Bob Cowper scored 307 at the MCG on February 16, 1966. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the first triple-hundred on Australian soil.
With the series levelled 1-1, Australia simply needed a draw in the final Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) to cling on to the Ashes. Things had gone a bit awry after England’s innings victory in the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), but Australia had paid the favours back with an innings victory in the next one at Adelaide.
The first two Tests, at the Gabba and the MCG, were generally yawnathons. The foundation of England’s victory was laid on long innings from Bob Barber, John Edrich, and Geoff Boycott, and persistent bowling from David Brown, Fred Titmus, and David Allen.
Graham McKenzie turned things around in Australia’s favour at Adelaide; he routed England with six for 48 before Bill Lawry and Bobby Simpson had put on an opening stand of 244. It was then left to Neil Hawke to pull off the equaliser.
England had decided to replace Allen with Barry Knight, perhaps for his batting abilities; perhaps they had thought that the pitch would assist seam more than spin. Australia, on the other hand, had left out Peter Burge; he was demoted to twelfth man after he had announced that he would not be available on the subsequent tour of South Africa.
Burge was replaced by Bob Cowper, that obdurate southpaw. Mike Smith won the toss and decided to bat on what looked like a flat wicket.
Day One: Barrington breaks shackles
There was almost nothing in the pitch for McKenzie and Hawke, but Simpson decided to persist with them. Boycott and Barber were going along comfortably before there was a double-breakthrough. Boycott, never the greatest judge of a single, ran out Barber before falling to McKenzie himself.
Australia might have smelled blood at 41 for two; but then, the reassuring frame of Ken Barrington appeared at the crease; he settled down; with Edrich for support he saw off the initial spell of McKenzie and Hawke; and then he broke loose. As Wisden wrote, “[Ken] Barrington played his most aggressive Test innings.”
Barrington brought up his hundred in 122 balls; the MCG crowd were stunned to see him in a new avatar. Edrich was reduced to a mere spectator, reaching his fifty in 160 balls. When Barrington was eventually caught-behind off Doug Walters for a 153-ball 115 with eight fours and two sixes, the Australian crowd applauded the stonewaller they had loved to barrack over the years.
Barrington later called it “one of the most moving ovations I have heard in Australia.” His 115 had come out of a 198-run partnership that had lasted only 178 minutes. Edrich fell for a 226-ball 85 and Mike Smith for a duck (both to Walters), but England were bailed out from 254 from five. They finished the day at 312 for five with Colin Cowdrey on 43 and Jim Parks on 29.
Day Two: Lawry and Cowper begin
The partnership eventually added 138 before Cowdrey was caught-behind off Walters for a well-compiled 143-ball 79. Parks was unfortunate to be run out 11 short of a well-deserved hundred, and Titmus was unbeaten on 42 when Smith declared the innings closed on 485 for nine. Australia were left with just over an hour to bat.
The Australians began disastrously. Simpson was clean bowled by Brown, and Grahame Thomas soon followed suit, leaving Australia at 36 for two with the shadows of a follow-on looming on the horizon. The two left-handers, Lawry and Cowper, saw the hosts through to stumps. Lawry scored 43 and Cowper 32 as Australia finished on a relatively comfortable 101 for two.
Play began after the rest day, and Day Three saw Lawry and Cowper grind the English attack the way only they could have. They were not in a hurry of any kind, and took their own time (which seemed to be ages to the spectators); old phrases like “offence is the best defence” were thrown out of the window; the two simply batted on.
Lawry, of course, had done it before. EW Swanton later wrote in Swanton in Australia with MCC 1946 – 1975: “[Bill] Lawry, their [Australia’s] stumbling-block-extraordinary, took root, and in an interminable left-handed stand with [Bob] Cowper effectively doused English prospects.”
The 212-run partnership eventually lasted 325 minutes before Lawry fell to an exhausted Jeff Jones. The Victorian had scored a 256-ball 108 with only seven boundaries — numbers that probably show his approach to the Test.
Lawry eventually finished the series with 592 runs at 84.57 with three hundreds. If there was one man who had stood between England and the urn throughout the series it was him, with his dead bat, that hawk-like nose prodding over the ball, and the ability to outlast any bowling attack.
Cowper, as capable an understudy and accomplice Lawry could find, clung to his wicket as if his entire existence had depended on it. He reached his third hundred and brought up his 150 just before stumps; Australia finished on 333 for three, 152 runs in arrears; the follow-on had been saved. Cowper was on 159 and Walters on 35.
It was not an exciting day’s cricket. There were only seven boundaries hit throughout the day’s play. Lawry and Cowper, however, had batted out of their skins to ensure that Australia had retained the Ashes. They were on track.
