Martin Crowe – Just Another Fine Batsman?

New Zealand cricket has produced very few genuinely great players.  Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that Sir Richard Hadlee may be the only one.

Largely because of injuries, Martin Crowe, who died in 2016 at the age of 53, never quite made it into the pantheon, but, as I wrote here in 1996, he was a truly outstanding player.

In September 1984, a Sunday Times article by Dudley Doust charted the ups and downs of Martin Crowe’s first season with Somerset.  An aspect of the piece which I found especially interesting was the mention of his thematic letters to his parents, one of which graphically described his feelings of loneliness and vulnerability as he fought against poor form to establish himself as a worthy substitute for the idolised Vivian Richards.

“‘I am going in soon, and I want to bat well,’ Martin Crowe wrote that day, padded up in the Taunton dressing room, ‘but I don’t know how to do it.’  He went in, faced nine balls and was out for five. Crowe returned depressed to his teammates.  ‘I went into shower, and held on to the pipe and started screaming,’ he recalled the other day.  ‘I started crying. I wanted someone to hold me.  I wanted to go home.'”

It was a stark example of the effects of the profound physical and psychological pressures which top-class sportsmen face, and which usually escape the awareness of those of us who watch from the sidelines.  Having seen Crowe for the first time in England in 1983, I already regarded him with admiration and wondered at the time about the contrast between the forthrightness and composure of Crowe’s best batting and the evident emotional uncertainty of his character (even if he was just going through a bad trot at the time).  The fascination which this wonderful batsman exerted did not lessen as his career at the fulcrum of New Zealand cricket progressed, and, now that he has retired, he prompts as many questions as he did a decade ago.

Enjoying a low-key net with his former coach Don Wilson on the Saturday of the Lord’s Test in August 1983, the twenty year-old Crowe stood out as a muscular, square-shouldered figure, but there was nothing uneasy or rustic about his style.  I remember his drives best: plenty of timing and raw power, but with exemplary positioning of head, hands and feet.  After arriving with a growing reputation, he was having a variable tour and was working hard to hone the beautifully crafted technique which was later to become the watchword of his batting.

He’d made his Test debut against Australia at home in the early months of 1982, an Auckland teenager with a bag of shots and a prodigious reputation.  The transition from Shell Trophy to Test cricket was not easy though, and he arrived in England in 1983 with just three caps to his name and a wider identity to establish.  He scored handsomely and consistently against the counties, while still failing to make the Test breakthrough which was expected of him. However, as that net at Lord’s illustrated, he was a conspicuous talent who was eager to improve.  I’d always liked players who combined elegance and style with textbook skills – Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, the later Gordon Greenidge – and I liked the look of Crowe immediately.  I knew then that I’d be following his career for a long time.

After scoring a maiden Test century against England at home in early 1984, Crowe joined Somerset for his first season in county cricket.  He arrived at Taunton a jaded man, having come directly from Sri Lanka, where New Zealand had been touring, but he overcame his initial physical and emotional problems in grand style, encouraging the club’s younger players to bond with each other in an unusual and refreshing way.  Amidst and after the traumas which left him crying in the shower after being dismissed by Glamorgan’s John Steele, he scored six championship centuries (his 190 as part of a match-winning partnership with Peter Roebuck against Leicestershire later emerging as a personal favourite), with the rare combination of skill and flair which was subsequently to become so familiar.  He was popular with the people of the county, and it seemed likely at the time, despite the predicted return of Richards in 1985, that the West Country had not seen the last of Crowe.  This was indeed the case, but, when Crowe next took the field for the county in 1987, he was both more famous (as a result of his wonderful batting on the 1986 New Zealand tour and his subsequent performances in New Zealand) and more notorious – in some people’s eyes – through his unwitting walk-on part in the controversy which surrounded Somerset’s decision to release Richards and Joel Garner in 1986.

Prior to the explosion of discontent which accompanied the announcement of that decision, Crowe played an important role in the first New Zealand side to win a series in England, his performances ranging from the controlled brutality of his 93 not out in the Old Trafford one-day international to the precision and command of his Test 106 at Lord’s.  Crowe was by now approaching full maturity as a batsman, with the rough edges apparent in 1983 fully smoothed. With Chappell retired, Gavaskar in the autumn of his career and Pollock seeing his time out in painful isolation, Crowe was, both aesthetically and technically, among the finest players in the world.  Equally impressive was the dignified manner with which he carried himself on and off the field, sensibly remaining on the fringes when the Somerset debate flared, and preparing to take on the West Indies at home in early 1987, a series in which he consolidated his reputation.

