Colin Cowdrey, born on December 24, 1932, was one of the greatest ever batsmen produced by England, and one of the most charming men to have graced the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who started his career facing Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall and ended it negotiating Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
Misgivings of the maestro
1976. A year and a half had passed since his last great feat, his ready departure from his fireside at the age of 41 to engage in battle with the fierce duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Colin Cowdrey, now formally retired from First-Class cricket, provided an interview to a Surrey newspaper.
A batsman of undeniable greatness, a cricketer and a gentleman held in enormous respect by friends and foes alike, and a man of infinite charm and kindness, his words strangely hinted at grave doubts within his very soul. Cowdrey used the interview to ask himself how he could ever justify spending a quarter of a century standing at first slip.
It was not an off the cuff attempt at self-effacing humour, although Cowdrey was extremely accomplished at that art as well. He had felt deep reservations years earlier and had referred his misgivings to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presumably, the answer involved the pleasure given to onlookers and the shining example of sportsmanship displayed so naturally all his career. Perhaps the man of collar also pointed at his ambassadorial merits and the role he played in projecting Christian virtues and beliefs.
The quarter century standing at first slip had got him 638 catches, a then record 120 of them in 114 Test matches. The time spent at the wicket had earned 42,719 runs with 107 centuries, 7,624 and 22 being the corresponding figures in Tests. In the highest form of cricket, he had started by facing the hostile pace of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller and ended with the chin music of Lillee and Thomson. Besides, the runs were made with style and grace that merged with his demeanour on the field to paint some of the purest pictures of the game. Yet, uncertainty about self-worth was as much part of the man as his elegance and excellence on the field.
The most fitting counter to these sentiments came from Ian Wooldridge of the Daily Mail who recounted the doubts voiced by Cowdrey and wrote: “As understatements go that probably ranks with (Yehudi) Menuhin dismissing life as one long fiddle.”
A joy to behold
Cowdrey did much more than provide joy to countless spectators. His brilliance often scintillated even the opponents. John Waite, the South African wicket-keeper, standing behind the wickets during a knock of 67 at Trent Bridge, voiced: “He batted beautifully, his cover drives unfolding like tropical flowers of the scarcest delicacy.”
Even as a 20-year-old, scoring 116 against Cambridge for Oxford at Lord’s, his cover-drives had moved the hard to please EW Swanton to say, “Extravagant predictions seldom help anyone and more often than not they recoil on the heads of their authors. All I will say then is this, that Cowdrey has two important points of resemblance with that of the great Wally Hammond: poise and balance.”
Cowdrey, from his days as a boy prodigy, was a batsman with near perfect technique. This technique, added to his excellent natural eye, allowed him immense time to play the fastest bowlers. Yet, the slightest wrinkles and creases in the armoury were worked on till the very end of his playing days. In the mid-1950s, his initial struggle against the pace and bounce of Neil Adcock and Peter Heine had induced the necessary change in his approach to fast bowling, with a more back foot based game. Even after 100 Tests, in the early 1970s, he took up his position behind the bowler’s arm to watch how Ian Redpath played the short ball, in the effort to pick up some new tricks.
Similarly, when Hugh Tayfield managed to tie him down over after over with his off-breaks, Cowdrey came back from South Africa and worked diligently to add the lofted on-drive to his array of strokes. He could skip down and effortlessly send the spinner over the boundary when he so desired.
The other Cowdrey attribute was the softly gripped top hand. This enabled him to change his shot with minimal adjustment. The elation of a bowler, who was certain he had bowled him, would frequently change to frustration as the top hand closed the gap and averted the danger. This grip also enabled him, along with his excellent balance, to place the ball through the off-side by opening and closing the face of the bat. As he told son, and future England captain, Christopher years later, “When you’re in form, you should be able to pick your billboard.”
He would cut off the back foot, delectably and often late, always impeccable with his placement. And when in the late sixties, the line of the bowling grew more partial to in-swing and off-breaks, he became addicted to the on-side. An accomplished hooker in his youth, he was good enough to pull Lillee and Thomson when 42. His on drive was exquisitely balanced, and the gaps would be found with the roll of the wrist which closed the face of the bat. To the spinner, he could step out and hit over mid-on or mid-wicket when the situation demanded.
He rarely swept, preferring to drive to the fine leg after executing a pivot. This was the only stroke not quite orthodox, but served him well, especially against the off-break bowler.
And added to it was the meticulous attention to detail. His appearance would always be immaculate, kit tenderly cared for. Opponents rigorously analysed and wickets closely inspected. Nets and throw downs were mandatory before a day’s play.
After sedately walking to the middle, he would take guard, touch the peak of his cap and wait for the first ball. Like Jack Hobbs, one of the men he was so influenced by, he would look to get off the mark with a single, and for the next period quietly accumulate with the flick off his legs, the gentle run down to third man, or a soft push to the off side. The strokes would begin to flow once he had settled down.
