Martin Crowe playing the World Cup prior to Australia's tour of New Zealand 1993 © Getty Images
Martin Crowe playing the World Cup prior to Australia’s tour of New Zealand 1993
© Getty Images

March 6, 1993. Martin Crowe was at the end of his tether, battling discontent in team, injuries and ailment, and severe criticism in the press. He stormed in to answer questions in a press conference, and started off by asking several. And one of them was about as direct and bold as cricket ever gets. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the fateful day at Wellington.

The seeds were sown in the days of innocence, when cricket was just capturing the imagination of the Kiwi crowds. When Martin Crowe was a fair-haired boy of 20, with a batting average of 5 and a highest score of 9 from his 3 Tests.

The troubled tentacles of rumour mongering were nurtured through the next decade, with the media following its time-honoured policy of lionising a young talent and then turning against that very icon with slings and arrows manufactured from thin air.

It all came to a head when the stalwart cricketer, battling injuries and carrying his team for years, could not take it anymore and stormed into a press conference, turning the tables, asking questions to the scribes — questions of a kind that had never been heard before in the pristine ‘gentleman’s game’. It was a scenario seldom seen before or since, and left the most garrulous of pressmen at a loss for words.

The rock-concert promoter

Crowe had made his Test debut as a 19-year-old of immense potential in early 1982. By the end of the third and final Test of the series, however, he had been battered and humiliated by the likes of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. However, some decent scores in the One Day Internationals and phenomenal performances in the domestic season had left little doubt about his talent.

His brother Jeff had followed him into the international arena, making a sedate debut against Sri Lanka. By the time the 1982-83 season came to an end, both the Crowe brothers had been selected to represent New Zealand in the World Cup to take place during the English summer.

Big changes were taking place in New Zealand cricket as well. The country, for long the whipping boy of the cricket world, had undergone a remarkable makeover in the 1970s. The turnaround had been helped along by the genius of Richard Hadlee, and a gamut of intelligent, dedicated performers — Geoff Howarth, Lance Cairns, John Wright, Bruce Edgar, Ewen Chatfield, Jeremy Coney, Warren Lees, and, when he played, Glenn Turner.

Hence, by 1983, the team was a force to reckon with. Especially the impressive shows against Australia, the neighbouring cricketing giant who had hardly ever acknowledged the Kiwis as a serious cricketing nation, had seen a surge of interest in the game across the islands.

Hence, to capitalise on the rising fortunes, the New Zealand team decided to employ a commercial business manager for the very first time. Just before the end of the 1982-83 season, the cricketers of the national team gathered at the Waipuna Lodge in Auckland to interview the final two candidates shortlisted for the job.

The first of these two was a rock-concert promoter called Darryl Campbell. He had managed the Australian pop singer John Farnham for ten years. And now, after meeting Wright through their shared love for horses, he had the idea that he could do great things for the Kiwi cricketers. Campbell promised the team $100,000 a year in endorsements.

The job was, however, given to the other candidate, Lindsay Singleton. He was already close to the team by virtue of being the financial adviser of Howarth and Cairns. He also knew the board members.

All but three of the cricketers voted for Singleton. The three in favour of Campbell happened to be the Crowe brothers and Coney. And according to their later confessions, they were fascinated by the figures Campbell promised.

So, thinking about it a bit further, the younger Crowe approached Campbell on a personal capacity and asked him to become his own manager. The promoter jumped at the opportunity, promising to put him on more covers of glossy magazines than Hadlee himself. Thus the deal was struck. The young batsman with the experience of 3 Tests and a batting average of 5 had a manager.

Campbell did keep his promise. Within a couple of years, he had established gilt edged contracts for both the Crowe brothers, especially for the more talented Martin. The younger Crowe was matching Hadlee endorsement for endorsement, and he was not yet the star he was set to become. With Martin Crowe becoming more and more successful on the field, Campbell turned extremely vocal and aggressive in promoting him. The Crowes were making serious money, Martin by far the more serious of the two.