The 1987 New Zealand Cricket Almanack carries two photographs which sum up Crowe’s batting at what was, in retrospect, his greatest time.  On the back cover is a photograph of him dismissively hooking Malcolm Marshall during his dominant second-innings century at the Basin Reserve, one of a host of marvellous innings which he played that year.  You can almost feel the power, rhythm and class of the stroke, while Crowe’s innate balance is evident in the way in which he has pivoted on his right leg and rocked back on his heels to force the ball to the Wellington pickets.  And, looking inside the book, past the details of his regal progress round the country’s grounds that season, one comes across an equally impressive picture of an off-drive, which, such is the perfection of the positioning of his feet and head, could easily have been posed for the camera.  The presence of a spectator in the background proves otherwise.

These were the halcyon days of Crowe and New Zealand cricket; they came back to draw the three match series by beating the West Indies in the final game at Lancaster Park.  Though Hadlee and Chatfield laid the foundations of the win by dismissing the West Indies for 100 on the first day, Crowe sealed it by top-scoring in the first innings with 83 as New Zealand forged a lead.  He then finished the match with a vital 9 not out as they struggled to 33 for 5 to win the game on the third day.  His side had beaten Australia and England and drawn with the West Indies in successive Test series and Crowe was fulfilling all his early potential as his return to Somerset approached.  But the spectre of the injuries which have since combined to haunt, and finally halt, his career already beckoned.  He had been prevented from bowling by a back injury in England in 1986, and, in the years that followed, his knee troubles became increasingly familiar.

He excelled once again for Somerset in 1987, scoring over 1600 Championship runs at 67, but his career with the county came to an abrupt and inappropriate end the following year when further back trouble forced him to return home early, his Taunton replacement being a young Sydneysider named Steve Waugh.  With New Zealand though, the runs continued to flow – through the 1987 World Cup and on to series with Pakistan and India and back to England as vice-captain in 1990.  In early 1991, by now the national skipper, he helped Andrew Jones to break the world Test partnership record as they put on 467 against Sri Lanka at the Basin Reserve, Crowe’s share being a magisterial 299.

I lost touch with Crowe during those years; although aware that he was still scoring runs in abundance, visual evidence of his enduring quality was hard to come by in England.  He’d gone from the county game and was only moderately successful on the 1990 tour.  As a follower of the international scene, I was preoccupied with the continued struggles of England, the dominance of the West Indies and the resurgence of Australia.  At this time New Zealand were the equal of any side in the world, but, when their finest player, Richard Hadlee, retired after the 1990 tour of England, it seemed certain that the country’s greatest era in international cricket was over.  Crowe rose to the challenge of his nation’s faltering form, batting with his trademark mastery in the 1992 World Cup and guiding the side to an unexpected semi-final in the face of continued fitness worries.  But, over the next couple of years, things started to look increasingly bleak.  A Test was lost in Sri Lanka, and, despite escaping with a draw from their series with Australia at home in early 1993, memories persisted of the First Test thrashing in Christchurch, where Shane Warne began to make his presence felt on Trans-Tasman Test cricket.  Going to Australia in the latter part of the year, New Zealand were humiliated, their heaviest Test defeat, suffered at the hands of May and Warne in Tasmania, illustrating how far they had fallen from the glory days of the eighties.  Crowe’s prowess had been maintained during the early part of the slide, but, by the conclusion of the Australian disaster, his form had slipped, the knee injuries had returned, and he was no longer his country’s captain.

For all his on-field fitness difficulties, Crowe now had to contend with protracted media speculation about his sexuality, based on rumours which had abounded in New Zealand since the late eighties.  That such irrelevant speculation should occupy the minds of journalists and the pages of their newspapers says much for the standards and integrity of the writers and editors who partook in the gossip-mongering.  It began to seem as though he was being blamed for the decline in New Zealand’s cricketing fortunes, when, in obvious reality, he had done more than anyone else to postpone the reversals that were certain to follow the loss of Hadlee, Chatfield, Smith and Wright.  This seemed a cruel and unfair distortion, and Crowe offered his own theory on the reasons behind it, when, back in England in 1994, he referred to the character assassination of him as being part of what he called the ‘Tall-Poppy Syndrome’.

