Bob Cowper © Getty Images
Bob Cowper, born October 5, 1940, was a champion batsman on bouncy tracks. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of the man who scored the first Test triple century on Australian soil.
Few people have achieved out of life as much as Robert Maskew Cowper had. A successful cricketer who has the record of the first Test triple-hundred to his name, Cowper became a stockbroker and a merchant banker at a very early age and rose to the top at a rapid pace there as well.
As a batsman Cowper had the ability to carve out long innings — to the extent that he was once dropped for slow batting. He had the usual left-hander’s flair, but relied more on technique than panache. But seldom threw his wicket away. He was an exceptional player off the back-foot, and handled bounce better than most of his colleagues.
With the ball he was a more than competent off-spinner with the uncanny knack to break partnerships; he used his height to its full potential, cramping up the batsmen into submission. His straight-ish off-breaks foxed the best of batsmen — including the Indians.
For a batsman of his calibre, Cowper played only 27 Tests before taking up a second profession. He scored 2,061 runs at 46.84 with 5 hundreds and picked up 36 wickets at 31.63. At First-Class level, Cowper scored 10,595 runs at 53.78 with 26 hundreds and had 183 wickets at 31.19 with a five-for.
The curious bit about Cowper’s numbers is the fact that he was way more successful at home than overseas. Of all batsmen with over 2,000 Test runs Cowper holds the record for the highest difference between home and away averages — a whopping 42.46.
However, Cowper’s numbers on West Indian soil against pace and bounce are significantly good; he scored 2 hundreds against the likes of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. This probably proves that Cowper thrived on hard pitches that offered high bounce.
|in West Indies
|in other overseas countries
However, it would be inadequate to evaluate Cowper in terms of his achievements on the field. To quote Gideon Haigh, “His [Cowper’s] fertile cricket imagination and sense of injustice at the lot of the average Australian cricketer left a strong impression on Ian Chappell, in time a militant campaigner for the rights of his comrades.”
“It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened to the captaincy succession if first [Bobby] Simpson and then [Bob] Cowper both extended their careers. [Bill] Lawry might never have captained at all, while [Ian] Chappell’s tenure would have been pushed back,” wrote The Roar on Cowper.
“Had he been born a dozen years later he would probably have been a Kerry Packer revolutionary”, wrote Ian Wooldridge in the Sydney Morning Herald years later. The reluctance of ACB to act on Cowper’s demands was one of the reasons that he quit cricket at an early age.
David (a wicketkeeper who played for Victoria) and Bob Cowper were born in Kew less than 2 years of each other. They had a sporting heritage: their father Denis ‘Dave’ Cowper captained the Wallabies for 6 matches and was the first Victorian to lead Australia in rugby union. As a result Bob earned the nickname ‘Wallaby’ when he made his way to the Test side.
Bob Cowper grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and attended Scotch College. He went on to join the Hawthorn-East Melbourne Cricket Club, and made his First-Class debut against Tasmania at Launceston. He scored only 21, but his 4 for 24 in the second innings triggered a collapse, and Victoria ended up winning by 10 wickets.
The runs kept coming. After 2 fifties the first ton came up in only his sixth innings — against Western Australian at WACA. Chasing 286 Victoria were in trouble at 71 for 4 when Cowper walked out to join John Shaw. The pair added 187, and Victoria won by 5 wickets with Cowper scoring 114 not out.
After excellent back-to-back seasons in 1962-63 (926 runs at 71.23, 3 hundreds) and 1963-64 (857 runs at 65.92, 2 hundreds; 19 wickets at 34.57) Cowper was selected for the Ashes tour of 1964.
The tour began well for Cowper. He scored 68 in the traditional tour-opener against Worcestershire at New Road; though he did not get a bat against Gloucestershire at Bristol his 3 for 1 brought the hosts’ innings to an abrupt end. He then broke into a run of 113 (against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge), 50 (against Glamorgan at Cardiff), 63 (against Cambridge University at Fenner’s Ground), and 100 (against Oxford University at The University Parks).
Two matches later he scored 87 against Northamptonshire at Northampton, and eventually won his Test cap in the third Test of the Ashes at Headingley.