It came with a caveat. According to Crowe himself, “My high profile … (had turned me) into something Kiwis love to hate — a fast-growing, opinionated, tall poppy from Auckland.”

Additionally, there was another complication in the story. As Campbell confessed to Crowe quite early in their association, he was gay. To Crowe the social life of his manager hardly mattered as long as he managed his business. However, with the growing success and associated popularity, there were soon rumours circulating that Martin Crowe was one of “Darryl’s boys”.

Crowe did change his manager after a couple of years, but the rumours only became dormant, to resurface whenever there was the burning necessity for the media to haul their star batsman over fire.

Salmonella

In 1984, the Kiwi cricket team visited Sri Lanka for a short Test series. And as an inexperienced young traveller, Crowe devoured a couple of mussels at a local restaurant in Colombo that had looked quite reliable to him.

A few hours after that he became sick, violently sick. There was hideous vomiting, diarrhoea and dysentery. And, feeling a sting under his lower lip, he looked in the mirror and was horrified to find a swelling of the size of a grape.

The local doctors applied some ointments, and Crowe, draped all over with handkerchiefs, batted for 217 minutes for a match-saving 19 not out.  When he returned home, the Kiwi doctors kept him on antibiotics.

It was only in July 1988 that Dr Gerald Gibb correctly diagnosed that for four years Crowe had been afflicted with salmonella poisoning since that horrid experience in Colombo. This had affected his back, resulting in a chronic stiffness, recurrent diarrhoea, excessive perspiration and a palpable lack of energy.

Hence in 1988, Crowe went on a break. He did not play cricket for eight months. A course of homeopathic treatment was prescribed to draw the toxin out of the system. His skin turned pale grey. He lost several kilograms.

And hence another new rumour was circulated, mainly to keep Martin Crowe in the news, leveraging on the dormant whisperings about his sexual orientation. It was stated by some that he had Aids.

In fact, Scott Cordez of Sunday Newscalled Crowe up and said that he had heard from reliable sources that the batsman had Aids. When Crowe responded that he would not answer such a stupid question, Cordez replied, “So you don’t deny that you’ve got Aids.” Crowe hung up.

Crowe himself did not have the luxury to battle the fabrications and innuendos. He worked hard with Jim Blair, the fitness instructor of the All Blacks and America’s Cup Squad. He took up yoga to fix his back. And he paired up with tennis star Brett Stevens for training sessions, the latter recovering from an elbow injury.

Crowe did return with a bang, with 174 at Wellington against Pakistan. The next three years saw him average in the mid-50s in Test cricket, in the mid-40s in ODIs. It encompassed the world record partnership of 467 with Andrew Jones, and culminated in his leading the Kiwi team in their dream run to the World Cup semi-finals.

After the World Cup, he got married to his long-time partner, the gorgeous interior designer Simone Curtis. The fortunes were on the upswing and Crowe had got married. Was it time for the rumours of homosexuality to die a natural death.

Post World Cup

Not so.

There were complications around the contract with the New Zealand cricket board. There was a horrible glandular fever acquired in Hong Kong before travelling for a physically demanding series in Zimbabwe. There was the trauma of a bomb blast in Sri Lanka, following which he stayed back to play another Test amidst raging civil war. With many of the original side having decided to leave for New Zealand, Crowe had to marshal a makeshift team and played defensive cricket. The tactics did not make him popular with the press.

On return to New Zealand, Crowe had himself treated for a finger injury while Ken Rutherford led New Zealand in their one-off Test against Pakistan in Hamilton.  The home team failed to chase down 127 in the final innings, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis bowling Pakistan to a memorable 33 run win.

Crowe was back at the helm when Alan Border’s Australians came over for a three-Test series. By then, mutterings about contract, lack of support from some senior players, and disagreement between coach Warren Lees and senior professionals like Wright had rendered the team increasingly vulnerable.

During the first Test at Christchurch, Border went past Sunil Gavaskar’s aggregate as the highest run scorer in Test cricket. Australia piled up a huge total of 485. New Zealand could score only 182 in response. In a fit of disappointment, without finding any drive in his players, Crowe approached selector Don Nelly and requested to be sacked as captain.

