Marty goes to rest
The night before last I dreamt about Martin Crowe. Fit, able, strong, gifted; bald, smiling, sick; angry, incisive, raw; modern, playful, intuitive. Then the dog barked and I awoke. Outside it was dark. A chill wind rustled the bare branches on the huge plane trees in the park. For some inexplicable reason, I remembered our golf game on Waikeke Island, Christmas Eve 2002. Martin and Jeff together against Audrey, their mother, and me. She said we would win because the boys were bound to compete with one another more feverishly than with us. She was right. Such mighty competitors.
Then I looked at the phone, and the text. No. Oh no. The chill ripped through me.
Jeff said Martin had gone peacefully with Lorraine and Emma by his side: a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, the loves of his life. Jeff was thankful that the "brutal pain" was over. We all must be.
Another text, this one from Michael Clarke, expressing dismay and adding that Martin will already be talking technique with Phillip Hughes. Then Ian Botham, Wasim Akram and many more less well-known - all with a line on affection and appreciation. Brothers in blood, brothers in arms, brothers in cricket deeply shocked by the loss of one of their own so young, so vibrant, so alert.
I made tea and thought of that extraordinary piece of writing on ESPNcricinfo, "The masks we wear". In it, Martin spoke sympathetically of Jonathan Trott, who, in a depressed state of mind, had returned home early from England's tour of Australia. Martin said he had been in similarly confused territory himself at the start of his career.
"Expectations were high...I cried a lot, moods ebbed and flowed, emotions ran hot. Then I found a mask and began to fake it until I made it."
Oh, tortured soul be free. Martin thought less of himself than we thought of him. By a distance. He battled his mind, beat up on his heart, and yet, was always a beautiful man. Ask Robin Smith about getting off the mark against New Zealand with a fine stroke. Ask him about a fielder's acknowledgement of an opponent's excellence. Ask him about 25 years of love from your fellow man. Robin's email this morning says simply, "He will always be with us in spirit."
For me, an intense relationship began at The Parks in Oxford in 1981. I had played for MCC against the University and a kid with a Kiwi accent asked for a lift back to London. We talked cricket all the way home, throwing ideas at one another with youth's abandon. He fancied a short-form game even then: the germ, of course, of Cricket Max. He spent that English summer at Lord's, an overseas recruit to the MCC ground staff, and dreamt of a hundred there. Next time I saw his name, it was on the team sheet against Australia. Christ, the kid is up against Lillee and Thomson. He didn't do much good but was hardly the lone ranger. Just 19 and hung out to dry.
We met again in Southampton in 1984. He struggled to 50 in a pretty ordinary Somerset side, who played a pretty ordinary county match against a pretty ordinary Hampshire side. We laughed about that since.
Within a year, he was making hundreds in Test cricket and Hampshire were gunning for the Championship. The game and its players never stand still. In the evening he told me about New Zealand Pinot Noir and suggested I drop the Graham Gooch impression and go back to an orthodox stance.
He really liked orthodoxy. Right up to his passing, he urged the same from Ed Cowan and stuck around long enough to see it working. Still head, he would say, weight on the balls of your feet, balanced moves sideways, forward and back. We spent hours on these things in the indoor school at Lord's - tinkering, toying. Akram thinks him the best batsman he bowled to. Most agree that a classical technique and a great hunger for the game set him close to the pantheon, but that self-doubt, linked to ever-deeper analysis, denied him an unarguable place within it. I argue for his inclusion, few have achieved more and fewer still have given the game more. When the ICC brought him into the Hall of Fame, his joy was unbridled.
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. He tired of these and wished for harmony. He was incandescent about the treatment of Ross Taylor, a friend and protégé, when the captaincy was taken from him. He said so publicly and for a while this influenced his judgement of Brendon McCullum. But McCullum always knew that the Crowe heart lay entrenched in the game and, specifically, in New Zealand's interpretation of it. Unsurprisingly, he could not help but come to admire the McCullum way.
Martin's great pleasures came first from his two girls, then from close friends, wine, food - Jeff can really cook, Marty hung in there - golf, art, design, style. He turned up in London before dawn one morning and, restless after the flight from Auckland, rearranged our bookshelves and rehung the pictures. The joint looked a whole lot better by breakfast.
He loved London and thankfully fulfilled the Lord's dream twice: 1986 was good; 1994 was something else. That gammy knee could not deny a masterpiece presented at the game's greatest theatre. This innings may not have been his best given the terms of engagement but it was, he thought, the purest. Almost certainly the 188 at the Gabba (Hadlee's match!) in 1985 was the most hardcore, and hundreds in Guyana in 1985 and Lahore in 1990 the most efficient against all-conquering attacks.