While at the wicket, he would incessantly talk to himself – especially if beaten by a good ball. But, at the same time he was by no means self-absorbed like many of the great technicians tend to be. He was perhaps the best man to have at the other end when a nervous or struggling batsman made his way to the crease. Cowdrey had the ability to put them at ease, either by astutely pointing out how to play a particular bowler, or engaging in light hearted banter. He could guide a young Bob Woolmer against Garry Sobers by asking him to push past mid-off, harder and harder, until he could find the fence with regularity. He could amuse and relax Peter Richardson by asking him to hit the dangerous Gordon Rorke back over his head. And he could help Ken Barrington settle down by drawing his attention to some attractive woman in the crowd.
Short of the best he could have been?
Yes, when Cowdrey was at the crease, batting at his best, he could demoralise a bowling side – not through bludgeoning them into submission, but by exquisitely using the bat like a rapier. According to Ted Dexter, who had ideas to contain most batsmen, Cowdrey and Sobers had no obvious remedies. Keith Andrews, captain of Northamptonshire, used the tactic of giving him a single and attacking the other batsman. Robin Hobbs, the Essex leg-spinner, said that the best chance against Cowdrey was to lie low and let someone else do the bowling.
However, in spite of the obvious soundness of his batting, did he really justify his immense potential? Many agree that he did not. His batting average in Test cricket merited to be in the fifties rather than the rather creditable 44.06. For Kent, he was perhaps guilty of not measuring up to the extent he did in Test cricket. And from his days as a schoolboy cricketer, expectations remained sky-high, and many were not satisfied by the plenty that he achieved in his career.
There were periods when his batting would be limited by his own refusal to dominate. Jim Laker backed himself to bowl a maiden at Cowdrey even when the batsman was on 120. Jack Bannister said that he would not challenge the tidy line and length like a Peter May or Dexter. Richie Benaud would tie him down outside the leg-stump. Alan Davidson and Sobers both resorted to move the ball away from him to get the edge of his bat. And sometimes the captains got him agitated by just crowding him with close in fielders.
England captain MJK Smith called Cowdrey’s batting frustrating. Former Kent captains, Doug Wright and Les Ames, agreed that if he had played according to his potential, Cowdrey would have finished with 200 First-Class centuries instead of 107. Most importantly, the acid test for an England batsman reflected rather badly on him. His figures against Australia, the age old rivals, languished at 2433 runs in 43 Tests at 34.26.
Indeed, for a batsman of obvious greatness, Cowdrey too often got stuck in periods of mediocrity. “He could sink into pits of uncertainty when the fire ceased to burn,” said John Arlott. Often, if the conditions or tactics were difficult, the purity of his game would flounder for the want of practical modifications. Fred Titmus felt if Cowdrey had been forced to earn his money from the game as a professional instead of clinging on to an old-age amateur-like status, he would have been more pragmatic in his approach.
Even Sobers was astounded when he saw Cowdrey throw off his inhibitions and get a delightful 66 for Commonwealth XI against a Bengal Chief Minister’s XI at Calcutta in late 1964. “Colin, that’s one of the best innings I’ve ever seen you play. Why don’t you bat this way all the time?” he asked. Cowdrey’s answer was as full of humility and charm as ever, “Oh well, I was watching you at the other end.”
When greatness seemed to await his classical stamp of authority, Cowdrey could suddenly become incredibly stagnant and strokeless while cruising easily with the wind at his back. Hammond himself, reclusive though he was after his retirement, sought him out in South Africa and told him that he could slip his moorings by looking for singles.
Yet, in spite of perhaps a potential that remained partially unfulfilled, Cowdrey nevertheless enjoyed a superb career and remains one of the best batsmen produced by England.
The boy named MCC
Cowdrey was born on Christmas Eve in 1932, in the far off Ootacamund, high in the Nilgiri Hills, in the southern part of India. Sports was in his blood.
Father Ernest had been a keen cricketer, who had played for the Surrey Second XI, and the Berkshire County Cricket Club. Running a tea plantation in the hills, he was a good enough batsman to score 48 for a European XI against MCC at Madras in 1926-27.
Mother Molly had considerable prowess in hockey and tennis and displayed more than a passing interest in cricket. Hence when Ernest Cowdrey asked whether she was okay with their son being invested with the initials of the world’s most famous cricket club, she readily agreed. Hence, Michael Colin Cowdrey came into being and Ernest promptly put his name down for membership at the hallowed club. Fifty-four years later, this new born would go on to become the President of the very same Marylebone Cricket Club.
Surrounded by tea estates, and blessed with long hours of sunshine, Cowdrey spent his early days enjoying a colonial life style, and was introduced to sports early. On the lawn next to their bungalow, Ernest Cowdrey built a miniature golf course, and father and son practised in the morning before the former went to work. When he returned in the evening, attention switched to the tennis court where cricket soon took precedence. The stance of the young lad was adjusted, the grip corrected. Cowdrey was taught the basics of oiling the bat. The wicket was shifted towards the side netting of the tennis court so that the natural leg-side swipes could be purged early in the cricket education. If he still indulged in an ugly slog, the boy had to forfeit his innings and spend a long afternoon bowling to his father. A genial teenaged servant named Krishnan bowled to his Dear Little Master for hours. An adopted mongrel dog named Patch did the fielding.
