiral and Naval Commander could be assassinated, how safe were a group of foreign cricketers?

Crowe called for an anonymous vote once the meeting got over. Of the eighteen men on the tour, only nine wanted to play. This obviously meant that the squad had to return home. Crowe himself had no problem to continue, but there was no way he would go on with half the team.

The squad had gone several changes already. Chris Cairns and Danny Morrison, both injured, pulled out before the twin tours started. They were replaced by Simon Doull and Mark Haslam. When Doull was injured during the Zimbabwe leg of the tour, the selectors had called up Chris Pringle.

Dearsley conveyed the message to the Board. The next morning he informed Crowe that Peter McDermott, the visibly unhappy Chairman of the Board, would be flying out as soon as possible to meet the cricketers.

Crowe did a double-take. As captain, he had a fair idea of at least half of the men who had voted in favour of leaving immediately. He had, of course, noticed them communicating with their anxious families.

Crowe called home to talk to his wife Simone. He knew he would have her support. He was not wrong.

McDermott called for a meeting with Crowe, Andrew Jones, and Dearsley the morning after. There was no doubt that he wanted the tour to go on, despite the strict security measures promised by Sri Lanka.

So he wanted to address the nine men. This included five with families Rutherford, Patel, Rod Latham, Gavin Larsen, and coach Warren Lees. There were also Chris Harris and Blair Hartland, both of whom had lost their fathers the year before, and their families for obvious reasons wanted them back. The others were Willie Watson and Greatbatch.

After addressing the team McDermott decided to talk to the nine men one by one. He started with Lees, the oldest man on tour and the most vulnerable at that stage: not only had he lost his wife the year before, but his son had pleaded to him on phone the previous night, asking him to come back.

None of that, however, had an impact on McDermott. A few minutes later Lees emerged from the room in tears, for McDermott had asked him as well as everyone else keen on returning to resign on the spot.

I could only mumble how sorry I was. I felt angry and I felt useless, Crowe would later recollect. I didn t like the look of this.

Lees, however, did not change his decision; neither did Larsen, Patel, Latham, Greatbatch, or Watson. McDermott managed to convince the other three men.

But the woes were far from over. The six men about to return did not think very highly of the three who changed their minds. Lees departure meant that the side was without a coach as well. Crowe, already in charge of getting a split team back on track, had to assume another responsibility.

It did not help Crowe that Greatbatch was the closest to him among his teammates: My best mate walked out and I swallowed hard, for he was my confidant.

Rebuilding

The twelve men who stayed back took a coach to a resort, where they were joined by Justin Vaughan, Michael Owens, Grant Bradburn, and most significantly, John Wright. At 38, Wright had as good as quit Test cricket, but he was the best replacement they could have had given the this situation. His calm demeanour would certainly help the team get back into their groove and the four inexperienced replacements to settle down.

Not that they needed it. Vaughan, a doctor of medicine from Hereford, England, was yet to play a Test and only 25. When a woman fell sick on the flight from New Zealand, Vaughan attended to her. No, there was no question of immaturity.

A fresh itinerary was drawn. A Test was scrapped, which meant that the tour was reduced to 2 Tests and 3 ODIs. The tourists were clearly not at their best in the two one-day tour matches at Matara. They lost both, albeit by extremely close margins.

Crowe himself confessed that he was in such a negative frame of mind that he wanted to delay the start of the third Test after inspecting the pitch. Earlier, he had been outvoted by Wright and Jones: Crowe had insisted on specialist left-arm spinner Haslam, but the others insisted on packing the side with all-rounders. So Bradburn played instead.

New Zealand reached 288 in the first Test at Moratuwa mostly based on Rutherford s hundred. Roshan Mahanama scored a hundred in response, and Sri Lanka declared 39 runs ahead on the fourth afternoon. Hartland and Wright batted for over four hours for the opening stand, saving the Test. Wright s 25th run made him the first New Zealand batsman to the 5,000-run landmark.

There was a controversy over off-spinner Jayananda Warnaweera as well. Crowe informed the umpires that he was a blatant chucker , but he was told he toured New Zealand in 1991 and he wasn t called then.

The first ODI at Khettarama (later Premadasa) was called off after New Zealand scored 166 and Sri Lanka, 41 for 2. Warnaweera did not play.

Then came the second Test, at SSC.

Out for a duck

Once again Bradburn got the nod ahead of Haslam. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, went in with three spinners, having Asanka Gurusinha to share new ball with Dulip Liyanage.

Mahanama got another hundred, and was ably supported by captain Arjuna Ranatunga (76) and Hashan Tillakaratne (93). Sri Lanka posted 394 on a deteriorating pitch.

New Zealand started their innings on the second afternoon. Hartland and Wright added 57 in 98 minutes. They were on track.

Unfortunately, they were reduced to 100 for 7 by stumps. Crowe fell to a young off-spinner who got the ball to turn all of a metre , from outside off-stump, past his bat and legs and hit the stumps. He had not scored a single run.

The youngster had played only 2 Tests before the series, and had taken 4 expensive wickets. He was left out of the Moratuwa Test, but he was back here: the world would see more, much more of Muttiah Muralitharan in years to come.