‘We’re a tiny nation, three and a half million people, and we tend to pull ourselves down. A person is not allowed to stand out above the crowd, especially in sport.’

Crowe deserved considerable sympathy, and he continued to stand above the crowd on his fourth English tour, during which I was repeatedly reminded of how brilliant he had always been.

In May, re-visiting Taunton, he batted beautifully while holding together two fragile New Zealand innings in front of his old supporters.  Apart from the fact that he was now in obvious pain from the perennial knee injury, and was, consequently, a much less agile mover, it was as if he’d never left the County Ground.

The Taunton batting was one example of Crowe’s continued brilliance, but, moving on to Bristol after a crushing defeat in the summer’s First Test, Crowe, apparently either unable or unwilling to run, smashed a coruscating 73 in fifty minutes, with a six and twelve fours.  The innings reduced the Gloucestershire attack to frustrated impotence and thrilled a good Sunday crowd, many of whom did not know – and some of whom may have forgotten – what he was capable of.  This innings was especially interesting because, in 1984, Crowe had talked with apparent discomfort about a similar innings of 70 not out against a rampaging Andy Roberts, and implied that he preferred to be in absolute control at the crease.  This attitude usually added a leavening of grace to his superb basic technique, but, on this occasion, he again let himself go, allowing instinct and ability to override method and underlining his gifts with rare power.  After Bristol, Crowe went on to make completely controlled Test centuries at both Lord’s and Old Trafford, often grimacing with pain but reminding a larger British audience of his quality and reaffirming my belief in him.

There can be little doubt that Crowe stands among the very best batsmen that his country has produced.  Having never seen Reid or Sutcliffe, and only a little late Glenn Turner, when his Test career was a thing of the past, it is impossible for me to judge exactly where Crowe stands.  However, while it is important to remember that a large amount of Crowe’s Test cricket was played in New Zealand teams that were far stronger and more successful than those of his predecessors, his figures – a Test average in the mid-forties and seventeen Test centuries – place him far in advance of nearly all his competitors.  Still (and in this the campaign of media scrutiny mentioned earlier is highly relevant), the feeling persists that Crowe did not always receive the plaudits that he deserved in New Zealand, a deeply unfair reflection on his vital role, alongside Hadlee, Cairns, Wright and others, in the transformation of the country into a major cricketing power, not to mention his part in the more recent battle against decline.

In wider international terms, the story appears similar – that of an artist of quality who never quite gained the praise due to him, something which may change now that he is no longer around.

Crowe’s unassailable charm as a batsman was the product of many different influences.  On the one hand, the classically smooth cleanliness of his strokeplay and the flawlessness of his technique, on the other the vicissitudes of his career and character.  As his father Dave acknowledged in a revealing article (which noted that Crowe’s knee problem originated from a rugby ‘training prank’ when he was a schoolboy) in The Cricketer in 1994, Crowe is a complex man, not as readily accessible or identifiable as most of us prefer our sporting heroes, something which has probably exacerbated his difficulties with the New Zealand media.  But, in my opinion, this complexity, when coupled with the excellence of his batting, which has often had to supplant lengthy periods of self-doubt, formed a fundamental part of his attraction.  Our cricketing public was never as familiar with Crowe as with other, sometimes lesser, players who played more county cricket, displayed greater comfort with the game’s media, or originated in one of the world’s more fashionable cricketing nations.  What this has meant, certainly for me, is the repeated re-discovery of Crowe’s magnificence each time he has toured England.  From the talented tyro of 1983 to the occasionally careworn senior professional of 1994, each visit to these shores has illustrated a different aspect of the man and his game.

Sadly I will never watch him bat again and he will be a hard player to replace in my affections. On a good day, Mark Waugh comes close in terms of languorous class, but there occasionally seems to be an arrogance about him which Crowe never appeared to display.  The search for another player of equivalent dignity and style must begin; I fear it may be a long one.

When the Sunday Times article was reproduced in an anthology of Doust’s splendid writing in 1992, a footnote stated that ‘when he [Crowe] took over the captaincy of New Zealand at the age of twenty-eight, he was just another fine batsman’.

He was much more than that.

Cricket Lore, Volume 2, Issue 7, May 1996