Preserving the personal myth, Harry Ricketts

Out On A Limb
Martin Crowe
Reed Publishing, $39.95,
ISBN 0 7900 0387 2

Tortured Genius
Joseph Romanos
Hodder Moa Beckett, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86958 187 3

In Anthony Powell’s roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, the narrator, Nicholas, remembers how General Conyers always used to insist that “if you bring off adequate preservation of your personal myth, nothing much else matters in life”. It’s a remark I often found myself recalling as I read Out on a Limb, Martin Crowe’s autobiography, and Tortured Genius, Joseph Romanos’ biography of the great batsman. The general’s maxim would have served as an apposite, if unlikely, epigraph for either book.

In an ordinary way most of us know the difficulties of trying to keep a personal myth in reasonable repair. Self-belief alone is rarely enough; some form of external corroboration is also required. (You may consider yourself likeable, but are you really likeable if you have no friends?)

For the famous ‑ our top sportspeople, for example ‑the situation is more complicated and potentially much more stressful. Their personal myth ‑ that they are a great squash player, great vdnger or great batsman ‑ has been resoundingly confirmed, but they are then expected to conform to our public myth of how we would like them to appear. To be accepted as “our heroes”, they must possess, or pretend to possess, a certain set of qualities. The commentator and former test player, John Morrison, gives a short list of these in Tortured Genius: ‘The New Zealand sporting public admires and respects ruggedness, durability and humility.” Just so. And should a top sportsperson fail or, worse still, refuse to display the requisite rugged, humble durability, then he or she is ripe for knocking.

Glenn Turner and Sir Richard Hadlee are both examples of top cricketers who during their playing days were not prepared to kowtow to the myth. In the 1970s Turner, earning his livelihood in England as a county pro, insisted on being treated as a professional cricketer and claimed reimbursement for air travel back to play in New Zealand. At the time his stance was thought high‑handed and tarnished his public image; his loyalty was questioned and he was accused of selfishness and greed. In the early 1980s much fuss was made about Hadlee’s unwillingness to bowl off his long run-up in tests. By then he had demonstrated beyond any doubt that he could perform just as effectively off his new, shorter run and it was obvious that the change would considerably prolong his career. Despite this, pressure was constantly put on him to use the long run. Why? Presumably because it was felt that he was being insufficiently rugged, that he couldn’t really be Joseph Romanos giving it his all”.

Turner and to an ever greater extent Hadlee regularly used statistical targets and personal goals to maintain their motivation; this too was considered unnatural, alienating and self‑centred. But although Turner and Hadlee both received a good deal of flak, neither was ever vilified as Martin Crowe has been. No former team‑mate ever said of them, as John Morrison has said of Crowe, that “The public believes he is a prima donna, spoilt and pampered, neurotic” ‑ a view which Morrison himself plainly shares.

In Out on a Limb Crowe makes a determined attempt to counter this public image and to replace it with one more in line with his personal myth. In the Sunday StarTimes he was recently quoted as saying: “I was very conscious of the fact that 1 don’t think people quite understood me through the media or other people’s eyes. I felt by doing an autobiography, people could feel it was coming straight from me and they could judge me on that.” The title of his autobiography, in addition to its punning allusion to his troublesome knee, is an accurate indicator of how Crowe sees himself and how he would like the public to see him: the daring loner who has been prepared to go his own way at the risk of being marginalised. And Crowe’s account of his career, with its mixture of self‑analysis, self‑criticism and self‑justification, reinforces that image.

The fact that he should have written the book himself and made a point of emphasising his authorship is another essential component of Crowe’s self ‑presentation. Clearly the last thing he wants is to be mistaken for the archetypal, inarticulate, male sporting hero whose “life”, ghostwritten by some dreary hack, blandly portrays him as really just another kiwi joker. Crowe wants to tell his own story and to tell it in his own way. It is obvious that he takes a proper pride in having done it all himself and that he gave some thought to the kind of sports autobiography he wanted it to be. “I wanted it to be different in terms of trying to make it a bit more of a novel read,” he put it a little convolutedly to one journalist.

It was apparently his idea, and a strikingly effective one, to begin the book not with an account of his childhood but in media res with the test selectors’ extraordinary attempt to make him resign from the captaincy a fortnight before the start of the 1992 World Cup.

Tortured Genius may look from its title as though it is likely to corroborate Crowe’s personal myth, as though Romanos is going to depict him as a kind of romantic artist, tormented by his huge talent and his inner, demons. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; for all its claims to be “a straight, honest book”, the biography is in essence an expansion of John Morrison’s thumbnail sketch of Crowe as spoilt, pampered and neurotic. The title turns out to be the first of many sly winks to the reader which imply that everyone knows Crowe is exactly the kind of pretentious egomaniac who would think he is a tortured genius.