Day Five: Records tumble
Any chance of a result was ruled out when Day Four’s play was washed out due to incessant rain. The Test might have been brought to life had Simpson declared with his side behind, but he had no reason to provide England with any chance of getting a hand on the much-coveted urn.
Walters did not look confident against the trio of Brown, Jones, and Knight; Titmus, too, bowled accurately, holding one end up. Walters eventually hit one back to Barber for an uncharacteristically painstaking 201-ball 60 with only three boundaries; he simply refused to take any chance.
Walters had helped Cowper put on 172 in 236 minutes. Cowper found an ally in a young Ian Chappell, who hung on without looking comfortable at all against Titmus and Barber. Then the records went, one by one.
First went Don Bradman’s 270 — the highest score by an Australian in a home Ashes and the highest score by anyone at MCG. Then went ‘Tip’ Foster’s 287 — the highest score by anyone in an Ashes Test on Australian soil. All three records still stand.
Chappell fell, but it did not matter: Cowper was now joined by Keith Stackpole; with Bradman’s 299 not out — the highest score by anyone on Australian soil — in sight, Cowper decided to open up once he reached the 290s. He off-drove Knight on two consecutive balls, obtaining a four and a three, to come at par with The Don.
After Stackpole gave the strike back to him Cowper drove Knight through cover for another boundary: it was the first triple-hundred on Australian soil. “As a day of cricket or an exchange in virtuosity, today belonged entirely to Bob Cowper,” wrote Rohan Rivett on The Canberra Times.
He had suffered from cramps towards the end of his innings, but that did not stop him from taking the ones and twos and threes. His marathon of 307 lasted 589 balls and 727 minutes. It ended when he missed the line of a ball while trying to leg-glance Knight and was clean bowled.
The amazing part of Cowper’s innings was the fact that there were only 20 boundaries. They were pleasing strokes, though. As Lindsay Hassett wrote in The Canberra Times, Cowper had “staged possibly the most sensational comeback in the history of Test cricket. Apart from the occasional pull-shot, he did not loft a single ball. He occupied the crease for 12 hours and eight minutes. Most of his runs came from elegant and powerful cover drives, and he played some pull shots that would have done credit to Stan McCabe at his best.”
Despite his lack of boundaries Cowper set a newworld record for the most threes in an innings. His record of 29 threes (87 runs; more than the 80 he had scored in boundaries) was nearly double the 15 previously held by Len Hutton and Lawry. The effort was even more commendable because of his cramps.
Ian Wooldridge later wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Bob Cowper, cocooned in concentration, batted on and on and on. Then, after a night’s sleep, he batted on and on again.” He added: “We [the English supporters] had been compelled to stare at it for two whole days on end.”
One of Cowper’s journalist friends had pointed out before the Test that he was probably not a hundred-percent match-fit; on his return to the pavilion, Cowper cornered him: “Hey, how fit am I now?” Cowper’s superhuman effort of 727 minutes is still the longest for an innings in Australia, though Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke have subsequently gone past his 307.
The other record Cowper still holds is the longest innings in terms of elapsed time. He had come out to bat on February 12, and it was February 16 when Knight eventually managed to dismiss him. As per Charlie Davis’s calculations, he was at the crease even after 96 hours 12 minutes had passed since his arrival.
Despite the impact on the series Cowper was perhaps a tad guilty himself of the pace of the innings as well. On his return to the pavilion, he told his colleagues: “My God, that must have been the most boring innings you’ve had to sit through.” His records were aptly rewarded when he had the opportunity to toast the record with Bradman himself after the day’s play.
Looking back at the record, however, Cowper does not usually feel a thing. He even remembers it very vaguely: “It was a long time ago. It didn’t change my life at all.”
Simpson eventually declared the innings closed at 543 for eight, 58 runs ahead, immediately after Cowper fell.
England had to bat out only a single hour, but McKenzie caused some panic by reducing the tourists to 34 for three. However, no miracle happened as they finished on 69 for three. Australia retained the Ashes.
Cowper quit cricket after the 1969-70 season at an age of 30. He went on to become one of the richest self-made cricketers among international cricketers.
England 485 for 9 decl. (Ken Barrington 115, Jim Parks 89, John Edrich 85, Colin Cowdrey 79, Fred Titmus 42*; Doug Walters 4 for 53) and 69 for 3 (Graham McKenzie 3 for 17) drew with Australia (Bob Cowper 307, Bill Lawry 108, Doug Walters 60; Jeff Jones 3 for 145).
(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)