Bob Cowper in action in June 1968 © Getty Images
It was not the most auspicious of starts: in a Test usually remembered for Peter Burge’s famous 160 Cowper was bowled by Fred Trueman for 2. He did not get a chance to bat again in the Test, and with Graham McKenzie and Neil Hawke causing sufficient damage he was not asked to bowl again.
He did not play another Test on that tour (though it was the only Test with a result in that series: Australia won by 7 wickets and clinched the Ashes). However, he had an excellent tour with 1,286 runs at 51.44 with 3 hundreds and 23 wickets at 31.00.
There was a small incident in a one-day one-innings match against Netherlands at The Hague, however, that did not make a great entry on his CV. The Australians probably took the matter a tad lightly and were bowled out for 197. The hosts required 20 off the final 2 overs when Booth, leading the match, tossed the ball to Cowper.
Cowper’s first 4 balls went for 20 runs — the last ending in a towering six. Ruud Onstein, who never played a First-Class match in his career, finished the match in style.
Cowper toured India and Pakistan with Bobby Simpson’s side in 1964-65; batting first-down at Bombay Cowper added 62 with Lawry for the second wicket and 125 more with Booth for the fifth. A hundred looked in view when Bapu Nadkarni had him caught behind for a 204-minute 81; he had hit 13 boundaries.
He also played the one-off Test at Karachi, and picked up his first Test wicket in the form of Javed Burki in the second innings, who was caught-behind by Wally Grout. He also had a decent outing against Pakistan on his home ground a couple of months later, scoring a 155-ball 83 as McKenzie and Hawke led the home side to an easy win.
The West Indies tour
Chosen to tour West Indies Cowper began in style: he scored 121 in his first match of the tour, adding 226 with Norman O’Neill and before Peter Philpott helped the tourists to an innings victory. The innings got him another chance at the top level at the same ground.
Once again he failed, scoring 26 and 2, falling to Hall in each innings, and there were speculations regarding his abilities to handle quality pace and bounce. In the next match against Leeward Islands at Basseterre he scored 188, outscoring the opposition (who scored 178) single-handedly, and managed to retain his spot for the second Test at Queen’s Park Oval.
After winning the first Test by plenty, West Indies amassed 429 once Simpson put them in. Cowper walked out when Griffith removed Lawry; the score was 15. Soon afterwards Griffith cleaned up Simpson and O’Neill had to retire hurt: the score was 63 at that point of time.
Booth joined Cowper. The fast bowlers unleashed a terrifying bumper barrage; Garry Sobers switched to spin after the pair played out his seam-ups; and Lance Gibbs tried his wiles. The pair, however, hung around, and added 225 for the third wicket before Cowper was run out.
His 143 had taken him 343 minutes and had included 18 fours. It was, however, more than a Test-saving innings. As Wisden wrote, “[Bob] Cowper’s century established him in more ways than just a technically sound batsman. His stout heart and fighting cricket re-established his side’s morale when it threatened to become dangerously low.”
Cowper did not look back from there. On a Bourda pitch where the Australians surrendered meekly to Gibbs (they scored 179 and 144 and lost by 212 runs) Cowper top-scored in each innings with obdurate knocks of 41 and 30. He scored 102 in the next Test at Kensington Oval (albeit the fact that there was no real pressure, given that both Simpson and Lawry had scored double-hundreds).
The last Test at Queen’s Park Oval saw another excellent performance from Cowper: after West Indies were bowled out for 224 Cowper joined Simpson with the score on 5. He eventually scored a gritty 69, added 138 with Simpson, and helped Australia to a 70-run lead before McKenzie routed the hosts, resulting in a ten-wicket victory.
Cowper finished the series with 417 runs at 52.12. In ten tour matches he scored 854 runs at 61.00 with 4 hundreds and picked up 8 wickets. For the first time he became a permanent fixture in the Australian side.
The magnum opus
Cowper missed out on his third hundred in the second Test at MCG when he scored 99; he top-scored with 60 in the first innings of the next Test at SCG but Australia went down by an innings in the absence of Simpson, who was down with chicken-pox. As a result Cowper was made the scapegoat and was demoted to the twelfth man for the fourth Test at Adelaide that Australia won.
Australia recalled Cowper for the fifth Test at MCG to replace Burge. Simpson was also back. Ken Barrington’s uncharacteristic fast 115 took England to 485 for 9. In response Australia looked in trouble at 36 for 2 when Cowper walked out to join Lawry. Australia ended the day on 101 for 2 with Lawry on 43 and Cowper on 32.