In 1938, after a long discussion between the parents, it was decided that Cowdrey would be schooled in England. They embarked on their voyage in April of that year. As they moored at Port Said, Ernest Cowdrey, in feverish excitement, woke his son up and rushed him to the deck to watch the ship carrying Don Bradman gently glide past them in the dusk.
Cowdrey was taken to his grandmother’s place and was admitted to Homefield House, Sutton. And the parents made their way back to India without letting the boy know of their intentions. One fine day, returning from school, Cowdrey was informed that his parents had gone back to work. The next time he saw them was in late 1945. This sudden departure of his parents and the strict disciplinarian in Charles Walford, headmaster at Homefield, was to have defining influence in his character. They go a long way in explaining the diffidence, a lack of assertiveness when required and why his ambitions of captaining the England team in Australia remained unfulfilled.
The schoolboy prodigy
Cowdrey started his cricket in school as a wicket-keeper who could bat. At the age of seven he made waves by scoring 94 in an under-11 game. In fact, some miscalculation had seen him raise his bat and acknowledge cheers for a hundred before tamely giving his wicket away. It was later revealed to him that he had fallen six short. There were hot tears of dejection and understandable frustration and the strict Walford now performed a magical feat. Unknown to Cowdrey, the headmaster wrote to Jack Hobbs. And three weeks later, Cowdrey received a size four bat from the great man along with a letter that read:
“Dear Master Cowdrey,
I have just heard about your wonderful performance of scoring 94 out of a total of 135. Please accept my heartiest congratulations. It is a pity you could get nobody to stay long enough to get your hundred, but I head you are very keen on the game and feel sure you will score many centuries in the years to come. I shall watch your career with interest and I wish you the very best of health and fortune.
This letter went a long way to developing young Cowdrey’s fascination with the game.
Cowdrey gave up wicket-keeping early and developed into a fine batsman and a leg-spin bowler at Homefield. The stern eye of Walford followed him keenly, always severe, seldom expressing enthusiasm. However, he was fascinated when Cowdrey bowled a googly in the nets. And once when he was umpiring, some excellent on side strokes induced his remark to a colleague: “You’re watching an England batsman in the making.”
Moving to Tonbridge, Cowdrey excelled with both bat and ball. By the time he was 13, he was being hailed as a boy with immense potential. After a fantastic all-round performance to beat Clifton by two runs, Cowdrey was on his way to Cornwall from Paddington for a holiday with his aunt when he saw a fellow passenger reading about his exploits in the Daily Mail: “Little Colin Cowdrey, 13-year-old Tonbridge schoolboy, is claimed by cricketing experts as the boy wonder of the century and a certain Test player before he is 18.”
At Tonbridge, his cricket was shaped by housemaster James McNeil, an Irish rugby trialist, John Knott, the strict martinet who ran cricket during Cowdrey’s schooldays, and Ewart Astill, the professional coach employed by the school. It was Astill’s guidance, McNeil’s encouragement and Knott’s continuous bowling at the nets which carried his cricket along. Additionally, Knott instilled in him the virtues of thanking everyone after a game, from the umpires to the scorers, from the groundsmen to the tea ladies.
There was also the presence of another man, the former Sussex and England fast bowler Maurice Tate. While standing as umpire, Tate was known to hold up a game after some delightful stroke by Cowdrey, making remarks that ran: “Jack [Hobbs] used to play that one” or “Maurice [Leyland] couldn’t have played it better.”
Cowdrey’s exploits were not really limited to cricket. He was an excellent performer in squash, led the Colts rugby team and went on to captain the XV in the final year. He was a gifted fly-half, quick over ten yards, who kicked with shrewd precision into open spaces and had a superb pair of hands. Rugby, with the associated physical roughness, never really appealed to Cowdrey, but it explains how he performed some dazzlingly athletic feats on the cricket ground later on, in spite of his increasingly portly frame.
However, as he grew in height, the original loop of his leg-breaks went missing and he did not really remain the promising bowler. The 65 First-Class wickets in his career came at an expensive 51.21.
In 1948, Bryan Valentine, the Kent captain, came down to Tonbridge to play against the school. Knott, a close friend, coaxed him to take an interest in Cowdrey. Valentine’s successor David Clarke required less persuasion. Cowdrey was soon accosted by Knott on his bicycle and was told that he had been invited to play several matches for Kent Young Amateurs. The young man scored 157 against Sussex, 87 against Middlesex and 79 against Surrey.
The year 1949 was equally successful, with one delightful memory. He was summoned from class to play for Denis Compton’s XI in one of his benefit games at Horsmonden in the Kent weald. Cowdrey shared a partnership of 120 with Compton during which he played one exquisite cover drive. While walking back to the pavilion together, the great England batsman told the young lad, “One day you must teach me that shot.”
The First-Class cricketer
Cowdrey made his debut for Kent in August 1950, playing against Derbyshire and scoring 15 and 26. It was during this game that he received his first bouncer in cricket from Derby fast bowler, Les Jackson. He played four matches that season without major success, but with enough promise to ensure sustained interest of the county side.