It is this snide undertone, together with a persistent smugness, which makes Romanos’ book unpleasant to read, despite the impressive amount of interviewing and other research he has done. In the introduction, for instance, he egregiously congratulates himself oil omitting ‑the few stories about Martin which, while mildly unsavoury, have had no bearing on his cricket or the person he has become”. So why mention them at all? Because Romanos enjoys making insinuations about Crowe and slurs have a tendency to stick. (Oh, that must be the story about… )

Too wily ever to come out and say how much he dislikes Crowe, he uses commentators and ex‑players like John Morrison and John Bracewell as his hit men. Why Morrison, in particular, should so despise Crowe is a mystery Romanos never bothers to explain. Perhaps amongst sports journalists and the cricketing fraternity the reason for his contempt is an open secret; perhaps it dates back to the time when Morrison acted as Crowe’s manager. Whatever the cause, Morrison is given free rein to vent his spleen. “Martin is at his best when he’s not playing and he’s doing the royal tour, visiting schools, doing interviews. It’s all the spotlight and none of the responsibility,” he sneers at one point and, again: “He’s a mess. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t like the pressure of fronting up. He could easily never play again.”

Romanos himself tends to be a wee bit more oblique than that, the final paragraph of the book giving its characteristic flavour: “By the judgment of his peers and commentators, both domestic and international (with the notable exception of Tony Greig), Crowe’s place in cricket’s pantheon is secure. As if there was any doubt… ” If Crowe’s place amongst the cricketing greats is secure, why coyly refer to doubt ‑ if not to raise it?

And what, more broadly, of Romanos’ treatment of Crowe the player? The blurb on the front does, after all, advertise the book as “The Unauthorised Biography of New Zealand’s Greatest Batsman”. From this the reader might reasonably expect some informed discussion of Crowe’s right to the title over the claims of Martin Donnelly, say, or Bert Sutcliffe or John Reid. And it is true that Romanos makes some attempt to address this issue by quoting the opinions of distinguished local and overseas players, past and present, and by providing tables of relevant statistics. But what we never get is any decent analysis of Crowe’s marvellous technique and there is no detailed consideration of any of the famous innings. As a player Crowe is poorly served by Romanos who, whenever possible, prefers to get off the cricket and back on to the myth.

By contrast, Crowe himself is consistently illuminating about the matches he takes part in and what it is to take part in them. In the nature of things most first‑hand accounts of cricket at the top level are either ghost‑written or badly written or both. In Out on a Limb we are lucky to have an articulate and genuinely evocative description of the game in the middle. In his reconstructions of matches and innings in which he took part, Crowe generally avoids the pitfalls of omniscient retrospection and self ‑congratulation, providing instead a sense of the immediacy of the occasion as he lived it.

Romanos’ lack of interest in his subject as a performer is typified by his handling of Crowe’s entry into test cricket in 1982. He was 19; his promise was evident, but he had only played 18 first class matches and scored just the one first class century (on the very day of his selection). He was picked to face an Aussie attack led by Lilley, Thomson and Alderman and he failed completely. In the three one‑dayers and three tests, he had six innings and made 3, 7, 9, 2, 0 and 9.

Clearly this was a key moment in Crowe’s career and offers the opportunity, you might think, for an incisive examination of the matches and of Crowe’s own performances ‑ not to mention some appreciation of the mental toughness required to come back from so demoralising a debut. Instead, Romanos focuses almost entirely on what he deplores as Crowe’s unrealistic expectations of success and on trying to refute Crowe’s later comments, repeated in Out on a Limb, that he was “a young kid being left to fend for himself in a hostile dressing room”.

Here, incidentally, is a prime example of a clash of the myths. It is important to Crowe’s personal myth for him to believe that during those first matches he was more or less ignored by the other players and particularly that he was badly treated by the captain, Geoff Howarth. It is equally important to Romanos’ myth of Crowe (as precious, whingeing and self‑obsessed) to present him apparently blaming his early failure on his team‑mates and his captain.

Romanos’s other main myth about Crowe is that “something went wrong”, that he somehow suffered a fall. In the introduction Romanos asserts that he has “explored the change in [Crowe’s] personality, from the bright, enthusiastic, ever‑smiling schoolboy to the intense, complex, haunted public figure he is today”. Chapter 1, “Where To From Here?”, ends by repeating the claim in almost identical terms: ‘Like most things about Crowe these days, he enters the 1995/96 season with the cricket community divided about him. It’s ironic that it should come to this because, when he was a lad, everything was so clear ‑ he was a brilliant young cricketer, a lovely, approachable, enthusiastic boy and a person who had well-wishers everywhere. Where did it go wrong? ”

Then, having dealt with the career, Romanos returns once more to the idea of a fall at the start of Chapter 13, “Influences off the Field”: “Even Crowe’s staunchest backers find themselves asking where it all went wrong. How did the smiling, enthusiastic college boy become a man in his early 30s who seems to feel the world ‑ or a goodly portion of it ‑ is against him?” Romanos’ chief promoters of this view are John Graham, Crowe’s old headmaster at Auckland Grammar, and the sports broadcaster Murray Deaker (“I’m sad this guy fell so badly”). They lay the blame variously on Crowe’s wife, Simone, his family, his first manager, Darryl Sambell, and his later involvement with sports psychology.

It seems ironic that Romanos should be pushing such a romantic conception of Crowe whilst elsewhere mocking him for entertaining similarly grandiose notions. But even in its own terms the myth of Crowe as the sweet, natural, unselfconscious boy who suffered a terrible change and turned into a deeply suspicious, neurotic adult doesn’t work. It is repeatedly exploded by stories and anecdotes which Romanos includes for other purposes.