The next day was a demonstration of attrition of the highest level: both batsmen were renowned for their temperament, and both took their own time to see themselves in. England had probably missed out on a trick by including Barry Knight and leaving out David Allen: the three seamers — David Brown, Jeff Jones, and Knight — did not seem to have any impact on the two Victorian southpaws.
The 325-minute stand of 212 ended when Lawry was caught by John Edrich off Jones after the rest day. This, however, did not change the course of the Test; Cowper reached his third hundred and then his 150 just before stumps. Day Three ended with Australia on a comfortable 333 for 3, Cowper on 159, and Doug Walters on 35. There were only 5 boundaries hit in the entire day.
Cowper carried on after a rain-washed Day Four; after Walter’s demise neither Ian Chappell nor Keith Stackpole did anything substantial, but between them they batted out 137 minutes, helping Cowper pile up the runs. He broke all kinds of records, and then off-drove Knight for four and three in consecutive balls to equal Don Bradman’s 299 not out — the highest Test score on Australian soil.
After Stackpole managed a single, Cowper cover-drove Knight in the same over for a boundary to bring up the first Test 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. Surprisingly, the innings included only 20 fours, which meant that Cowper had to run a lot.
His innings on a 589-ball 307 played over 727 minutes before he tried to leg-glance Knight, missed the ball, and it hit his stumps; it did not include another boundary after those 20. He did not set a record for boundaries – but his record of 29 threes set in the innings is way clear Len Hutton’s and Lawry’s 15 apiece (as per Charlie Davis’ research). MCG, indeed, is a humongous ground.
Towards the end of his innings Cowper suffered from cramps, but that did not deter him from piling up the runs. He simply batted on and on. Though both Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke have gone past Cowper’s score subsequently Cowper’s innings still remains the longest among all innings played on Australian soil.
“[Bob] Cowper, 12th man in Adelaide, 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 8 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,” wrote Lindsay Hassett of the triple-hundred in The Canberra Times.
A journalist friend of Cowper’s had told him before the Test that he was not fit enough to play a long innings. On his return to the pavilion Cowper promptly found out his friend and asked him, “Hey, how fit am I now?”
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.”
The best comment possibly came from Cowper himself, dissecting his innings once he was back in the dressing-room that afternoon: “My God, that must have been the most boring innings you’ve had to sit through.” Today he remembers it faintly: “it was a long time ago”. He added: “It didn’t change my life at all.”
However, after the day’s play, Cowper had the fortune of toasting the feat with Bradman himself.
Touring South Africa
The South African tour that followed was an anticlimax of sorts with Cowper scoring 255 runs at 25.50 with 2 fifties. For the first time in his career, however, Cowper contributed with the ball: he picked up 3 for 57 in the third Test at Kingsmead, accounting for Trevor Goddard, Graeme Pollock, and ‘Tiger’ Lance.
The tour was generally a success for Cowper; there was a match-winning 78 and 6 for 34 against Western Province at Newlands and 201 not out against Orange Free State at Bloemfontein.
Overpowering the Indians
The touring Indians faced a 0-4 whitewash that season, and Cowper played a significant role in it. He narrowly missed out on twin tons in the first Test at Adelaide when he scored 92 and 108. The second Test at MCG passed without much of an impact.
The third Test at The Gabba began with Australia securing a 100-run lead: Cowper scored 51 and helped rout India with figures of 3 for 31. India were eventually set 395 and were in disarray at 61 for 3 before Rusi Surti and ‘Tiger’ Pataudi got together to add 93.
Cowper had earlier got Abid Ali caught-behind; now he broke through Surti’s defence. Even then, ML Jaisimha and Chandu Borde put up a century partnership and at 310 for 5 India seemed to be the favourites. Once again Cowper came to the forefront, removing Borde.
John Gleeson then picked up 3 quick wickets, but with Umesh Kulkarni hanging around, Jaisimha refused to give up, and helped the score reach 355; it was then that Cowper picked up his fourth wicket to pull off a 39-run victory. He finished with 4 for 104 and match figures of 7 for 145.