The following summer he won a place at Bresnoe College, Oxford, to read Geography on a Heath Harrison Exhibition worth £60 per year. He spent the interim period turning out for Kent, not really making heads turn. The swing of Derek Shackleton and Vic Cannings had him struggling at Southampton. However, due to a forced three week break due to a stiffening of the joints in his big toes – an affliction to follow him all career – Cowdrey was able to give a lot of thought to his technique. He returned to score 71 against the visiting South Africans and then 106 for the Gentlemen against Players at Scarborough, negotiating Alec Bedser and Tom Prichard with aplomb. The innings was watched closely by the captain of the Players, Len Hutton.
His years in Oxford saw some magnificent personal milestones, but sadly the University side did not win a single match during the period. Cambridge had a much better line up with Peter May, Raman Subba Row and David Sheppard in their ranks. However, the battles Cowdrey lodged with the rival university team turned out to be classics. Besides, he did himself no harm in getting that 116 at Lord’s against Cambridge and, more importantly perhaps, an undefeated 85 against Yorkshire while once again Hutton watched from close quarters.
By 1953, he had been honoured with the Cricket Writer’s Young Player of the Year Award. That same year, with Bill Murray-Wood not that successful, Kent’s captaincy changed hands. The replacement, Doug Wright, was plagued with injuries and hence Cowdrey led Kent for the first time in a few games.
But, while he excelled for Oxford in 1954, his form for Kent remained dodgy. Hence, he was not really nurturing much hope while Kent played Surrey at Blackheath. He was crossing to his car after the match during the six-o’clock news when suddenly horns began to blow and some members shouted to him, “You’re on the boat Collin.” Given that Tony Lock and Jim Laker of Surrey had not been picked, Cowdrey sensed a hostile atmosphere and disappeared as quickly as possible.
The first tour
Although Hutton was impressed with Cowdrey, it was Gubby Allen’s vote of confidence that had won him a place in the touring party. Hutton valued Allen’s judgement. However, when Vic Wilson of Yorkshire was added to the squad as a possible insurance against Compton’s knee problem, Hutton bet Allen £1 that Wilson would average more than Cowdrey.
In Australia 55, Alan Ross wrote, “Cowdrey was perhaps fortunate on 1954 form to get a place, but anyone who saw him in 1953 could hardly doubt that he is a vintage player, mature beyond his years … Jim Parks was the probable alternative, but Cowdrey is to him as burgundy to a sparkling hock and on a tour of this kind body is preferable to fizz.”
While boarding SS Orsova, Hutton drew Ernest Cowdrey aside and assured him that he would keep an eye on young Collin. He did much more than that.
Cowdrey, shy, diffident and sensitive, kept a low profile, remaining in his cabin and spending time with his room-mate and vice-captain Peter May. When the ship docked in Colombo, he enjoyed a fluent innings of 66 not out. When Ernest Cowdrey heard the news of his son’s success on the radio, he ran upstairs to fetch a pen to make a note of his scores. Within a few minutes of his return to his chair, he suffered a massive heart attack and died almost instantly. On board the ship Cowdrey received a cable which read, “Congratulations on our innings. Happy landings tomorrow. Regret father not too well. All at home.” The misgivings that plagued him turned out to be true when the second missive was awaiting him at the team hotel, informing him of his father’s death.
Deciding that it would be futile to leave the tour for the funeral, a depressed Cowdrey retired to his room. Condolences followed, including one message from Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies: “You have the heartfelt sympathy of everyone in Australia.” His teammates offered their commiserations. After dinner over coffee in the lounge that a tearful Hutton came up to him and said, “I’m sorry.” It meant a lot to the young man. From then on, the captain and manager Geoff Howard painstakingly ensured that the lad was kept fully occupied. This meant some exquisite nuggets of wisdom from the captain which were lapped up by the eager youngster.
It was against New South Wales that Cowdrey made his first impression, scoring 110 alongside Hutton’s 102 with the rest of the batting managing 40 between themselves. When England batted in the second innings, Hutton asked him to open. He was 38 not out overnight when he was walking out to bat and was handed an unsigned cable that read, “See 1 Kings 18:34.” He made his second century in the match that morning. A few days later, when preparing his laundry, he remembered the note and looked up the Bible to find the corresponding passage: “The Lord said to Elijah, ‘Do it a second time.’”
The tour moved to Brisbane. As he walked out to bat against a threatening Lindwall and Miller at 11 for three on his Test debut, Miller murmured, “Rough time for a young fellow to come in, good luck to you.” And promptly he gave him the hostile treatment. However, Cowdrey fought with enough composure to score 40 before being unluckily given out caught in the slips off his boot. England suffered heavy defeat.
He came of age in the second Test played at Sydney. England conceded a lead of 74 and were 55 for three when Cowdrey walked out to join May at the wicket. Another wicket and the game was as good as Australia’s and so was perhaps the series. And the two young men batted with exemplary temperament. According to Ross, “One upright flowing and lithe, the other powerful with the gentleness of strength. May split the air with the noise of his strokes, Cowdrey the field with his ease of timing.”