Nelly eventually talked him out of it, but by then the press was at Crowe’s throat. As New Zealand crashed to a mighty defeat, Doug Golightly of Truthwrote that the Kiwi players were not having their lunches together. Trevor McKewen of Sunday News, in an article titled ‘King of Pain’,recirculated the ‘mystery virus’ rumours.

After this, Crowe’s wife Simone was approached by Radio Pacific for an interview. Duringthe dialogue she was quite vocal againstthe ‘Aids rumours’. Once the interview was aired, the editor of Sunday Newsasked permission to transcribe the session. Simone Crowe denied the request, explaining that she was still fuming over the ‘mystery virus’ innuendo. The editor replied that he had recently been appointed to clean up the paper’s reputation and would be fair in the way he projected the story. Eventually Simone relented, and next Sunday the headlines read: “Crowe’s wife hits Aids slur.”

The Wellington Woes

Amidst all this Crowe proceeded with his team to Wellington for the second Test. To cap his problems, his father had suffered a minor heart attack. When Crowe was busy visiting him in the hospital on the eve of the Test, he was criticised on television for failing to attend practice. And soon, he found that Evening Post had published an article, “Crowe offers to resign” indicating that his private conversation with Nelly had been leaked.

The Test, however, got off to a better start, with New Zealand reaching 237 for 3 after the two rain-curtailed days, the openers Mark Greatbatch and Wright putting on a brave show, and Crowe himself, struck early on the helmet by Merv Hughes, playing his shots to remain not out on 62.

That night, on TV3’s Mobil Sport, file shots were shown of the two teams at the airport. The Australians supposedly looked dapper in their blazers and ties while the Kiwis appeared shabby in track suits.  What was more, led by Murray Deaker and Eric Young, a panel of journalists pointed out, “The Kiwis are being led off the plane by Martin and Simone Crowe.  Who the hell’s running the show?”

The issue of whether Crowe should remain captain was then put on vote in front of this television panel. McKewen of Sunday News said that he should step down. Martin Snedden, the former medium pacer, voiced that he should stay. Finally Deaker cried out, “Martin stays, Simone goes.”

It was yellow journalism of the worst kind.

The next morning, Crowe tore into the Aussie bowling, scoring 33 in just 25 minutes, including a fiercely struck over-boundary. He was into his 90s, in full flow and form, when Hughes dismissed Rutherford and Tony Blain in quick succession. In walked a young, nervous Chris Cairns. With his skipper going great guns, he prodded around for more than half an hour, nudging balls around, almost invariably picking up a single off the last ball of the over. By the time the rookie all-rounder fell for 13, Crowe’s rhythm had deserted him. He missed the line of a Craig McDermott delivery and was bowled for 98. He stormed off with dark thoughts in his mind.

New Zealand ended their innings at 329 and Australia were 107 for 2 when stumps were drawn. And then there was the press conference. It was a Saturday evening, and the conference was for the benefit of the Sunday press.

Richard Hadlee, the former fast bowling great, accompanied Crowe through the tunnel and into the lunchroom where the press had assembled. The room was full, the 30-odd chairs occupied, microphones positioned in front of Crowe’s chair. As Bryan Waddle, the veteran New Zealand broadcaster, got into position to open the session, Crowe held his hand up.

“Could I have everyone’s attention please? I would like to ask a few questions myself.”

It took everyone by surprise. Eyes turned towards the captain, pads were whipped open, pens scribbled, dictaphones were raised, video cameras clicked on.

Crowe turned to his left and looked directly at McKewen from the Sunday News. “Trevor,” he asked. “Do you think I’m homosexual?”

A dumbfounded silence followed. One could hear the hearts pounding, ears craning to hear the answer. After a long and intolerable period silence, McKewen stammered, “Ah, no.”

“Right. Then why did you imply in your article that I am?”

