Though they came into the rarefied world of Test cricket in 1930, New Zealand were, for many years, considered as one of the underlings in the sport. A small population spread over a large territory, most parts of which were wreathed in snow for a considerable portion of the year, and the great distances separating them from the then head quarters of the game at Lord's could be cited as some of the reasons behind this assumption. Further, they did not bring to the field the intense competitiveness of their neighbour Australia, nor the edge-of-the-seat excitement that the West Indies always promised. They were reluctant tourists as well, content with playing more matches in familiar surroundings, rather than travelling across the globe to take on sides in conditions alien to them.
An equally important reason, at least till the dawn of 1980s, was the absence of iconic cricketers from this nation, with whom the followers of the sport could identify easily. New Zealand had produced plenty of good players who served their country well but there were none who could bring crowds flocking to the grounds by their mere presence. They were seen as capable, diligent, hardworking cricketers but sadly lacking the extra “zing” factor, that is vital for succeeding in a popular spectator sport.
Two big stars
This barren phase, that existed for New Zealand during the first five decades of their Test playing days, came to an end with the arrival on the scene of two players - Richard Hadlee, the fast bowler extraordinaire, and Martin Crowe, a brilliant batsman, with a shrewd cricketing brain. While Hadlee retained many of the basic features of New Zealanders, despite reaching the pinnacle of being the first bowler to pick up 400 wickets in Test cricket, Crowe threw off the unseen shackles that had hitherto bound players from this country and emerged as one of the most popular cricketers of his generation.
Crowe was born into a family that played cricket - his father Dave Crowe had played first class cricket while his elder brother Jeff was an accomplished batman who turned out for New Zealand in 39 Tests. After making first class debut while only 16 years old, Crowe was blooded into the tough world of Test cricket before reaching his 20th birthday. It was the most difficult introduction possible as he was called to play against a mighty Aussie side led by the redoubtable Greg Chappell.
Those were the days when New Zealand, under the astute leadership Geoffrey Howarth, had earned the reputation of being unbeatable in home conditions, which was reinforced by the defeat they inflicted on the Clive Lloyd-led West Indies side in 1980. When Aussies landed in New Zealand in 1982, not only did they wish to break this record but Chappell had a personal score to settle too, as he had to face severe criticism over his decision to ask his brother Trevor to bowl underarm against the Kiwis in a one-dayer the previous year. It was Crowe’s fate to be asked to make his debut in these circumstances against a side baying for blood. For the record, after a drawn first match, New Zealand won the second Test and Australia the third, while Crowe failed to get into double figures on any of the occasions that he took guard.
This initiation by fire and brimstone into the dog-eat-dog world of Test matches helped Crowe no end in the long run as he realised that possessing a tight technique and cool temperament were far more important than being blessed with oodles of talent. He soon blossomed into a top drawer batsman with a rock solid defence, who could play his shots all around the wicket with elan and elegance. He placed a very high premium on his wicket and seldom played a loose shot. Though natural athleticism and the flair with which he approached the game gave the impression of flamboyance, he was always judicious in his shot selection and made it a point not to fall prey to the temptation of playing to the gallery.
Crowe belonged to that rare breed of uniquely gifted batsmen who could sight the ball a fraction of a second earlier than most others. David Gower of England, Gundappa Viswanath and Virender Sehwag of India and Brian Lara of the West Indies are some of the other batsmen who were similarly blessed. Here, Crowe was more alike Viswanath in that both of them were right-handers, who were endowed with a natural elegance, which transformed any stroke played by them into an act of unparalleled beauty. Besides, they were both master craftsmen who reserved their best for the big stage, while battling against tougher opponents. Followers of the game in India still recall that the national side never lost a Test where Viswanath scored a century. Similarly, Crowe was part of 16 Test victories recorded by New Zealand during his playing days and he always managed to produce a special innings during each of those matches.
An example of Crowe reserving his best for the big occasion was the performance of the New Zealand side led by him in the 1992 ICC World Cup. The Kiwis played splendid cricket throughout this tournament, and looked like sure shot winners till they were edged out by Pakistan in the semifinals. Crowe not only led from the front with the bat during this championship but displayed a brand of innovative leadership that has few parallels in the history of this tournament. He broke the established conventions that had reigned in this format that included opening batsmen building the innings slowly, the middle order consolidating, and the bulk of run making taking place in the slog overs. When it came to bowling, the fast bowlers used to open the attack and also invariably bowled the last overs, while the spinners turned their arms over during the middle overs.
Crowe changed this norm on its head and promoted Mark Greatbatch, known as a stodgy customer, to the top of the order and gave him directions to take the fast bowlers headlong. Greatbatch surprised one and all by stepping out of the crease and wading into the thunderbolts sent by West Indian quicks at speeds exceeding 90 miles per hour. This succeeded in throwing the bowlers off their rhythm and balance and they lost their line and length, which benefitted the batsmen. But a greater surprise was Crowe asking Dipak Patel, an off-spinner, to open the bowling. This move so completely transformed Patel, till then considered as a bowler of average ability, that he started bowling with the confidence of a match-winner. Further, an entire generation of captains and coaches around the world took inspiration from Crowe and started opening the bowling with off-spinners!
It was a pity that New Zealand lost to Pakistan in the semi finals after a brilliant run throughout the championship. It was not coincidental that the side lost their direction in the crucial match after Crowe was forced to leave the field due to an injury. The side was so completely dependent on their skipper for providing not only guidance and directions but also for pepping up the confidence levels on the field.
Injuries of various kinds had plagued Crowe throughout his career and they forced him to retire when he had at least another couple of years of cricket still left in him. He played his last Test at Cuttack in November, 1995, when New Zealand toured India. After retirement, he did the usual media stints that attract former players but earned a reputation as a thinker and mentor, one who could give a positive pitch without resorting to the hyperbole.
Misfortune struck Crowe when he was diagnosed as suffering from Lymphoma, a form of cancer, in 2012. Though initially he managed to survive the onslaught of the disease, he finally succumbed to it and breathed his last on March 3, 2016, at the relatively young age of 53.
Crowe would be remembered as one of the most elegant batsmen who wielded the willow. He was an iconic cricketer, who not only brought a new status and recognition to New Zealand cricket by his deeds with the bat but also an original thinker who revolutionised the way cricket, and in particular its limited overs version, was played. His deeds on the cricket field would be cherished and reminisced forever by the followers of the sport.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)