Cowdrey scored 54 before being caught off Benaud, and walked off indulging in terrible self-criticism. But, May’s century ensured a target of 223 and Frank Tyson sprinted in to secure a famous win by 38 runs.
In the third Test at Melbourne, Miller produced one of the best spells of fast bowling ever seen, with figures of 9-8-5-3 before lunch. And Cowdrey stood alone, piercing the cover field constantly, scoring a superb103 out of a total of 191. England won again through the explosive brilliance of Tyson.
At Adelaide, Cowdrey was engaged in a painstaking partnership with Compton when a round of severe barracking made him play a couple of rash strokes. Hutton sent in the twelfth man Wilson with a couple of bananas in the pockets of his blazer. At Cowdrey’s confounded enquiry, Wilson responded, “Well, skipper thought you might be hungry. He watched you play a couple of wild shots just now. It rather suggested that he is keen for you to stay out here batting a little longer. Get your head down.” Cowdrey made 79. England won again, and Hutton, never one to part with money lightly, happily paid that wagered £1 to Allen.
The rising young batsman
Having returned from Australia, Cowdrey reported to the RAF base at Cardington, Bedfordshire. He was eager to complete the two years of National Service as soon as possible. By the end of the month, however, he was examined by two orthopaedic specialists and discharged from service because of his troublesome toe joints.
This sparked off some controversy, with Willie Hamilton, the Labour MP for West Fife lamenting “If he is fit to undertake a tour of Australia, surely he is fit to peel spuds in the RAF.” The excellent form with the bat with which Cowdrey started the 1955 season for Kent also lent fuel to the fire. As a 21-year-old with excellent moral convictions, Cowdrey found this a heavy and unkind burden. However, after meeting him, Sir Gerald Nabarro, the fiery conservative MP for South Worcestershire, accepted that Cowdrey had no case to answer.
During the home summer, Cowdrey did have a tough time against Adcock and Heine of South Africa. His fingers were struck and damaged. It led him worked on his technique, making sure that by the next season he was right up there with the best to tackle fast bowling.
When the Australians came over in 1956, with England still looking for a successor to Hutton, Cowdrey was pushed up the order to open. He did not enjoy the role, and had a sketchy series, two sparkling knocks punctuated with failures. Another aspect of his nature was exploited by the Australians under Johnson. At Lord’s, Peter Burge was placed extremely close to the bat at silly mid-on, and Cowdrey was unsettled with the thought that he would kill the fielder if he struck him. He prodded forward hesitantly and was soon out leg-before.
After the cricket was over for the summer, Cowdrey got married to Penny Chiesman, daughter of his employer Stuart Chiesman. They had met in Canterbury in 1951during her visit to watch Kent in action. The ceremony took place at St Nichol’s Church, Chislehurst, and they were joined in wedlock by the Lord Bishop of Rochester Dr Christopher Chavasse, abetted by Rev. David Sheppard, with Peter May as the best man. The four hundred guests, full of the best names of English cricket, also contained Ian Craig and Len Maddocks from the Australian touring party.
The winter against Heine and Adcock in South Africa was arduous. Cowdrey found them faster and more of a handful than Lindwall and Miller at that time because of their extra pace and bounce. In the second Test at Cape Town, he opened against them and scored a six-hour hundred. In the second innings, he delighted the English players and the crowd with some fantastic strokeplay which got him 61 in a stand of 87 with Denis Compton. Very few batsmen could claim to have dominated a stand with Compton in that manner. However, after this spark of dominating batsmanship, he went strangely into his shell.
May and manager Freddie Brown had special sessions with Cowdrey to persuade him to take on the off-spinner Tayfield. At Durban, he even hit him for an effortless six over long-on. But, soon he went back to his defensive ways, playing off maiden after maiden. This would not be the first time that England would be deprived of the champion batsman in Cowdrey when they needed him most, having to make do with a pale shadow of brilliance. In Cape Summer Ross wrote, “There were moments when one wanted to send him out a double Scotch and instruct him to take the cotton wool off his bat and really hit it. He played always andante: more often it should have been con brio.”
Returning home, Cowdrey worked on his game once again to add the lofted on-drive to his repertoire.
While in South Africa, Cowdrey also received a cable from Kent asking if he would succeed Doug Wright as captain. After consulting with Godfrey Evans, he consented. Thus began a decade and a half at the helm of the county.
The start of the 1957 season marked the arrival of the West Indian team, in an effort to repeat the success of 1950. In the first Test at Edgbaston, England were humiliated in the first innings by Sonny Ramadhin, being shot out for 186. With a monumental deficit of 288, they lost three wickets for 113 when Cowdrey joined May. The two thrust their pads forward, playing Ramadhin as an off-spinner and negated the effectiveness of the canny tweaker. The two remained together for 520 minutes, and an estimated 1146 deliveries. That makes it the second longest stand ever in terms of deliveries after the 1152 ball association between Glenn Turner and Terry Jarvis for 387 at Georgetown in 1971. The stand amounted to a fourth wicket world record of 411 before Cowdrey was caught at mid-on for 154. May progressed to 285 not out and the match ended in a draw with the once dominant West Indians struggling at 72 for seven in the second innings.
