I wish I was writing this in 2046, the year Wong Kar-wai immortalised on the big screen just over a decade ago. But Martin Crowe, taken from us far too soon, would have been one of the first to laugh at such conceit, at the idea that the universe owes us anything.
We last exchanged emails in September last year, on his 53rd birthday. I had ended mine with the words ‘Stay well’. As soon as I pressed send, I realised how stupid and insensitive that could sound to someone suffering from a terminal illness.
“Getting well might be needed before I can stay well!!” he replied. “The disease has left me with little to work with although I feel I will stay alive a while yet. It’s a fine line mentally; do I judge my life as a joy or as sitting in death row?
“Thankfully, I am learning to ignore my mental deliberations, and have found a way to experience some joy thru deep breath, deep prayer and unconditional love of Lorraine, Emma and nature.”
I did not hear from him again.
Our first interaction had been very different. In the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, I wrote to him on behalf of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine, asking if we could do an interview on captaincy, and the 1992 World Cup where he had turned conventional cricket wisdom on its head while outsmarting supposedly stronger teams.
His reply started off politely enough, before the hook – a stroke he played with rare grace and power – was unveiled. “I’m sick of talking about a campaign that lasted one solitary month, but I CAN talk about batting, something I did pretty well from 1985-95 (after being picked far too young in 1982), scoring just under 5000 runs in 56 tests @ 54. I can talk about batting, but coming from a NZ’er it’s not that appealing is it?”
I was too stunned to reply. A decade later, when he started following Wisden India’s work on Twitter, we got talking again. When I was comfortable enough, I mentioned that email from long ago. “I was an egotistic idiot back then,” he told me. He had been diagnosed with the lymphoma just months earlier, and the precariousness of the lives we live seemed to have made him reassess all that had gone before.
It shone through in his writing as well. There are many articulate former cricketers out there, but few save for the pros like Michael Atherton do their own writing. Some, like Michael Holding, talk to you and then pore over every word of the reworked transcript before allowing it to be published. But I’ve known others that grudgingly give you five lines and expect you to pad them up with another 600 words.
Martin was an outstanding writer. He wasn’t just perceptive and knowledgeable about the game – both the big picture and the minutiae of technique – he was also capable of striking a chord with both layman and expert. His columns on ESPNCricinfo were as much about the game’s soul as they were of the vagaries of batting and bowling form.
The awareness that he had little time left brought with it an unflinching honesty and vulnerability that could move you to tears. I know for sure that I did weep when I read The Greatest Time of Our Lives on the eve of last year’s World Cup final. “To see the two sons I never had, Ross Taylor and Marty Guptill, run out in black, in sync with their close comrades, drawing on all their resolve and resilience, will be mesmerically satisfying,” he wrote. “I will hold back tears all day long. I will gasp for air on occasions. I will feel like a nervous parent.”
I met Taylor before the pink-ball Test in Adelaide last November, and I know just how much those words, and all the advice he received down the years, meant to him. Those like him have lost far more than a mentor.
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves,” wrote Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient. “I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.”
In his final years, Martin understood that so much better than most.