Crowe had a tormented night. He was convinced that he would fail again in the second innings. He concentrated hard, trying to visualise other, more positive situations; he pictured himself playing, even attacking the spinners. He could not sleep till five in the morning.

Where eagles dare

Crowe woke up with a jolt at half-past six. Someone had slid a letter under the door: If you send 20 of the same letter to 20 different people then you will have extremely good luck.

He promptly got the photocopies done from the reception. Every copy was slid inside an envelope. Every teammate got one. The rest were posted to New Zealand.

Yes, he was desperate, desperate for runs. He had, after all, scored a mere 155 runs in Sri Lanka from 9 innings. The average read a pathetic 19.38. He had not even scored a fifty. He had scored 19, 11, and 0 in the ongoing series.

There was no extremely good luck when New Zealand batted: they were bowled out for 102 and were asked to follow on. Warnaweera finished with 4 for 25 and Murali with 3 for 22.

Hartland launched into the Sri Lankan attack, racing to 21 in 28 balls before holing out to Murali off Gurusinha. Warnaweera had Jones caught at bat-pad by Tillakaratne, who had already taken 3 catches at in the first innings. Crowe walked out.

He flicked the second ball and set off, desperate to get his first run of the match. Wright ran hard, but Crowe almost fell short and had to stretch out to beat the throw. In the end it did not matter, for it was way off target and crossed the ropes.

Crowe had opened his account with a five.

Unfortunately, the stretching, however unnecessary, had taken its toll on Crowe. Injuries had plagued him throughout his career. The hamstring that had let him down in the World Cup semi-final earlier that year gave away again.

So the singles had to be cut out. The focus should be on boundaries, he realised. And the fours came. He returned for lunch, 39 not out, Wright in tow.

He began cautiously after the break. Then a ball from Warnaweera spat in, took his bat, then pad, and fell marginally short of Gurusinha at silly-point. Gurusinha scooped it up and his teammates appealed in unison, and Mudalige Samarasinghe ruled Crowe out.

But Crowe stood his ground. He had seen the ball bounce. He had also noticed that Gurusinha had only joined in the appeal after he saw his teammates. So he decided to put some pressure: You didn t catch that. It bounced first. Look at me and tell me you caught it. Come on, you guys, play the game.

Sensing something was amiss, Samarasinghe walked up to Ignatius Anandappa at square-leg. They ruled Crowe not out. Thankfully, I heard the fieldsman tell his teammates he didn t take the catch, Samarasinghe explained to Crowe after apologising in the following over, as did Gurusinha after the Test.

But the adrenaline was pumping, and despite the hamstring, despite his woeful record in the country, Crowe forgot everything and exploded in a flurry of boundaries. He brought up his fifty, his first in the country.

Ranatunga rotated his spinners, using left-arm spinner Don Anurasiri only sparingly, relying more on the more dangerous off-spinners. But by then Crowe had regained his confidence. He went after all three, especially Warnaweera ( he is the man I ve branded a chucker, and it pleases me to see the ball sail over the ropes a few times ).

It was batting of the highest quality on a pitch that got worse with every over. All three spinners were acquiring massive turn. His hamstring, stiffening as time went on, prevented Crowe from using his feet the way he wanted to.

With the ball turning square and fielders prowling around his bat, Crowe braved his injured leg and kept hitting the spinners in a superb exhibition of shots. The fielders slowly crept back towards the fence as he raced to the eighties and the nineties.

The hundredth run was a single. Crowe hobbled towards the other end and had to dive to make it. By the time he got up, Wright was there, engulfing him in a hug. It had taken him a mere 108 balls.

And Crowe cried, for there was no doubt in his mind that this was his best innings till date.

Ten minutes later he was gone, caught by that man Tillakaratne at square-leg, off Murali. His 107 had come off 121 balls, and had included 10 fours, 4 sixes, and a five. He had scored those runs in a 159-run stand with Wright at a run a minute.

What followed?

Wright batted almost four hours for his 50. Rutherford played a cameo. Pringle went into a six-hitting spree once the innings defeat was saved, while young Adam Parore was last out for 60, adding 44 with last man Owens.

Murali finished with 4 wickets and Warnaweera and Anurasiri 2 each. Tillakaratne added 4 catches to his tally to equal the world-record match aggregate of 7.

An hour later Sri Lanka registered their first win against New Zealand.

Brief scores:

Sri Lanka 394 (Roshan Mahanama 109, Arjuna Ranatunga 76, Hashan Tillakaratne 93; Michael Owens 4 for 101, Grant Bradburn 3 for 134, Adam Parore 4c 1st) and 73 for 1 beat New Zealand 102 (Jayananda Warnaweera 4 for 25, Muttiah Muralitharan 3 for 22; Hashan Tillakaratne 3c) and 361 (John Wright 50, Martin Crowe 107, Adam Parore 60; Muttiah Muralitharan 4 for 134, Hashan Tillakaratne 4c) by 9 wickets.

Man of the Match: Hashan Tillakaratne.