Cowdrey followed up the legendary knock with a splendid 152 at Lord’s, 55 at Nottingham and 68 at Leeds. By now he was obviously the best batsman in England along with May. Yet, the weight of expectation continued to torment him and critics picked on him for not being able to repeat the international heroics for Kent.
By the time the 1958-59 tour to Australia came about, Cowdrey had been named May’s deputy. It was a terrible tour for the Englishmen who had been touted as favourites. Riddled with throwing controversies surrounding Ian Meckiff and Gordon Rorke, the England cricketers were unhappy on field and discontent off it. Manager Freddie Brown and captain Peter May were rigid about the embargo on Staurday night revelry and other fun events. Cowdrey was not assertive enough to stand against them for the team. There was a feeling that the amateur professional rift had returned in full force.
Cowdrey did get a six hour century in Sydney and a fighting 84 at Adelaide, but nothing else went right. The end result was 4-0 in favour of Australia. Yet, in the final Test at Melbourne, against the beautiful and blemishless action of the recalled Ray Lindwall, there were some superb strokes which earned Cowdrey 46 before he was run out. This battle was perhaps the most enjoyable phase of the tour for the spectators.
The caretaker captain
Back home, Cowdrey struck form with 250 against Essex at Blackheath and followed it up with 160 against the Indian team at Leeds. With May seriously ill, he was asked to take charge at The Oval, and in spite of some controversy regarding an unenforced follow on and some panic due to hundreds by Abbas Ali Baig and Polly Umrigar, the match ended in a win.
In the next few years that followed, Cowdrey’s class was seldom questioned – and in case of occasional queries, the answers were provided with careful rigour. Rattled by the pace of Wes Hall and Chester Watson in West Indies in 1959-60, he responded by being sewn into a vest of Dunlopillo padding which stretched from neck to waist. Thus cushioned, he went on to score 114 and 97 at Kingston and ended the series with 119 at Port of Spain.
Elevated to captaincy by the unavailability of May against South Africa in 1960, he struggled in the first few Tests before hitting a masterly 67 at Nottingham and ending the series with 155 at The Oval.
When he was forced to hand the captaincy back to May after some ordinary outings with the bat and some uninspiring show on the field by his men in the Ashes series against Australia in 1961, he roared back to form with a splendid 93 on a difficult wicket at Leeds.
Unable to travel to India and Pakistan in 1961-62 because of personal issues, he hammered two huge hundreds when Pakistan visited in 1962. Dexter captained the first two Tests against Pakistan and Cowdrey the third. It was a curious way to select a captain for the forthcoming tour of Australia. A third option was Sheppard, who had his own set of backers. However, in the end, Dexter led the side with Cowdrey as his deputy.
The 1962-63 tour of Australia was his most impressive series in the land till date. He not only scored 113 at Melbourne and remained consistent through the series, he also hammered 307 against South Australia at Adelaide, the highest score by a tourist in the land, beating Frank Woolley’s 305 against Tasmania in 1911-12. However, as on the previous tour, there were tell-tale signs that he was not quite assertive when it came to airing his views as vice-captain. His stature remained that of a caretaker captain stepping into the breach as and when required.
The summer of 1963 was rendered memorable not because of his batting feats but an act of utmost bravery. In the great Test at Lord’s Cowdrey had his elbow broken by a Wes Hall thunderbolt. However, in the pulsating last moments of the game, he went in as the last man, left-arm in plaster, ready to bat left-handed if necessary. Two balls remained with five runs to score when he joined David Allen at the wicket, and stood at the non-striker’s end as the off-spinner somehow negotiated a couple of straight cannon-balls of Hall.
The arm took more time to heal than expected, and even though Dexter was unavailable for the tour of India, Cowdrey could not step in to lead the side. As a result, the captaincy was handed to MJK Smith. With the Englishmen laid low by injuries and stomach bugs on the tour, Cowdrey was rushed in. And he scores 107 at Calcutta and 151 at Delhi. But, even after this near fairy-tale return he was criticised for not forcing the pace.
Smith retained the captaincy for the Ashes series at home and Cowdrey had to do with performing acts of note on the field. At The Oval, he caught Neil Hawke off Fred Trueman to give the Yorkshire fast bowler his 300th wicket. In the same Test, he scored 93 not out, in the process becoming only the seventh man in history to score 5000 runs in Tests.
And when Smith led the team to the last tour of South Africa before the country’s isolation, Cowdrey opted out because of increasing responsibilities towards his family. His second son Graham had just been born.
At the wicket his brilliance continued. The Trent Bridge Test against South Africa in 1965 saw two sublime innings. Graeme Pollock hit 125 on a pitch dreadful for batting and Cowdrey replied with 105. But, the desire to lead England on a tour to Australia remained elusive. He was appointed vice-captain yet again for the 1965-66 tour, this deputy to Smith.