McKewen tried to defend himself, “Hey, now, I’m just the sports editor. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Crowe next turned to Golightly. “Doug, you mentioned in your latest article in Truth that the New Zealand team didn’t lunch together during the Christchurch Test. Where were we supposed to have lunch?”

The answer was, “Hey, I’m sticking to my story.”

The impromptu and incredibly surprising questions had knocked the wind out of the conference. When the seasoned Don Cameron finally asked everyone to put the misunderstanding behind them and try and get on, no one was quite sure how to proceed. Crowe was looking at the ground, apparently uninterested in facing questions. The reporters looked hassled and confused.

Finally Bryan Waddle, a grin on his face, asked, “Shall we talk cricket then?” And at long last Crowe smiled.

But before the conference could begin, Jeff Longley of the Christchurch Press chimed in, “Do you feel victimised?”

Crowe nodded and responded, “Yes.” The response could not have been more honest.

The ace batsman confesses in his autobiography that after the conference was over, he walked out feeling devastated and empty. Along with the sense of futility that comes with venting bitterness, there was the helpless feeling that such emotions could be the reward of giving his best for the country over a decade. Not only had the irritating rumours about his sexuality been relished in the press, his wife had been dragged into controversy.

The Craddock version

There is no other version of the events of that press conference, but there happens to be another slant.

According to News Limited Australia’s group cricket writer Robert Craddock, the press conference actually opened up questions rather than stopping them.

There were apparently very few who believed that Crowe was gay. But after the New Zealand captain had walked out of the room following the curious performance, a hush of silence descended on the gathering. And then the voice of a journalist rang out: “Geez, is Martin Crowe gay?”

And that was the question that was on the lips of all the pressmen for days to come.

What followed

The Wellington Test ended in a draw. As the tour moved to Auckland, Crowe checked into his hotel to find a bundle of letters from well-wishers. They were from all the Kiwi supporters who had been disturbed by the brutal attack on their captain by the tabloids.

Two night before the Test, the series sponsors, Bank of New Zealand, took the team on a harbour cruise. The host for the evening was David McPhail, the brilliant comedian, and he had the entire team in splits.

And with that they recovered. At Eden park, Danny Morrison swung the ball fast and late, picking up 6 for 37. Australia were bowled out for 139. After securing an 85-run lead, Crowe handed the new ball to off-spinner Dipak Patel. The result was 5 for 93 from 34 overs for the diminutive off-spinner and New Zealand required 201 to win.

Wright, in his last Test, scored 33. Greatbach, Jones and Crowe got decent 20s. A slight touch of nerves was neutralised by a calm Rutherford and a supremely mature innings by Blain. New Zealand won by 5 wickets.

Amidst all the ebbs and flows of the usual sporting career, this sub-plot, at least from some angles, managed to enjoy a happy ending.

Brief Scores

 1st Test at Christchurch

 Australia 485(Mark Taylor 82, Justin Langer 63, Steve Waugh 62, Alan Border 88, Ian Healey 54, Merv Hughes 45) beat New Zealand 182 (Ken Rutherford 57) and 243(Ken Rutherford 102, Murphy Su’a 44; Merv Hughes 4 for 62, Shane Warne 4 for 63) by an innings and 60 runs.

Man of the Match: Shane Warne.

2nd Test at Wellington

 New Zealand 329 (Mark Greatbatch 61, John Wright 72, Martin Crowe 98) and 210 for 7 (Andrew Jones 42, Tony Blain 51, John Wright 46) drew with Australia 298 (Mark Taylor 50, Steve Waugh 75; Danny Morrison 7 for 89).

Man of the Match: Danny Morrison.

3rd Test at Auckland

 Australia 139 (Steve Waugh 41; Danny Morrison 6 for 37) and 285 (David Boon 53, Damien Martyn 74, Alan Border 71; Dipak Patel 5 for 93) lost to New Zealand 224 (Ken Rutherford 43; Shane Warne 4 for 8) and 201 for 5 (Ken Rutherford 53*) by 5 wickets.

Men of the Match: Danny Morrison and Ken Rutherford.

 (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.)