Another must be mentioned, though of a social nature. Paul Getty's XI v the Australians 1997 at Wormsley, plenty of middle-order batsmen but only one opener. Marty, not having held a bat since retirement a couple of years earlier, played at three out of six balls in Glenn McGrath's first over. From the third ball of the next, he eased onto the back foot and drove to the extra-cover boundary. He made 115 not out. It was breathtaking, and beautiful, of course. By heaven, he was a lovely batsman to watch. We should have won but the rest of us could not climb the same ladder. Generously, Mark Taylor's Australians came into our dressing room to shake his hand and share their beer. Michael Slater said, "I spend hours in the nets trying bat like that and you come out after two years and..."
A further text has just come through from Jeff. I have asked which of his brother's innings he most rated. Lahore, he says, or the three innings at home in 1987 - all against West Indies - that defined him. Then he adds: "His 174 against Pakistan in Wellington was mapped out on a piece of paper six months prior as we flew to Fiji!"
Deep analysis was not only applied to his batting. Captaincy, coaching, commentary and committees; innovation, progress, prediction and, finally, writing, all benefited from this remarkable mind.
In my experience no one has been able to see into the crystal ball like Martin. Cricket Max was genius of its type, a forerunner to where the T20 game is now and to where it might well go ten years down the line. His blueprint for a World Test Championship was a bad miss by the ICC and remains so. His thoughts on the television production of sport and the rhythms of good broadcasting are priceless. Martin did not always say what people wanted to hear but rarely could they argue successfully against him. Beneath it all was an unflinching passion for the game, a love and knowledge so deep that, like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, sabbaticals were required to ease the tension between him and his life's pursuit.
The last time we saw each other, almost a year ago now, we took a gentle walk from Bondi to Bronte in Sydney. We rested on the grass bank above Bronte beach and talked about the past, present and future. He was at peace at last, he said. Though the year of remission in 2013 had proved to be a wicked temptress, he was back in the fight of his life. He resisted further chemotherapy, preferring instead to feel alive and mentally strong for these extended days with Lorraine and Emma. The journey through illness had brought him self-discovery and a hitherto unseen lightness of being. He let go of demons and relocated friendships. He loved his brother and could now tell him so, rather than refuse the two-foot putt for par. He had not realised quite how much the death of his father in 2000 had troubled him, but with time to think and pray, he had even come to terms with that loss.
Recent communication had been by text, email and a few phone calls. The mind was willing but the voice was weak. There has been something charming about a fearless gladiator so in touch with his own mortality. Suddenly, out of nowhere last month, an email was sent to Jeff and me. Through the haze and drugs of pain-relief it talked cricket again, a final offering to the game. This, tweaked here and there, is Martin Crowe's Blackstar (the last David Bowie album).
Jeff is convinced it was meant for the world.
"First ball: off the long, eternal run.
People in administration (the good and the ones doing their best but not reading the brief properly) come and go, you know, a cyclical thing. And so Srinivasan has gladly departed and Giles Clarke's time is waning. Interestingly Cricket Australia are beautifully on the front foot and, for daring measure, are even dancing down like yesteryear, such is their new found confidence at the helm. A year on from creating a stinky breakaway, the garden smells rosier again and it is grand to see a potential shift back to the central truth. The Big Three were rightly targeted by an aggressive media, who saw the poor getting poorer fast and the divi up unfair and unsubtle. Bye bye Srini. This first, fast curving first ball was you.
Second ball: respectful, 4th stump, consolidation of line & length.
Davie Warner has a second child, named Indi, very cool and diplomatic. He also has a damn good respect for the game too. Nothing but goodwill coming from the Warner Family in recent times. As a result, a heap of focus on notching up daddy ton and,take note, he stands in waiting for the most important office in Oz. Yes, sad that Brad Had got mad and didn't see the exit sign with a smiley face flashing brightly as he departed. That being so, my sympathies with him around his family hardships through a period where there is no escape. It's a hard act to please all. But that's what almost all individuals have done over the last year, governed by strong leaders who have instructed their teams to forgive and forget. Thus they inspired youngsters and their families to follow this vital advertisement for cricket as we all reeled and mourned Phil Hughes. That ball grew us up real fast.
Third ball: pink this one and swinging late, then seaming and bouncing, all under a darkening sky and a floodlit stadium.
