Art or Science?: Martin Crowe (1962-2016)

Cricket, and the world, and the cricket world, move on so quickly that it already feels a little late to be posting something about Martin Crowe. I wrote this piece last weekend and offered it to ESPN Cricinfo. They haven't replied, so it feels like it's time to post it here.

Martin Crowe was one of my very favourite batsmen of all, and I don't think he quite received the recognition he deserved during his career. It's a well-observed phenomenon in all kinds of areas of human activity that when people die - especially if they die young - they receive all the dues that they didn't when they were at their peak.

So it goes. I was just happy that he was widely described as New Zealand's greatest batsman. I believe that's what he was, and while there's little doubt that the magnificent Kane Williamson will beat most of his records, I don't think he'll reach Crowe's level of technical perfection. As I say below, the only player I've seen who's got anywhere near doing so is Rahul Dravid.

When I first heard the news, on News Briefing on BBC Radio Four, very early on the morning of Thursday 3rd March, he was described as 'the former Somerset and New Zealand cricketer'. This was unusual, but it was gratifying, and it felt completely right, because his years at Somerset were some of his most important and influential. Influential on him and influential on the club. In the last fifty years, Somerset County Cricket Club has employed some of the greatest players the world has ever seen. There's no need to list them; everyone knows who they are. Martin Crowe is fit to rank with any of those.

Is batting an art, or is it a science?

It may be one, it may be the other, it may be both, or it may be neither, but batsmen, nevertheless, are often categorized as artists or artisans. Geoff Boycott was unquestionably an artisan; David Gower an artist. Brian Lara was an artist; Graeme Smith an artisan.

Martin Crowe was both. Rahul Dravid was too, but Martin Crowe was Dravid before Dravid. Patient, rigorous, endlessly disciplined, but with the great player's essential ability to instantly take advantage of the bad ball, and to bend bowlers to their will.

If someone's defence is so sound, their ability to leave the ball so finely honed, their capacity to counter your skills and variations so good, it is easy to slip into the feeling that you will struggle to ever dismiss them. Shoulders drop, and, as night succeeds day, bad deliveries follow.

Of course, while there are similarities between Crowe and Dravid, there are also contrasts. Like every other batsman who came into the Indian side between 1990 and 2013, Dravid batted in the reassuring shadow of Tendulkar. While Martin Crowe was far from a lone standard bearer in New Zealand's greatest team – Richard Hadlee, of course, was always there – as a batsman he was largely surrounded by artisans. Fine players, yes, like John Wright, like Bruce Edgar, like his own elder brother Jeff, but artisans nonetheless. Crowe was always the artist, and was distinctive in other ways. He was young, he was cool, he was stylish.

Another contrast with the experience of Dravid is that in New Zealand cricket is a small game in a small country where Rugby Union is king. In India it is precisely the opposite. While Dravid and his compatriots were continually exposed to the demands of countless millions, Crowe was subject to differing pressures, expectations and vulnerabilities. The pressure of being the best batsman in the team, and, in later years, the need to maintain your customary level of performance in the face of debilitating injury problems. The feeling of being at the fulcrum of a small country battling against the world, or, as it was in Crowe's time, the might of the West Indian machine.

The premature death of Martin Crowe has been mourned around the world, the sorrow undiminished by the widespread knowledge of his protracted illness. Many people – Mike Selvey, Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, Jarrod Kimber – have written about their personal interactions and friendships with him. I can do no such thing, but I can still think, and write, and talk, of the many occasions I saw him bat.

When he came to England with his national side for the first time in 1983, Crowe's purity of technique was instantly apparent, and I followed his career, with New Zealand and with Somerset, unusually closely, although, in those distant days before worldwide television coverage of anything resembling an international cricket match, this could be a hard thing to do.

There were many peaks: Brisbane, November 1985, where he supplied most of the runs and Hadlee most of the wickets; the two Lord's centuries against England, the second made while in intense pain; the twin centuries, at Wellington and Auckland in early 1987, which helped his team to draw a series with the West Indies. His unbeaten hundred against Somerset at Taunton on his last tour in 1994, when the crowd rose in memory of what had been and in recognition of what was coming to an end.

In those days I used to get sent the New Zealand Cricket Almanack every year. The 1987 issue sticks in the mind, and now is a good time to get it out and dust it down. There is the beautiful moment in time colour photograph on the cover of the two musketeers, Hadlee and Chatfield, who have just bowled the greatest side in the world out for 100 at Lancaster Park. But there are also two pictures which frame the mastery of Crowe in his halcyon days. On the back cover he is hooking Malcolm Marshall to the Wellington fence in a way that few could ever do; inside there is a monochrome shot of a straight drive which could easily have been posed for the camera, such is the purity of Crowe's style.

For some players, moving images are needed to capture their essence. For batsmen like Crowe (and there haven't been many players like Crowe), for whom poise and timing is all, still photography can serve just as well.

As many have said, as well as being a great batsman, Crowe was a deep and innovative thinker about the game, its problems and its consequences. While, like many of his ideas, this could seem counter-intuitive, with the originality of his thinking contrasting with the orthodoxy of his batting, it is both logical and understandable. A mind which can produce and refine a batting technique like that is a fertile and varied one.

No game has the same depth of emotional resonance as cricket. Losses are always keenly felt and deeply mourned. The past year alone has seen the deaths of one of the greatest cricket figures of all, Richie Benaud, one of the greatest opening batsmen, Arthur Morris, and a man who was a special kind of hero for a certain generation of Englishmen, Tom Graveney.

