As the Crowe flies

Even before his untimely death on Thursday post a relapse of lymphoma, Martin Crowe’s life had seen tumultuous twists and turns.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: March 5, 2016 4:08 pm

Even before his untimely death on Thursday post a relapse of lymphoma, Martin Crowe’s life had seen tumultuous twists and turns – from failing as a much touted prodigy to becoming the leading batsmen of the 80s to ending a tortured soul who nursed deep regrets in his cricketing career

On March 4 1982 the Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald carried a dramatic picture of the 19-year old debutant Martin Crowe. The right knee is sunk on the ground, the face yanked away towards slips, and you can see the back and head of a bent Jeff Thomson finishing his action. On the right side of the frame, a white helmet is flying in the air. The photo caption was a snarl: ‘New Zealand batsman was seeing stars after Jeff Thomson sent down this fearsome delivery which separated helmet from the head in yesterday’s Test match in Auckland.’

It was Crowe’s first match. He hadn’t even seen that ball from Thommo. The inscrutably freak action and the pace were too much for the teenager that day. The helmet had no chinstrap and kept flying off. Thomson proved an unbridgeable gap. His first Test captain Geoff Howarth kept calling him a show pony and treated him “like shit”, only John Wright was friendly. He had not been to university, never been in a relationship, was living at home, and from the age of 14, when he turned out for an U-23 team, he struggled to cope.

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“I was blown out of my mind. People think you are coping well, but you’re not. And that’s why for the next 30 years, off the field, I had a string of problems with relationships and marriages, and brushes with coaches,” Crowe said 16 years after his debut. “Because I was not equipped, because I had never developed my emotional side properly enough.”

The debut year is something cricketers hold close to heart. However, for Crowe, it had made him fearful, and to counter that he had become more technically minded. The fear of failure and humiliation had kicked in. On the day he was selected for New Zealand, he had hit his first first-class hundred – a free-flowing 150 in about 120 minutes. “I never ever played like that ever again.”

***

By the time 80’s wound down, Crowe had hit 50 first-class hundreds and was battling a mystery ailment. In ’84, he picked up salmonella poisoning in Sri Lanka which wasn’t diagnosed for four years. In ’87, as preparation for the World Cup in India, he was running up hills in Spain. Next year, however, he became frail, his face turned sickly grey by May. He lost weight, suffered recurrent diarrhoea, and needed rest; the colour returned to his skin only after the right diagnosis and dietary changes. By November he was in Australia as vice-captain to Wright, talking about his goals. “I wanted to score the 50th this year because it means I have done it in the 80’s. So who knows? I might be able to score another 50 in the 90’s.” Crowe was driven by numbers. He needed goals and stepping stones to keep going every day. By the time he came back in ’89, the batsman, who had eked out just 20 from his first four Test innings in Australia, had already paid back the Aussies in some style, making 884 runs at an average of 68 that included a memorable 188 in Brisbane in ’85.

After the emotional start to his career, he had stripped his batting to its individual inchoate parts and managed to piece them together as organic whole in the way he wanted it to be. He batted in straight lines – those who have seen him bat will get that. He could be all arms, almost, but used just about enough wrists, and with his tall upright broad-frame upper body leaning into the shots, his batting was classical in its essence with a lingering aftertaste of elegance.

Peter Roebuck, who captained Crowe at Somerset in English county cricket, wrote a revelatory paragraph in ‘87. “Determined to reject emotion, which he believes, prevents an accurate judgement of shots, he’s training himself to be cold at the crease. … As a child his favourite television show was ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ [which presented life in a prisoner-of-war camp as a hilarious round of merry japes] which earned him the nickname Hogan. It’s an interesting choice of programs. As a cricketer, too, Crowe has a messianic streak which both challenges and disturbs milder characters. At Somerset, most youngsters valued his advice and example. But for some it was an exercise in futility.”

In his later years, he was aware of how far his youth was consumed by his intense yearning for cricketing excellence. In a moving tribute, Gideon Haigh, who became friends with Crowe in the last couple of years, brings up a moment where he told Crowe that he would have liked him back in the day. “No, you wouldn’t have,” Crowe replied. “No, you wouldn’t have.”

***

The 90’s began with a dreamy run in the World Cup. His batting was effervescent and his captaincy imaginative. The rambunctious campaign had New Zealanders warming up to him and he finally got the adulation that he craved for years. Ever since his “show pony” days, the emotional Crowe rarely found love and acceptance in his homeland. To them, he was the ‘brash tall poppy from Auckland’, as he once described the public perception of him. The media hounded him – some even floated rumours on his sexuality.

The man who always felt victimised finally snapped in Wellington during a Test against Australia in’93, which incidentally was Wright’s last series. On the evening after he made 98, before the conference with journalists could start, Crowe said he wanted to ask a few questions. Turning to a reporter from Sunday News, he asked, “Do you think I’m homosexual?” When negation followed an awkward silence, Crowe said, “Then why did you imply in your article that I am?”

His final year with cricket was a disappointing blur. He said later that he should have retired in 1994 after the England tour where he scored 142 at Lord’s hobbling on one leg. But he was done in by numbers, and by the uncertainty about what he would do without cricket. He wanted 20 hundreds, 6000 runs but his body had given up, and an old face had come back to haunt him. Geoff Howarth was the new coach, and it wasn’t surprising to hear Crowe say in 2008, passion clearly not yet spent: “Howarth as coach was a joke, and I played under Lee Germon, which was ridiculous.”