He batted like a dream, especially while scoring 104 at Melbourne. The series returns of 267 runs at 53.40 spoke of vintage brilliance. But, he was now in his mid-thirties and chances of his ever becoming more than a caretaker captain looked increasingly bleak.
Full time skipper
However, when Smith was axed after England’s abject surrender to West Indies at the start of the 1966 series, Cowdrey was handed the reins.
Unfortunately, he ran into the genius of Sobers at the very peak of his powers. His captaincy was criticised for allowing Sobers and David Holford to escape with a draw at Lord’s. The next two Tests saw rather disappointing defeats and Cowdrey himself failed disastrously at Leeds. After 12 years of permanence in the side, the man from Kent was dropped. Brian Close was appointed the new captain and England won at The Oval by an innings.
The next year, aided by visits of India and Pakistan, Close led England to five wins out of six Tests. Banished from the Test side, Cowdrey remained occupied in leading Kent to the Gillette Cup win, and also guided them to some excellent showing in the championship.
But, the tables turned once again. With Close clearly the popular choice, an incident at Edgbaston brought Cowdrey back in the reckoning. Close’s tough, uncompromising Yorkshire style of leadership was overdone when Warwickshire was denied the opportunity to win through some time wasting tactics. Pulled up by MCC, Close refused to apologise. This resulted in the somewhat harsh measure of his losing the England captaincy. Cowdrey, in decent form during the season, was chosen as skipper for the tour of West Indies.
Cowdrey prepared for the tour with zeal. He arranged a two day squad session at Crystal Palace in late November, something of a novelty for those times. Strategies were discussed, and a nucleus of the team was identified.
The tour started with excellent success for Cowdrey, with 72 in the first Test and 101 in the second. There was a painful hiccup off the field. Fred Titmus lost several toes while out swimming, his foot mangled by the propeller of their boat. It did not help matters that the steering wheel was at that time being manoeuvred by Mrs. Cowdrey. However, the off-spinner was soon on his way to recovery and the team was able to put the incident behind themselves.
In the fourth Test at Port of Spain, Cowdrey hit 148 in the first innings, but England had to make do with a deficit of 122. And then, Sobers infamously declared at 92 for two, setting a target of 215 in 165 minutes. After some serious egging on by Tom Graveney and Geoff Boycott, Cowdrey went for the runs. He himself contributed a quick 71 in an hour and a quarter, and England triumphed by seven wickets. John Woodcock observed, “He had outmanoeuvred his opposite number and batted when it mattered in his finest style.”
It was the only result of the series, and Cowdrey returned to England in triumph, prompting the Guardian to write, “Never has Cowdrey been more superb.”
England failed to win the Ashes in 1968, but the series was full of highlights for Cowdrey. He scored 104 at Birmingham, achieving the unique feat of scoring a century in his 100th Test. At Lord’s he broke Hammond’s record of 110 Test catches. Later, it was mainly due to Cowdrey’s charm and entreaties that the entire crowd helped the groundsmen dry the waterlogged ground at The Oval to enable England complete a tense victory and square the series.
Yet, there were controversies surrounding the omission of Basil D’Oliveira from the squad to tour South Africa even after the superb 158 at The Oval. In his autobiography, Cowdrey later cited cricketing reasons, why a full tie medium pacer was more important in South Africa than a batsman who could bowl part-time medium pace. However, given that Keith Fletcher made it to the squad in spite of his glaringly inferior figures made this sound like an excuse poorly thought through.
Although later D’Oliveira was included in the side when Tom Cartwright dropped out, and subsequently the tour was cancelled, it was not the end of his problems. Cowdrey had to lead England to a tour of Pakistan riddled with political demonstrations, riots and crowd problems. He scored a sublime hundred at Lahore, but once again it seemed that the required assertiveness was lacking in the gifted and charming man. He was letting his players down when they expected the skipper to put his foot for their cause. Cowdrey still subscribed to old world views of fairplay associated with cricket diplomacy and relationships. The local political conditions of Pakistan were making a mockery of his deep cherished beliefs about the game and its capacity for the greater good.
Tragedy struck in the summer of 1969. On May 25, the day Cowdrey had been appointed captain of England for the summer, Kent hosted Glamorgan at Maidstone in a Sunday game. Cowdrey went on the backfoot to turn Malcolm Nash to the leg side and set off for a sharp single. He slipped on the wet surface and a loud crack was heard, distinctly audible around the ground. His Achilles tendon had been snapped.
His replacement, Ray Illingworth, was neither a regular Test player nor an experienced captain. But, the Yorkshireman proved to be a competent leader, winning the series against West Indies and New Zealand, and then performing well against the Rest of the World in 1970. The selectors decided to keep him for the job for the Ashes tour in 1970-71. When Alec Bedser conveyed the news to Cowdrey he was most apologetic. Once again Cowdrey travelled to Australia as the vice-captain.
The tour was miserable for the aging batsman. Not only did the captain and vice-captain not see eye to eye, Cowdrey failed dismally as a batsman, spilled several catches and was even dropped from the side. The Ashes were won, but the great batsman came back disheartened and broken. He was no longer considered for England.