Cowper opened the innings with Lawry in the final Test at SCG, scoring 32 in the first innings. After the Australian lead was restricted to 49 Cowper put up yet another display of obdurate batting. He scored 165 in 345 balls with 13 fours out of a team score of 291 and then picked up a career-best 4 for 49 to pull off an easy victory. In the process Cowper became only the second Australian after George Giffen to score 150 runs and take 5 wickets in a Test (Darren Lehmann has joined them subsequently).
Cowper finished the series with 485 runs at 69.28 and 13 wickets at 18.38. Stanley Jackson, John Reid, and subsequently Jacques Kallis are the only others to have scored 400 runs at over 60 and have taken 10 wickets at less than 20 in a series.
The final tour
When Cowper went on his final tour – the 1968 Ashes – nobody had perhaps the impression that it was going to be the final tour of the 27-year-old. On paper it was not a great series in particular for him: the 4 Tests fetched him 191 runs at 27.28 and 8 wickets at 30.12.
However, in the only Test that Australia won — at Old Trafford — Cowper demolished the hosts with 4 for 48 in the first innings. England never recovered from the 192-run deficit and lost the Test by 159 runs, Cowper returning another spell of 2 for 82.
He scored 27 and 5 in his final Test at Headingley — the ground where he had made his debut — but picked up 2 for 40. He then injured his left thumb and was left out of the last Test at The Oval that England won to square the series.
The tour, however, saw Cowper claim his only First-Class five-for at Southend-on-Sea. After the Australians had secured a 180-run lead, Cowper picked up 7 for 42 and bowled out Essex for 122.
There was still no indication that Cowper was likely to quit: he was in particularly high spirits and seemed to be enjoying the sport and the camaraderie that came with it. Ashley Mallett recalls an incident when a group — Cowper, Walters, Brian Taber, Dave Renneburg, Barry Jarman, and Mallett himself had come to the conclusion that Les Truman, the manager, was too stiff and needed to be lightened up.
Mallett recalled in One of a Kind: The Doug Walters Story that “[the six of them] reckoned we should treat Les to a night out at the local German beer hall near the Waldorf. There, along with good old traditional fare, including fat German sausages, you could buy litre-sized steins of ice-cold beer. A couple of those and you were well and truly on your ear. Les lost count at three and was soon dancing on the table, much to the joy of his touring companions and the jolly girls waiting the tables.”
One last hurrah
Cowper played for Western Australia that Australian summer before returning to Victoria. He led Victoria to a Sheffield Shield victory in 1969-70 by a significant margin (48 to Western Australia’s 38; the other 3 teams were tied on 24); he led from the front scoring 522 runs at 37.28 and picking up 13 wickets at 26.07.
Then, all of a sudden, he quit cricket abruptly at the end of the season with the words “it was time to do some work”, surprising everybody but himself: “People made something of a mystery out of it, but there was no mystery at all.” He added: “One morning reality really hit me. I worked out that, for playing cricket for Australia for nine months out of the previous 12, my gross income for the year was $3,000. It was time to go.”
Wooldridge wrote: “Armed with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, qualified already as an accountant, he studied business in Manchester, London, and Perth, and plunged into the share-broking jungle.” He played sporadically for Nedlands Cricket Club before moving to Monte Carlo.
Cowper persisted with demands for a better pay structure for the Australian cricketers and played an integral part in Packer’s World Series Cricket. “With Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, and other luminaries of the day, [Bob] Cowper was a member of the WSC Advisory Board and an adviser to Kerry Packer in his negotiations with executives of the ACB between 1977 and 1979,” wrote Mike Coward in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Cowper became a national phenomenon when he played a significant role in the famous Elders-Henry Jones IXL merger of 1983. He went on to become Australia’s representative at the International Cricket Conference in 1987, replacing John Warr, who had held the position for 14 years.
As Coward mentioned, “Some of the key establishment figures who recommended him [Cowper] for the position at a meeting in Melbourne earlier this week were those with whom he had locked horns.” The appointment was also met with a lot of enthusiasm by Malcolm Gray, then the Chairman of ACB.
Cowper also became a match-referee for 2 Tests in Pakistan’s controversial tour of England in 1992; starting with that tour he also officiated in 14 ODIs, eventually calling it quits after the Total International Series in South Africa in that winter.
A multi-millionaire now, he is one of the richest self-made men among Test cricketers with extensive shares in London and Zurich among other places. He still takes keen interest in Australian and world cricket.
(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)