Colin Cowdrey made his debut for England in the 1954-55 Ashes series in Australia © Getty Images
A young Colin Cowdrey received an unusual cable in Sydney on November 16, 1954. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a message whose purpose was served, albeit without the decryption.
When Len Hutton had taken the England side to Australia he had insisted on 18 men instead of the usual 17. There was a reason: he wanted an extra batsman for a tour that he had expected to be an arduous one. The man the selectors gave him was Colin Cowdrey.
Prior to the first Test in Brisbane at The Gabba, Hutton had decided that he would pick one from Cowdrey and Vic Wilson. MCC included both men in the tour match against New South Wales (NSW) at SCG with the aim to choose one. Keith Miller won the toss and put the tourists in.
The first hundred
The NSW attack was a strong one, consisting of Miller himself, Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud, with Pat Crawford and John Treanor as the support act. The batsmen struggled and were left reeling at 38 for 4 with only Hutton standing firm as Cowdrey walked out.
Cowdrey had replaced Wilson at the crease when Miller had him caught by Bob Simpson for nine. Hutton took control of the situation thereafter, playing the attack with ease. When a desperate Davidson switched to left-arm spin, Hutton pretended Davidson was troubling him, and praised his bowling. He then took a confused Cowdrey aside with the words, “I suggest we keep him bowling these if we can, don’t you?”
The Yorkshire legend eventually fell for 102, adding 163 for the fifth wicket with Cowdrey. His partner was not yet the matured batsman the antipodeans would get a chance to see in his five subsequent Ashes tours. He played his strokes with flair and panache, bringing the crowd to their feet. They were delighted to see the youngster in full flow.
When he eventually hit one back to Davidson for 110 the 12,530-strong stood up in an ovation. MCC, however, collapsed in a heap: Cowdrey had added 34 with Godfrey Evans, but MCC lost their final 5 wickets for 7 and were bowled out for 252. Hutton and Cowdrey had scored 212 of these between themselves, and Evans (11) was the only other person in double figures.
NSW take lead
In response, Bill Watson and Miller added 161 for the third wicket before the legendary NSW captain fell for 86; Watson carried on, finishing with 155. The middle-order contributed as well, and a strong attack, consisting of Alec Bedser, Frank Tyson, Peter Loader, and Bob Appleyard could not stop the hosts from taking a 130-run lead.
Suddenly it came to me, it was a quotation from the Old Testament
Hutton held himself back and sent in the two “examination candidates” to open: the “tie” was decided almost instantaneously when Crawford clean bowled Wilson for a duck. MCC were in trouble of sorts at 69 for 3 when Reg Simpson and Peter May followed suit, but Cowdrey finally found a partner in Bill Edrich.
The lead was eradicated. At the end of Day Three, MCC were 138 for 3 with Cowdrey on 71 and Edrich on 24. Cowdrey, just like his teammates, must have been delighted by his performance. He left the hotel for the ground on Day Four on a high: there was still a match to be saved.
Just when he was about to leave the hotel, he received an unsigned cable. It contained five words: SEE TWO KINGS THREE FOURTEEN. He could not make anything out of the cable. In a hurry to reach the ground, he tucked it away in his hip pocket.
The second hundred
He duly scored his second hundred of the match, adding 89 with Edrich and 68 more with Hutton. He was eventually trapped leg-before by Crawford for 103 and left the ground, once again to a standing ovation. Hutton scored 87 as well, barely missing out on his second hundred of the match.
NSW did not go for the 198-run chase: they batted positively, though, finishing with 78 for 2 in 16 overs.
The strange cable was interpreted a few days later. Cowdrey himself wrote in Cricket Today: “When sending the clothes to the dry-cleaners a few days later I found the scrap of paper and opened it again. Suddenly it came to me, it was a quotation from the Old Testament, and further research found the prophetic words: And the Lord said to Elijah, do it the second time!”
Cowdrey did keep the request, albeit unintentionally.
- Cowdrey finished the tour with 890 runs at 37.08, but played all 5 Tests of the series, scoring 319 runs at 35.44. His 102 (scored out of 191) in the first innings in the third Test at MCG is considered by many as his finest hundred. After the hundred, he received another cable that said COWDREY MELBOURNE MAGNIFICENT WARNER. It was, of course, from Pelham Warner.
- Hutton’s England retained The Ashes, winning the series 3-1.
- Hutton and Cowdrey became very close in real lives and forged a bond of friendship over time that was unusual, given their age difference.
- Wilson never played a Test.
- The anonymous sender’s identity was never found.
MCC 252 (Colin Cowdrey 110, Len Hutton 102; Alan Davidson 3 for 41, Pat Crawford 3 for 51, John Treanor 3 for 64) and 327 (Colin Cowdrey 103, Len Hutton 87; Pat Crawford 4 for 86, John Treanor 4 for 96) drew with New South Wales 382 (Bill Watson 155, Keith Miller 86; Frank Tyson 4 for 98, Alec Bedser 4 for 117) and 78 for 2.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)