October 18, 2012

Go well, Martin

New Zealand's greatest batsman will bring to his fight against disease the qualities he set store by in his fine cricket career

I cannot help but think about Martin Crowe. He is a friend, and many thousands of miles away he suddenly lives in fear. Last week he had some tests and is now diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. Hardcore treatment is around the corner. Since picking up salmonella in Sri Lanka in 1984, illness has troubled him. A weak immune system has constantly tried but always failed to break a strong mind. I'm not backing it this time either.

Crowe is understandably shocked and yet defiantly chipper. He got eased aside at Sky TV New Zealand recently, where he had moved from producing the cricket coverage to the rugby, as is likely to part company soon. Bad year, then.

No worries, he is embracing the battle ahead with a certain zeal. It will be done, he says. And he has started work on a book that will make a few folk run for cover. Cricket needs a modern appraisal and he is as well positioned as anyone to give it.

Rather than linger on the self-pity, he speaks of a new life. A life with greater perspective. He is in love with some fabulous women: Lorraine, his breathtaking wife; Emma, his daughter; and mum Audrey. They are wrapped around him. His brother Jeff lives in Florida and scoots around the world in his work as an ICC match referee. He will play his part, as he always did - to support and encourage, never intrude. Theirs is a deep friendship, born of blood and the pursuit of unique achievement. Their spirits are as one.

Picture Crowe at the wicket: upright, orthodox and immensely strong. He is a bigger man than the symmetry and detail of his batting suggest is possible - a big man in a small man's game. Sideways on, chin tucked into the left shoulder, eyes level and narrowed, body steady. Think of the speed and grace of the footwork, remember the bat maker's name presented square to its opponent; the perfect head position set first to the bowler and then adjusted to the line of the ball. Drift back in time to the wide-brimmed sun hat, the neat and slim fit of the white clothes, with shirt collar turned to the sky and sleeves buttoned at the wrist. Then imagine, if you will, the mastery of the Crowe straight drive, the majesty in the cut stroke, the counter punch of the hook and pull shots that said so much for a nation.

I first met him in Oxford in 1981, when he was with the ground staff at Lord's and under Don Wilson's eager eye. We travelled back to London together after an MCC match and Crowe talked cricket with a passion and understanding given to few. He saw the short-form future even then, aged 20, and had the germ of Cricket Max - the baby he produced long before T20 hit the market - somewhere in his firmament.

England has played an important part in his life, both on tours and while with Somerset, where he first stood in for Viv Richards and then, amidst much rancour, replaced him. At first, during the May of 1984, he fought the loneliness and vulnerability of poor form with hysterical reaction. "I started crying," he once told me. "I wanted someone to hold me and I wanted to go home." This from a man with such gifts! Then he settled, responded and exploded with four consecutive hundreds in June before going on to make 2600 runs in all forms of the game and earn the love and respect of a county spoilt by the gladiatorial deeds of Sir Viv and Sir Ian. He brought new dimensions to the club, setting up the Young Nags to give the younger fellows a voice, and generally setting standards that were accessible and achievable.

The uncertainties in his character, the dark places or "traffic" as he calls it, stood in the way of greatness. These flaws, these insecurities, are impossible to note from the sideline, but sportsmen prey upon one another if a hint of them is betrayed. Thus he sank deeper into himself, appearing aloof to outsiders. In New Zealand, a place of just three million people, those who stand out from the crowd are not always appreciated. This tall-poppy syndrome confused him further. For Crowe, the contest was not always with an opponent but often with himself, which is why he is ready for this next chapter. It is just another in the circle of his life.

Imagine, if you will, the mastery of the Crowe straight drive, the majesty in the cut stroke, the counter punch of the hook and pull shots that said so much for a nation

I cannot pick his best innings - perhaps you can - though tongue-in-cheek mention should be made of 9 not out against West Indies in 33 for 5 to inch over the line and draw the series against the most powerful team that ever played the game. He talks fondly of the 83 in the first innings of that game, on a greentop. He was used to them, mind you, and gathered a couple of highly skilled and steet-smart hundreds against West Indies on those same tracks. From a technician's point of view, the 142 at Lord's in 1994 was about as good as it gets. For impact, the 188 in Brisbane nine years earlier in the famous first series win in Australia takes some beating. For the record books, Arjuna Ranatunga had him caught at the wicket for 299 in Wellington, a wide ball too, and though it sent him into an orbit of anger at the time, he quietly rather likes that only two men in history have made 299 in a Test match. The other is Don Bradman.

I favour an innings hidden away in the Oxfordshire countryside, at Wormsley, home of John Paul Getty's fascination for the game. Retired for almost two years and without having held a bat in hand during that time, or a net in preparation, Crowe walked to the wicket to open the innings for Getty's team in pursuit of 267 to beat the touring Australians. A full attack sans Shane Warne went after him, and of the first 16 balls delivered by Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, Crowe failed to hit one. At No. 17 from McGrath, he rose to his toes and struck a wondrous back-foot drive that remains as vivid to this day as it was then. He made a hundred, of course. We would have won if the rest of us had not been such muppets. To a man the Australians came to our dressing room and raised a glass to the bloke with the knackered knee who could still bat with the gods.

He finished his Test career with 5444 runs at 45.36 per innings and with 17 hundreds. It niggles that he was picked too young, and put at the mercy of Dennis Lillee, who took him apart for no return. And it grates that he played on and on, with a knee that was held together by the surgeon's knife and a monstrous brace. Take a year off the start and a couple at the end and you probably have the true record of New Zealand's most outstanding batsman. Oh, and while on niggles and grates, the greatest irritation might be the World Cup of 1992, when New Zealand's brilliantly conceived campaign fell an iota short of a place in the final, after the captain's exceptional innings of 91 run out (not him, Mark Greatbatch, his runner), played pretty much on one leg, set Pakistan 263 to win. The wounded general was unable to mastermind his troops in the field. Pakistan scraped home and it sure hurt.

Crowe, or "Hogan" as friends know him (part Ben - whose swing he has analysed as studiously as Hogan himself may have done - but in the main from Hogan's Heroes, a long-running American TV comedy sitcom about a German POW camp housing US soldiers that was a schoolboy favourite) has a cellar worth visiting. Pinot noir abounds from vineyards such as Felton Road, Ata Rangi and Mount Difficulty. Down the track he plans to do the wine justice and win some more golf games. For now, it's doctors and diet, discipline and courage - of which there is an abundance. Go well, my friend.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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