When he finally lost his battle to cancer last week, one realized that he willed himself to live just enough to see his beloved team back in contention. He lived just enough to see them reach their first World Cup final. He lived just enough to make them a little greater. Somewhere, some child is watching his protégé Kane Williamson, and falling in love with the game.
When I was around 4 years old, I remember getting my first taste of cricket. I vaguely remember somebody switching on a TV (fancy, those days), and immediately, this strange game began to seduce me. The one thing I’ll forever remember is the sight of the colored jerseys on a green field. It had seemed odd at the time. The team with bat in hand was wearing a dull gray jersey with a long name pasted across their chests. It read ‘New Zealand’. I didn’t know what a New Zealand was. I assumed it was the name of an animal or an adjective, the way baseball and basketball teams were named with prefixes. It took me a while to connect the dots. If the team in light blue jerseys on the field had ‘England’ across their chests, that could only mean New Zealand was a country, too. What a difficult name, I thought.
Then my attention turned towards this broad, strong-looking man with a bat in hand. He was wearing a cap, and he looked more like a TV star – like how Ray Liotta would look, if he was an athlete. It made sense, because I later discovered that this New Zealand batsman was the cousin of my soon-to-be-favorite actor Russell Crowe. This player looked very convincing at the crease. The ball traveled alarmingly fast for the way he caressed it. He seemed fairly comfortable, like he were batting for ages. He didn’t look like he was born to run, but he did. I liked his style – a “humble swagger” as I would later call it. In those days, New Zealand was quite a strong team. I remember telling my father, or rather, asking him – does this team ever lose? They seemed to be in the form of their lives, and for me, cricket meant New Zealand for a whole year. They would always be playing, and he would always be batting. While the Australian yellow jerseys and their mustache-twirling players captured my attention too, it was New Zealand that would light up my eyes. Boring clothes, but such elegance on the pitch. They looked like sportsmen you would want to grow up to be. And they looked happy.
Martin Crowe, that man with the bat, ended up as New Zealand’s greatest player. In the 1992 World Cup, he was everywhere. It was a pity the mighty New Zealand team couldn’t defeat Pakistan, but I remember the way he made fielders run everywhere under lights. He was the Man of the Tournament – the first-time ever such an award was given. That meant ‘Best Player in the Universe’ for me. He represented my first infatuation with the game. He captained a fine team – though the numbers didn’t always show it. He won only 2 Tests as a captain, and some 22 ODIs (less than half), which is funny because they seemed to always be winning. The numbers were mighty back then – New Zealand’s highest scorer ever, with 17 Test centuries (a record primed to be broken by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor – both of who Crowe later mentored) and 4 (only?) ODI centuries.
When he retired, he wasn’t my favorite anymore. He had become older – 33 was very old at the time – and I had discovered Brian Lara by then. But Crowe later reminded me how a first crush always endures. When he returned as a writer – a polished, sensible and evocative one at that – I remembered the way he bossed around on the pitch all over again. For some reason, he seemed an even better sportswriter than he was a batsman – and that says a lot about how Crowe, perhaps, was born to write, but the game was born for him. Either way, he was an artist. And he will forever be remembered as the most influential face in New Zealand sports – more than the mighty All Blacks, too.