Pink balls need greasy conditions, apparently, to make it last the correct amount of overs. I say leave the pitch alone and decide over a few tests on a mark when a second new pinkie is needed. Patience, and a few more games, then the mark will become clearer - as opposed to juicing up conditions which dramatically alter the landscape. The purpose is defeated if manipulation comes first over mystery. Easily fixed in time. Yet, I believe, the horse has already bolted with Test cricket. By not sticking with the proposed test championship concept set down for 2017, the chance, the obvious window, the golden egg, has gone. Not that it won't be tried sometime, but the die is cast on test cricket - it's dumbing down and mediocre standard of participation. It has historic meaning still but has become costly and slow, and has been overtaken by T20. The West Indies have fallen, but they will rise again for sure, dressed in full 3-hour action gear.
Fourth ball: leg-spin mode and spinning fast from leg, a side where a boundary sits obsolete with no chance of catches from a top-edge off these modern bats - the fans are as busy now looking to claim (and protect family from) those skiers, as busy as any outfielder has been.
Ten years ago, Australia played NZ in the first ever Twenty20 International at Eden Park. Thirty-thousand turned up on a balmy night and saw Ricky Ponting, a true great, irresistibly caress the ball to all and sundry for 98 glorious runs. In the com box we wondered, and worried a touch too, about the effect this would have long term - on everything.
As the leg spin is released, forget our long term musings because that momentous wonder we had way back has just hit home. When I read Stephen Flemings quote about 80,883 attending the Big Bash derby match at the MCG on Jan 2, between the Stars in green and the Renegades in red, I felt it. Fleming, not one for throwaway attention, made a call that was forthright and honest, yet said clearly to state a moment in time for all to take notice. "To have more than 80,000 at a domestic match [outside of India] will send absolute shockwaves through the cricketing world".
Cricket Australia, who for long periods of the game's history has been a leading light, had had a quiet time lately. But not any more. When you can invite that humongously friendly family support to watch a three hour game, with supreme facilities, and not just break crowd records but obliterate them, then you get what Fleming is saying. It will only get bigger and better. Meaning something else won't.
Fifth ball: chucked, over-stepped, and lethal in its intent.
And so it took a renegade, Chris Gayle, to take centre stage next, sending another shockwave into the ether via a boundary line interview with a female journalist. The effect of the content delivered by Gayle was undeniable and created a din and a reaction so strong everyone took notice. It reminded us of our greatest wake-up in humanity - the need to see the end of blatant discrimination. Worst of all, it was live on air, rammed down a close up camera, hitting us at the family home or a community gathering somewhere. Young children were watching, transfixed to the exciting energy that Fleming passionately expressed. This need never happen again around cricket. Instantly, I sided with the Stars above and condemned the Renegades.
Final delivery: normal light is fading, dinner is in the air, families gather. Lights are on to full effect.
Another T20 match is about to begin. Many of them now, all around the globe. All of them in properly bona fide competitions with a massive following throughout, often night upon night in prime time television, always aiming to deliver a dose of fun and fever and a winner crowned at the end. And cleverly, everyone has deemed that all is needed to make the ground full is a Family and Friend Pass, at forty or fifty bucks, ensuring folk come together. Just buy a pass and roll on up. By making up numbers to fill the pass, the admin continue to fill the fans seats and all benefit. And, as the younger wannabe man-fan readies himself for another sizzling fast head-high crowd-catch the family flavour rises to fever pitch.
The future of cricket far into the night is safe and sound. By virtue of the game settling into proper competition, well marketed towards a family environment that ensures - no, guarantees - value for all. Meanwhile a test match, searching for connection to a fast-moving modern world, is played somewhere but without enough context or support, and with dwindling hope for its own future. How can they who rule the game have done this?! Australia must act again if no one else will.
Twenty20 - as Fleming said on 2nd January, 2016 - created a wave and no-one has got off the ride that might well have to sustain the game eternally. With a tweak here and there..."
Bowie's sign-off song on that final album is: "I Can't Give Everything Away". There is something mystical about the work, as if an attempt was made to draw a line under all that had gone before but that another force remained to deny it. We shall never know.
Martin Crowe, on the other hand, removed his mask and put a creative mind to rest. By being so spiritually aware of what lay beyond the physical world, he became an irresistible conscience for those of us left behind. The game ignores his teachings at its peril.
What shall I most miss? The wisdom, the kindness, the child-like simplicity of the humour, the lack of ego, the rants - yes the rants, and how! - the high standards, the hard but fair marking, the counsel given and taken, the shared love of so many things that stretch heart and mind. Above them all is friendship.
Farewell, great thinker. Farewell, great player. Salute, dear friend.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK