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Martin Crowe: The apparent effortlessness of perfection

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Martin_Crowe_New_Zealand_cricketIf you fell in love with cricket in the early 1990s, you will have strong feelings for certain cricketers. Some, you would have grown up hating; if you were an English fan during that period, chances are you didn’t like the Australians who were handing your team so many beatings (although it tended to be combined with a grudging respect). Some, you would be in awe of; the batting of a young Sachin Tendulkar and the reverse swing of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Some, you would laugh at, including the running between the wickets of Inzamam-ul-Haq and the batting of Phil Tufnell. These are the pictures that stay in your mind as you feel your love for the game.

Then there was Martin Crowe. Some of the most vivid memories of any cricket fan my age are of the 1992 ICC World Cup. It still looks so beautiful; the TV highlights are still a joy to watch. Crowe was a colossus at the event. He was the tournament’s leading run scorer, making 456 runs at a strike rate of 90. No one else in the top ten run scorers came close to scoring that quickly.

He made a hundred against Australia in the very first match of the tournament and did not look back. His batting was attacking and his captaincy was innovative. In a time of strategic orthodoxy in one day cricket, it was Crowe who was throwing the ball to an off spinner to open the bowling. He guided his team to the ICC World Cup semi-final that year, and his 91 against Pakistan looked to have set up a victory, but Imran Khan’s men had found form at exactly the right time, after struggling in the group stages, and chased down a challenging 263 for victory.

 

Regardless of how New Zealand did at that event, Crowe was instilled in my young mind as one of the finest players to watch. It all seemed so effortless. I grew up watching English batsmen make the whole thing look like a chimpanzee trying to translate something from ancient Aramaic. Here was a guy who could just find a way.

By the time he retired in late 1995 he was New Zealand’s leading run scorer in Test matches and ODIs. Before the arrival of Kane Williamson, he did not have a rival as New Zealand’s greatest batsman, and Kane hasn’t taken that title from him yet.

The first time I saw Crowe bat in the flesh was on the tour of England in 1994. By then, he was reaching the end of his career, but that was the first Test series I watched from beginning to end. I had sat through 1992 ICC World Cup highlights and vaguely followed the events of the Ashes in 1993, but this was the first time I had sat and watched a Test series unfold.

England smashed New Zealand in that first match, with a Graham Gooch double hundred setting up an innings victory. Then came Lord’s. Crowe’s 142 was just majestic. His batting was what every club player imagines they look like in their fevered day dreams. Head still, foot to the pitch of the ball, clean contact, effortless timing. That Lord’s knock was almost like an animated training video of how you are supposed to play the game. England clung on for the draw in that game, aided by bad light, but if ever an innings deserved to set up a win, it was that one.

While Crowe’s batting always seemed so calm and so measured, it was very revealing when he wrote a superb piece in the wake of Jonathan Trott’s decision to return home from the 2013/14 Ashes. Crowe wrote of the masks we wear to hide our true selves. Of how he struggled during his first two years in Test cricket. Of how he had to “fake it until he made it.”

While he never appeared muddled to me, as I watched him looking sublime later on in his career, there were times when he doubted himself.

“Confusion is the opposite of clarity,” Crowe wrote for ESPNCricinfo. “The mind, and thoughts that come thick and fast at you, are muddled, twisted and distorted. You search for clues as to how to go forward at any moment, and as you decipher it all, you can become untrusting, unsure, and uncertain as to the clues you find. The higher the expectation of life, the harder it is to work out. Confusion is a killer.”

In his moving tribute to his great friend, Mark Nicholas has written of how Crowe could at times struggle to get on with people. “Cricket had been a long struggle. Not for lack of talent but for lingering suspicions, mistrusts and uncertainties. There were quarrels with colleagues, team-mates and administration, then later with producers and heads of sport.”

 

As much as we as cricket watchers feel we know someone because of the way that they play, Crowe is an example of how this isn’t true. To the teenage version of me, he was a man that was completely at one with himself and comfortable in his own skin. The truth it seems was very different and as I look back I admire him more for that.

Crowe was one of the great batsmen, great thinkers and great lovers of the game. I never met him, and whenever I think about being upset about someone’s passing, having not known them, I feel I am in some way intruding into a private moment that doesn’t belong to me. Just my use of personal pronouns as I write this makes me feel a bit queasy, but such is the power of this sport.

Here is a man that I never met, and for the most part was a dot on my TV screen or a distance figure as I sat in the crowd watching him, yet his departure from this world pains me. The dignity and strength that Crowe showed as he fought a horrific illness was nothing short of inspiring, and the way he hit a cricket ball will live with me forever.



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