For instance, having set up at the beginning the idea of the schoolboy Crowe as cheerfully uncomplicated, within a few pages Romanos is busy telling a childhood story of Martin and his older brother Jeff in which he wants to create quite a different impression. “There was a mini‑sized pool table in Jeff’s bedroom when he was a youngster. The boys played countless games of pool, often with the same intensity as a world championship final. Things would sometimes get so heated that as one was about to pot the black and so win the game, he had to also think ‑ about self‑preservation. While the black ball was still on its way to the pocket, he would be beating a hasty retreat to the far side of the room.”

The point of this story is presumably that Crowe was always intense, always driven. And that does seem to have been the case. As a child, as an adolescent, as a young man, his desire to excel at sport, and especially cricket, was a direct result of his sibling rivalry with Jeff. And not only was Crowe always intense, he was always self‑consciously aware of himself as a player. “He was analytical,” recalls James Harding who played in the Auckland Grammar XI under Crowe’s captaincy. “On the field, he always seemed to know what to do.” From his teenage years, probably even younger, Crowe was deliberately working away at himself and his game to mould the great player he later became. If one wants to see Crowe in terms of a fall, then one should imagine him as “fallen” from birth.

What Romanos, John Morrison, John Bracewell and Co most seem to hold against Crowe is that he refuses to enrol in the Sir Edmund Hillary school of laconic stoicism. If he would only wear the bluff mask and pretend to be laid‑back, modest and tough, they would no doubt treat him as one of the lads and shower him with praise.

Such an attitude shows a complete lack of understanding of the type of cricketer Crowe is. His batting is memorable not simply for the number of runs he scores but for the way in which he scores them. To watch Crowe bat is an aesthetic experience. That in itself makes him relatively unusual in the modern game, but what makes him even more unusual is that he obviously views his batting in an aesthetic light. When he takes guard, he wants to play the perfect innings; he wants to play beautifully. As he remarked in a column he wrote for the Daily Express in 1987, the year he replaced Richards and Garner in the Somerset team: “I’m always working at my game, trying to perfect it, instead of just going out and blasting.”

“Blasters” like Viv Richards (“the master blaster”) or Ian Botham, are in cricketing terms Crowe’s natural opposites. Their object is to destroy the bowler, to pound him into submission. Style and subtlety are always secondary to power. For them a 6 is a 6, a 4 a 4, however it is hit. Not so with Crowe. He too likes to dominate the bowler but with a kind of inevitable grace. For him an ugly stroke disfigures an innings.

In Out on a Limb Crowe never quite describes himself as a cricketing aesthete and probably wisely so. Nonetheless, it is clear that an aesthetic is an integral part of his personal myth and that this continues to drive him towards a particular ideal of batsmanship. This ideal is very different from that of a “blaster” like Richards or a “limpet” like Allan Border; as a batsman, Crowe is the descendant of players like Colin Cowdrey and Tom Graveney, with David Gower and Javed Meandad on their day his only contemporary rivals in elegant assurance. Without this aesthetic ideal, this desire to play that perfect innings which the average grafter would discount as inherently impossible, Crowe could never have achieved his own distinctive brand of greatness. Which is why it is vitally important for him to preserve his personal myth, and why for him the traditional, blokey image holds few attractions.

Romanos alludes to Crowe’s perfectionism (or aestheticism) a number of times, suggesting at one point that it is this quality “which has made him the batsman he is”. On the following page he quotes a comment of a former convenor of selectors, Don Neely, that: “It’s not enough [for Crowe] to score a century. He wants it to be a classic innings, a perfect innings. He’s one of the few batsmen you could imagine scoring a test century and being unhappy with his innings.” Elsewhere he quotes commentator Brian Waddle’s account of Crowe’s “practice” on the rest day of the 1990 Lahore Test against Pakistan: “Martin got fully kitted up in pads, gloves and so on. He walked out to the middle and just stood at one end, playing strokes for 20 minutes. Then he walked down to the other end and did the same thin… He was the only one there. It was total visualisation. Then he walked off the ground. That was his practice. The next day he scored a century against Wasim and Waqar.”

From Romanos’ point of view, Crowe’s perfectionism and his use of techniques like visualisation (also a favourite of Hadlee’s) are no doubt further evidence of what a prima donna he is. For the impartial reader it is these glimpses of what makes Crowe tick ‑ as much as all the myth‑making ‑ which give Tortured Genius its real interest. The major flaw of Romanos’ book as a biography is that his animus towards his subject makes him unable to understand the value of his own material. Ironically he includes much of the material that could have gone towards a genuinely perceptive portrait, but because he sees Crowe’s self‑consciousness as a moral failure, he cannot recognise it as the mainspring of his “genius”.

As an adjunct to Out on a Limb, Tortured Genius is worth reading; but if you want only a single book on Crowe, his autobiography is the one to read.

Harry Ricketts teaches English and plays cricket. He is writing a biography of Rudyard Kipling.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, Sport
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