***

In the summer of 2008, after impressing cricketing world with his modern theories about cricket where he pushed for shorter-format cricket and original approaches to batting, he came to India to mentor the Bangalore IPL team led by Rahul Dravid and owned by Vijay Mallya. Our paths crossed then, and after some small talk in the initial weeks, he agreed for an exhaustive chat where he went in some detail about his cricket and about himself. He was in a happy space of mind then. He had sought professional help for his inner torment in 2005, he said, and identified the problem and began to clear up his head and heart. Love rushed in, and he married Lorrain Downes on the Valentine’s Day of 2009. She had grown up in a village, graduated towards teacher training when someone suggested modelling. She took it up to fund her goal, and finances were still the reason she entered the Miss Universe contest in ‘83 that she won. An event that she was to be defined by – the ‘former beauty queen’ tag, she felt, was a shallow way to frame her life. By the time of her marriage to Crowe, she was an ambassador to Living Nature, a chemical-free natural skincare company, nursed her mother through cancer, and held a strong faith in ritual-less spiritualism.

It was a fairy tale beach wedding. Photos show a dashing couple – Crowe dressed in an all-white ensemble and Lorraine draped in silk chiffon and aquamarine gown studded with Swarovski crystals, looking into each other’s eyes, lips curled into a mushy smile.

***

Crowe first learned he had lymphoma in 2012 but fought it through chemotherapy. He initially traced it to the salmonella poisoning of 1984 which had weakened his immunity. There are no known substances which cause lymphoma, doctors say, but its risk is increased in patients with infections and autoimmune and rheumatoid diseases. Crowe thought he had beaten it but back pains in 2014 revealed the cancer had returned in a more dangerous form. In an interview that year, Lorraine opened up about her life. “Look, who has an easy life. The joyous moments in life, my goodness, you’ve got to grab them, you’ve got to embrace them because you never know what’s coming. For me, I’ve had a lot of things happen to me in my life, like everybody else. I’ve had the death of a father, I’ve had a marriage break-up, I’ve lost close family and friends with cancer, so those hardships do bring sadness…Life is not all happy joyous times. You have the down times, the sad times, the challenging times and it’s part of life.”

Crowe declined chemotherapy and opted for natural remedies recommended by his friend, the legendary rugby fly-half Grant Fox. It was made out of sea cucumbers from the Pacific Islands. The doctors had told him in 2014 that only 5 per cent of people with the rare follicular-lymphoma survive for 12 months but Crowe fought on, determined to see the 2015 World Cup in his country.

***

By the time the tournament got underway, he had regained some energy, enough to even turn out to bat for one last time in his life in a friendly match organised by his schoolmate and team-mate Mark Greatbatch. The mood was sombre when couple of us Indian journalists heard about the news. There was this indescribable uneasiness, a sense of morbidity even, when we walked into the tree-ringed Cornwall Park in Auckland. The companion was disturbed enough to comment, ‘Yaar, we have come to see a dying man bat’.

Death was already in the mind as a cousin sister had succumbed to pancreas cancer just a couple of months ago. She was diagnosed with cancer on a Friday and died on Monday. So, a shiver went up the spine when Crowe walked down the stairs to bat. Luckily, by then, Crowe’s friends and Cornwell club members who know him for years, had correctly and admirably settled on to the right mood for the occasion– celebration. For 20 dreamy minutes, a potentially maudlin afternoon had turned into a celebration of camaraderie, human spirit and grace. For 20 minutes, Crowe re-experienced the thing that gave him great joy in his life.

A man of many parts

Crowe would be remembered not only for the runs he scored but also for the multi-faceted personality he was.

The batsman

Though touted as a prodigy, Crowe barely stayed afloat when thrown into the deep end against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson as a 19-year-old-his first-ever tryst with failure as noted by his former school headmaster John Graham who even made him address the school assembly upon his return. Within the next two years he had a Test ton on board, following which he reigned for a decade as the most prolific batsman in the world-scoring 3391 runs at 58.46 with 12 tons between 1985 and 1991. He saved his best for the most formidable attacks.

The technician

He ended his Test career with most centuries by a Kiwi batsman-17-but his numbers are only incidental to the legacy of batting. He was a stylist despite being renowned more as the most technically sound batsman. He wasn’t overtly flamboyant except while playing his characteristic hook shot but is most remembered for the majesty of his drives. He believed staunchly in being still at the crease with a chest-on stance with immaculate footwork and had the ability to both dominate and quell bowling attacks-at times for long periods.

The hero

Crowe was nicknamed Hogan very early in his career as he was known to be a passionate fan of the American war-theme sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. But he turned into a folkhero himself in his native New Zealand for turning New Zealand into a world-beating side along with Richard Hadlee. To the extent that those around him felt, he was uncomfortable with the incessant fandom. It was only symbolic that the two men who led them to many of their famous wins-including their country’s first-ever in Australia-were Crowe with 188 and Hadlee with 15 wickets.

The captain

That the first names that come to mind whenever we think of Martin Crowe the captain are a couple of unheralded journeymen, is in itself a tribute to his ingenuity. He not only turned the middling careers of Mark Greatbatch and Deepak Patel on its head, by giving them roles the cricket world hadn’t ever thought of he also changed the way ODI cricket was played all-round. Apart from getting Greatbatch to pinch-hit-a practice borrowed from baseball-and Patel to open the bowling with his off-spin, and it proved very fruitful.