1962-2016 March 3, 2016

Martin the invincible

At the crease Crowe was elegant and imposing. Off it, especially after he left cricket, he was completely alive, always in the moment, and possessed of a desire to learn

Old Trafford, 1986, second ODI: getting in line and targeting the leg side © Getty Images

The first thing that struck me on meeting Martin Crowe, even in the shadow of illness, was his physical presence. Strong frame. Broad shoulders. Deep chest. Direct gaze. This was a little unexpected. I identified him with a cricket of elegant classicism, of economy of movement, of touch and precision rather than brawn. But then I also remembered how he pervaded a crease rather than simply occupying it, and how he obtained such power from such a minuscule backlift, barely a flex of the wrists. Though illness had taken its toll, the deep latent strength was unmistakable.

The second thing that struck me was how completely alive he was, how dedicated to getting the most and best out of every encounter, his utter humility and insatiable curiosity. Some cricketers never cease being cricketers. Even after retirement they are still at the crease; they can't stop taking guard. Martin was past cricket in the two brief years we were friends, and perhaps the least guarded man I have ever known, utterly frank and giving of himself, healthily in touch with his feelings, and so present in all his dealings that, despite knowing how completely reconciled he was to his mortality, I find myself strangely unprepared to write about him in the past tense.

It was not always thus with Martin, as he was the first to admit. It's 20 years since he published his first autobiography, Out on a Limb. In hindsight, he thought it a failure - too self-protecting, too self-justifying. That same year, a controversial, unvarnished "unauthorised biography" by Joseph Romanos was published, Tortured Genius. "He did me better than I did me," Martin said. When I ventured that I thought I might have liked him back in the day, Martin looked momentarily very serious. "No, you wouldn't have," he said. "No, you wouldn't have."

Maybe Martin had more admirers outside his homeland than in it, or at least enjoyed more unleavened admiration. Peter Roebuck described him as "always at war with his own publicity" in New Zealand. As the country's premier batsman, captain designate, then captain, he was known for wanting, and for getting, things his own way. His occasional ruthlessness with others reflected a ruthlessness with himself.

Martin's love of cricket was fathomless: so passionate, he needed a break from time to time; so profound, he always found his way back to the fold

He was first chosen against Australia, aged 19. He was not ready. It hurt him. Sometimes it's said that young players are toughened up by being blooded early, experiencing failure and fighting back. Martin would not have agreed. Strong emotions and deep anxieties lay beneath the surface confidence. He was quick to judge others as "not good enough", not because he did not know what it was to struggle but because he did. The world he later hugged to his breast he kept then at 22 yards' length, and it worked: after 13 Tests, he averaged only 21; across the decade in which he was New Zealand's first and best hope, he averaged in the mid-50s.

Young fans trying to get a feel for Martin the batsman will probably have recourse to the annals of YouTube, on which he is well represented in various highlights packages. In doing so, they will miss what I thought was his most memorable quality. Highlights transact in fours and sixes; what they won't show you is the compact, impassable certainty of the Crowe defence. Rare were the circumstances that allowed Martin to bat with true abandon. Often he was husbanding an innings or leading a regrouping. He would be behind the ball and in a position to defend so early that it was almost as emphatic a statement as striking a boundary. His theory - and he had many theories, logically reasoned - was that getting in line opened up the leg side, where there were always fewer fielders.

Whatever the case, the period of his long peak coincided with an unprecedented depth in fast bowling round the world: Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, Kapil Dev and Allan Donald, to name but a few. The capacity to outlast counted for more than the yen to outhit. He played spin from the crease, with defensive hands as soft as down. Roebuck once wrote that had Viv Richards chosen simply to block, nobody would ever have got him out; you had a similar feeling when Martin got in his groove, shoulders perfectly aligned, bat coming through like a plumb bob, so absolute was his control.

A farewell: Crowe at the World Cup 2015 title presentation ceremony © AFP

Thirty years ago at the Gabba, Richard Hadlee led New Zealand to victory by bundling Australia out twice in short order on a sporting pitch. On the same surface, Martin batted eight hours against an attack led by Geoff Lawson and Craig McDermott for 188. I can see him now - tight, upright, playing pedantically in the V, the sleeves buttoned to the wrists, the distinctive white headband beneath the distinctive white helmet, as understated and soaringly magnificent as a Doric column. Martin's one little touch of flamboyance was his penchant for the hook, which he played fearlessly, despite eschewing a face guard on his helmet. In Christchurch a few months after Brisbane, he retired, bloodied and groggy, after a blow to the jaw from Bruce Reid: he returned in a fine fury, his 137 laced with 21 boundaries.

Other injuries were harder to surmount. The back. The knees. Touring Sri Lanka in 1984 and distracted by the pain from a broken thumb, he ate two mussels off a plate, and contracted salmonella that lasted on and off for four years. Three years later, he was struck down with glandular fever. When the lymphoma that finally overwhelmed him was diagnosed in October 2012, he determined to live until he died. Resolving to tell his story again, he unconventionally asked his unauthorised biographer Romanos to help.

The result was Raw, an unflinchingly honest self-appraisal, which is what caused me to contact him in the first place, not something I would normally do, but which the book seemed to demand. Martin proved to be an astonishingly assiduous correspondent, hugely motivated to become a better writer, always wanting to know what you thought of his work, endlessly encouraging of your own. Physically confined by ill-health, he had time for philosophical discussion and personal reflection. With Martin there was no such thing as a trivial contact. Perhaps because it was his own aim, he made you want to be your best self.

Martin's love of cricket was fathomless: so passionate he needed to break from it from time to time; so profound he always found his way back to the fold. His great theme in the last while was anger and ill-feeling on the cricket field. The world was so full of it; why could cricket not provide some sort of refuge, a better example? In the last messages we exchanged, he was playful, funny, happily watching the game, even though his physical presence was entering the past tense. That invincible spirit endures.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer