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Ashes 1974-75: Colin Cowdrey flies out to take on Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee at the age of 41

Colin Cowdrey © Getty Images
England captain Mike Denness asked Colin Cowdrey (above) if he would like to come out and join them in Australia. The answer was, ‘I’d love to’ © Getty Images

December 1974, Perth. Responding to an SOS from the England team management, retired great Colin Cowdrey flew across the world at the age of 41 to face two terrifying fast bowlers on the quickest wicket in Australia. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the battles of the aging master against the hostile pace of Lillee and Thomson.

He’ll cop it as quick as anyone

December 1974. Australia had not only beaten England at Brisbane, they had beaten them black and blue.

John Edrich had batted in the second innings with a bruised hand. A post-match x-ray revealed it to be broken. Dennis Amiss nursed a fractured hand of his own — the handiwork of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Neither could be realistically expected to play in the next Test at Perth.

To make matters worse, the English pace bowling spearhead, Bob Willis, picked up a groin injury, and was seen moving gingerly as the flight took off from Brisbane’s Eagle Farm Airport. Manager Alec Bedser expressed supreme confidence that Willis would be ready for the Perth encounter, but captain Mike Denness was not quite convinced.

The voodoo continued to dog the team. John Lever, initially selected to play in the game against Western Australia, had to opt out due to a strained side muscle. Mike Hendrick contracted throat infection and spent an entire day in a local hospital.

Keith Fletcher, who had been struck on the forearm at Brisbane, was hit again on the same spot during pre-match practice before the game against the State side. Curiously, the ball had been bowled by the team’s assistant manager Alan Smith. Fletcher lost all feeling in the arm and was unable to grip the bat.

Colin Cowdrey would have turned 42 on Christmas Eve. When he had played his first Test in 1954, Thomson had not quite reached the age of three.

It was curious to imagine, especially in the youth-oriented Australia, that this man with 40,000 First-Class runs, who had ceased to be a regular Test player for the last four years, would have been summoned as a desperate measure. The noble cricketer, advancing towards comfortable middle-age, was asked to abandon his family and his Christmas pudding, on the very eve of Yuletide, and fly to the other side of the world, to face two of the fiercest fast bowlers in the world, on a pitch reputed to be the quickest in Australia.

But, the SOS had come in from the captain himself. In a flash of insight, perhaps ignited by the swollen hands of Amiss and Edrich, Denness had made the phone call on the last day of the Brisbane Test.

When Cowdrey had answered the phone, Denness had asked him whether he had been watching the match. The retired batsman had confirmed that he had indeed been glued to the action. Each frosty evening, he had sat in front of the screen, watching the scenes from the sub-tropical summer, where the Australian fast bowlers had been claiming wickets or clipping the caps of batsmen with almost every delivery, amidst delighted howls of approval from the crowd. Denness enquired if Cowdrey would like to come out and join them. The answer was “I’d love to.”

Cowdrey had batted for Kent that season, scoring 1027 runs at 38.00. Since the end of the summer, he had not really had a hit. “But, I play squash and am quite fit,” he announced to the press. The shape that he was in could only be called round, but then that had been a feature for most of his career.

There was no doubt Cowdrey had proven class. He had confronted the speed of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, Peter Heine and Neil Adcock, even the drag and throw combination of Ian Meckiff and Gordon Rorke. He had battled the best pace bowling across the world and over twenty years. But, was he up to the task of reproducing that class in the post-retirement phase of his cricket career?

Keith Stackpole, who had played against Cowdrey in 1970-71, said that it was an ‘amazing’ decision and added that he fully expected Bedser to run in if one of the pace bowlers broke down. Perhaps it was unknown to him, but Frank Tyson, on the tour as a journalist, later wrote that he was ready for such an eventuality, more than a decade and a half after he had bowled his last ball for England.

The most sinister response, however, came from Thomson himself: “He will cop it as quick as anyone.”

The preparation

The cosily-structured veteran of 109 Tests had a quick net at Sevenoaks, hopped on a Boeing that also carried a bevy of cricketing wives, and landed in Perth after flying 47 hours. The airport was swarming with the media, dealing in beamers and bouncers of their own, asking how he would deal with the pace at his advanced age. Cowdrey was ready to evade the nastiest of posers. “I can’t believe they are as fast as [Jack] Gregory and [Ted] McDonald in the twenties, and I played them.” Charm and laughter goes a long way in creating friends amidst sworn enemies.

He had net sessions early in the morning when the sun was still young and late in the afternoon, when it was weary and old. The full blast of the heat was slightly intimidating for the veteran even if the scorching pace of Lillee and Thomson was not. He trained his slip catching by wearing batting gloves, to preserve the joints while his hands got used to the full tilt of Test cricket.

At the nets, he was bowled to by almost everyone he could gather around him, from school kids to old Tony Lock, from journalists looking for a bit of exercise to Graham McKenzie. The last mentioned warned him before bowling short ones. Cowdrey appreciated it, but knew he could not expect the same courtesy from Thomson and Lillee. In The Times, John Woodcock wrote, “Cowdrey could have done no more to cram two months’ practice into three days.”

After just four days of his arrival, he was at the crease. As he returned from the nets on the morning of the Test match, Denness informed him that he was going in at No 3. Cowdrey absorbed this piece of instruction, walked into the dressing room, and opened his cricket case. A mountain of foam rubber rose slowly from inside. The maestro was brave, but careful.

It did not take Ian Chappell a lot of thought to go against grandfather Vic Richardson’s sage advice and put England in to bat.  And every part of Cowdrey’s ample form was padded up with care.