But it is the early deaths which hit hardest. Since 1999 world cricket has lost Malcolm Marshall himself, Ben Hollioake, Manjural Islam, Philip Hughes and now Crowe. Two cancers, two road accidents and one death at the crease.

In his first season as a Somerset player, in 1984, Martin Crowe flourished with the bat after an uncertain start. However, in many ways, his most important role was played off the pitch, where he used his experience to coalesce the efforts of a group of young players whom he felt to be drifting. Ultimately, many of these players – players like Richard Ollis, Hugh Wilson and Mark Davis – had short careers in the game, but, wherever they are now, it would be surprising if they had failed to spare a thought these past few days for Crowe and those he has left behind.

Cricket is like this. When players die, the whole game bleeds.


Hamid Hassan and the Power of Junoon

When you run a blog like this, which has been around a while and has gained the odd bit of praise and notoriety here and there, people contact you from time to time about contributing guest posts. Invariably you rapidly develop the impression that what they're likely to contribute isn't going to add very much to the sum of human knowledge. My favourites are the ones (not as rare as you might think) who don't seem to have noticed that the blog is about cricket and offer to write about something completely different. On those occasions, I tend to say no.

However, when Nihar Suthar contacted me about writing something for the site, I decided to say yes. Nihar is the author of The Corridor of Uncertainty, a new book about the rise of Afghan cricket. As everyone knows, the way in which Afghanistan has risen to relative prominence in a historically and culturally alien world is one of the most remarkable cricket stories of the new millennium.

With the World T20 getting under way, Nihar has contributed a profile of Hamid Hassan, one of the stalwarts of the side, who has just been recalled to national duty.

By now, the fairytale story of Afghan cricket has spread around the world. In the 2015 Cricket World Cup, the Afghans proved that they could compete against the best, giving the Sri Lankans all they could handle. Cricket has become contagious in Afghanistan. It is an integral fuel of life.

What is different about this team, though? We see nations full of cricket promise climbing through the ranks of the ICC all the time, yet, none of them have made the full ascent from Division 5 to Division 1 as quickly as Afghanistan has. Put simply, it’s because of cricketers like Hamid Hassan. Hamid is without a doubt the best fast bowler in the Afghan team, and arguably one of the most powerful bowlers in world cricket. Yet his talent is not what sets him and his team apart.

He constantly reinforces the importance of junoon with his teammates. Junoon is an Urdu expression for passion. Hamid is just one of the many players on the Afghan side who eats, sleeps, and breathes constant junoon for cricket. He can never stop thinking about it. His mind is always immersed in cricket.

Hamid grew up in the refugee camps of Kacha Garhi, Pakistan, and it was there that he fell in love with cricket. At the age of just sixteen he had to make a major decision for the game he held so dear. Taj Malik, one of the people who is credited with getting the Afghan national cricket team off the ground, came to Kacha Garhi in 2003 to recruit future stars for Afghanistan. He was drawn to Hamid and tried to convince him to come back to Afghanistan. At that time, Afghanistan's cricket infrastructure was non-existent.

Taj went straight to Hamid’s father and said, “Salaam. My name is Taj Malik, and I am the coach of the Afghan national cricket team. I want to request you to leave Hamid with me. He wants to go to Afghanistan to play some cricket in Kabul.”

Hamid’s father was far from happy. He started cursing at Taj, and angrily responded, “Get lost. Hamid is my son. I don’t want to let him go. He has school exams coming in ten days.”

Taj kept pushing. “Hamid has great talent to be a professional cricketer.”

Hamid’s father scoffed. “No he does not. Look at his weight!” Hamid weighed 268 pounds.

“Have you asked Hamid what he wishes to do?” asked Taj.

Hamid’s father exploded. “It doesn’t matter. Just take Hamid and go away from here. If anything happens to him, you will be responsible.”

Taj was alarmed, but Hamid quickly interjected before the episode could escalate. “Stop arguing! Taj, go and wait for me on the road. I am coming.”

Hamid had no idea what to do. He was torn. He was just a boy. Confused, he went to his mother and broke down. “Mother, I wish to go to Afghanistan to play cricket with Taj, but father does not want me to go. What should I do?”

Hamid’s mother simply advised, “Son, this is your love, this is your choice. If you see a future for yourself in cricket, just go for it. If there is no future, why do you wish to waste your time and life like this?”

Hamid sobbed. He fully believed that he had a future in cricket. After receiving blessings from his mother, Hamid left with just $35 to his name and trekked over 200 miles to Kabul. It was the beginning of his professional cricket career. He called his father from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “Dad, I’m sorry I left without saying anything. I’m going to Kabul. Please don’t mind. One day, I promise I’m going to make you very proud.”

Since that point in time, Hamid has devoted his body and soul to the junoon for cricket. He is driven to make his parents and his country proud. Furthermore, he has infused that same junoon into all the cricketers around him. Hamid is truly an example of how far the idea of junoon can take a cricketer and an entire nation. Ultimately, raw passion and drive for the game is even more important than natural talent or honed skill.

Nihar Suthar (www.niharsuthar.com) is a narrative non-fiction writer, and has written The Corridor of Uncertainty, about the miraculous and inspiring rise of the Afghan cricket team. It features never-before heard stories and narratives from the players. Purchase your copy at www.thecorridorofuncertainty.com.

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