The first innings and first ‘knocks’

Brian Luckhurst had his hand jolted by a Thomson snorter. He fought hard before being caught at gully off Max Walker for 27, after spending 81 minutes at the crease with Lloyd. The 16,000 strong crowd now roared in approval. According to Christopher Martin-Jenkins, “It was the signal for tears to prick the eyes of all but the stony-hearted … The great crescendo of applause greeted [Cowdrey] as with his old familiar walk, sloping slightly forward as he moved, he strode out to face the music”

Thomson charged in almost immediately, but Cowdrey was quick in demonstrating his mettle, moving right behind the ball, playing only when compelled by direction and length. England’s intention had been to use Cowdrey to draw the fire of the Australian terror twins. And he did force Thomson into taking a breather.

However, there was no respite. As Thomson took up his position in the outfield, Lillee replaced him at the River End. Cowdrey was struck by a Lillee bouncer, but did not flinch. It was tense, gritty cricket. At the other end, David Lloyd was resolute.

And there was surprise in store for the lethal Thomson. After he had sent down an especially hostile, Cowdrey walked up to him and beamed, “This is fun.” He had already flummoxed the tearaway pacer by reacting to his post-delivery glare by offering his hand and saying, “Good morning, my name’s Cowdrey.” Thomson later admitted, “I shook hands with him. I thought ‘good luck if you think that’s going to do you any good.’”

At lunch the two were still at the crease and the total was 63 for one.

The battle continued after the break, and Lillee ran in with the wind. Cowdrey was fortunate to edge him over the slips off the shoulder of his bat. Thomson came back and continued sending down the probing, slinging deliveries. Ashley Mallett was tried and then Doug Walters, but the two batsmen stood firm. The first hour after lunch brought forth only 36, but just before the drinks interval, Cowdrey was dropped down the leg side off Walters by wicket-keeper Rod Marsh.

The focused hour seemed to have sucked the resistance out of Lloyd. Immediately after the break, he slashed hard at Thomson and Greg Chappell clutched onto a difficult catch. Tony Greig was fresh from a superb hundred at Brisbane and was now promoted to No 4. He slashed over the head of the infield and tried to continue the way he had got all those runs in the first Test.

And now, after two hours and five minutes of impeccable resistance, Cowdrey shuffled too far in his attempt to deflect Thomson down to the leg side and lost his leg-stump. He had scored 22 runs full of grit and guts.

The England innings was119 for three when Cowdrey got out, now stuttered to 208 all out. Only the gutsy Alan Knott provided his usual resistance with 51.

The second innings

With Ross Edwards and Doug Walters scoring hundreds, Australia piled up 481. And with an enormous 273-run lead, Lillee and Thomson were ready to charge in and blow away the Australians.

There was a surprise in the offing. With Luckhurst still in pain from the blow suffered in the first innings, it was Cowdrey who walked out with Lloyd to open the innings. Not a regular opener even in his heyday, now at 41, he had volunteered to start off against the two terrifying quicks. Even the Western Australian crowd murmured in admiration.

Thomson bowled into the breeze this time and started making things happen. Cowdrey nicked a perfect outswinger. It was going straight to Walters at third slip, but suddenly Ian Redpath leaped all the way from the fourth slip and parried it to the ground.

Cowdrey was lucky yet again when a Walker delivery bounced awkwardly and again took the shoulder of his bat and eluded the slips. At tea, after 13 overs, England had reached 26.

After the interval, fortune continued to favour the brave Cowdrey. A snick off Thomson rocketed between Marsh and Ian Chappell to the boundary.

At the other end, a short of a length delivery from Thomson seamed back into Lloyd and struck the left-hander in the lower abdomen in an excruciating blow. He bent down, his posture resembling a hairpin, and toppled forward, ending motionless. The beastly delivery had struck his abdomen guard, pushing it down on to his vital parts. Physio Bernard Thomas could just about help him walk off the ground.

It was Denness who walked out now. The Australians had already tasted blood. A delivery from Thomson struck Cowdrey on the left forearm. According to Frank Tyson, “It seemed that his stoicism was shaken.”

At 37, he survived a loud appeal for a catch behind the wicket off Thomson. The Australians, in the field and in the stands, believed that he was out. Those who knew Cowdrey well, however, could vouch that he was not. He would have surely walked.

Four runs later, Cowdrey tried to turn Thomson to mid-wicket. The ball straightened off the seam and caught him plumb in front. The veteran walked back for another valiant innings of 41. The match had seen him bat for 256 minutes, and absorb several blows on his padded form.

 

What followed?

Thomson took five in the second innings and England lost by nine wickets.

Cowdrey played bravely enough through the rest of the series, but scores of 35, 8, 22, 1 26, 3, 7 ensured his ending the tour with 165 runs at 18.33. Australia won the series 4-1.

The battered and bruised England team crossed the Tasman Sea to take on a much easier opponent. But, against these lesser attacks, the services of the great soul were no longer essential. Having done his utmost to combat the fire of Lillee and Thomson with asbestos calm, Cowdrey flew home to resume his retirement.

Brief scores:

England 208 (David Lloyd 49, Alan Knott 51) and 293 (Colin Cowdrey 41, Fred Titmus 61, Chris Old 43; Jeff Thomson 5 for 93) lost to Australia 481 (Ian Redpath 41, Greg Chappell 62, Ross Edwards 115, Doug Walters 103, Rod Marsh 41) and 23 for 1 by 9 wickets

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix

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