In 1970, Cowdrey led Kent to the Championship. And then he passed on the leadership of a very strong Kent side, with stars like Derek Underwood, Alan Knott, Asif Iqbal, to Mike Denness.
He kept playing the game, reaching his 100th century against Surrey in July 1973. He was given a guard of honour at the pavilion steps by his teammates. Later, during Canterbury week, he was photographed with two other Kent masters who had performed the feat, Les Ames and Frank Woolley.
The final fling
And then came the twist in the tale. As England struggled against Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee in Australia in the 1974-75 season, captain Denness made an urgent phone call. Cowdrey, a few days shy of his 42nd birthday, was asked if he would like to help out. And the veteran batsman replied that he would love to.
Cowdrey got off the plane after a 47-hour journey, had nets early in the morning and late in the afternoon to evade the sun, sharpened his slip catching wearing batting gloves to preserve the joints, and wrapped himself in foam. And then he proceeded to face the terror twins at Perth, getting behind the line of the ball as impeccably as ever, and shaking Thomson by the hand and introducing himself. He did not exactly set the grounds on fire, but did exceedingly well to withstand the fire of the two pace bowlers.
He retired the following summer, but not before scoring 151 to lead Kent to a stunning win against the Australians at Canterbury.
The other facets of his game
As a batsman, he had few peers when it came to the purity of technique and refinement of strokeplay. His methods have already been discussed.
In the field, he became a close-in fielder by chance and circumstance. He held a couple of good catches in the slips during his first tour to Australia and remained a fixture there. Given his lack of pace across the outfield and his weak throwing arm, it was logical for him to be placed close in. He stood low, well positioned, following Hammond’s axiom that any slip should be so well-positioned that he never got green stains on his trousers. He crouched at the final moment, giving him every opportunity to detect the flight of the ball, and moved with his knees, keeping his head absolutely still. He seldom dropped any, and held some that were spectacular.
As a captain, he was prone to be indecisive, perhaps incapable of inspiring players. Alas, he was a man who had to be coaxed towards his crowning glory, to go for the runs at Port of Spain in 1968.
He had the charm and personality to enthral and engage audiences during dinner speeches, was a splendid ambassador for the country on tours. He made an appearance whenever required. He turned up regularly even during the Ashes tour of 1970-71, when Illingworth, subscribing to cricket before niceties, refused to make speeches or attend social occasions.
Cowdrey was perhaps in the line of Lord Harris and Percy Chapman, amateur to his fingertips, arriving to matches in his Jaguar, in full splendour of blazer and flannels, often at the last minute. He always had time and thought to spare for the younger members. Derek Underwood would never forget the way he invited his parents in secret on the day he decided to give the young left-arm spinner his county cap. But, as a ruthless England captain, he did have his limitations. He was more of a skipper in pastoral capacity, taking care of his parish with kindness and good cheer, rather than the conqueror leading his army to win at all cost.
Post cricketing days
In public life he was charm personified, never short of kindness and benevolence, going out of his way to help people from every walk of life. He especially revelled in encouraging young cricketers. Looked upon as the ideal Englishman, it came as a shock when in 1978 he left his wife for Lady Herries, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. But, with time, this new relationship was accepted and they got married in 1986. The children, siding with the mother during the initial period of separation, later resumed ties with him, nurturing the common thread of cricket.
In 1984, working as a PR man for Barclays, Cowdrey was listening to the radio in his car, when debutant Chris Cowdrey scalped Kapil Dev in his very first over in Test cricket. In his excitement, he took a wrong exit from a roundabout and was flagged down by a police officer as he went down a one-way street. When the circumstances were known and young Cowdrey’s success was discussed, the policeman said, “That’s fantastic, we’d better get you out of here.”
In 1986, Cowdrey became president of MCC for the bicentenary year. For a man known to be indecisive during his captaincy days, he was a rather dynamic administrator and heralded a lot of radical changes the august body is not really renowned for. A bypass operation did not allow him to attend the function for the celebratory bicentennial match. But, Cowdrey sent a message that said, “Keep cricket a happy game.”
He was also appointed chairman of the International Cricket Council in 1989, and remained in that post until 1993. In 1992, he was knighted for his services to the game.
Four years after he resigned the post as chairman of ICC, he was named a life peer by cricket loving Prime Minister John Major. Baron Cowdrey of Tonbridge was only the second cricketer after Leary Constantine to be elevated to the House of Lords.
His first speech in the Lords was delivered from the Conservative benches and was watched by John Major and the Archbishop of Canterbury. While the Archbishop confessed he was surprised by the power and confidence of Cowdrey’s oration, Major sent him a note which read: “Wonderful. A debut century that had class written all over it.” Cowdrey was pleased, but it is said that he never quite bestrode the Lords in the way he bestrode Lord’s.
His last great service to the game was to initiate the inclusion of “The Spirit of Cricket” in the Preamble to the 2000 Code of Laws. The MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture is an annual and one of the most prestigious events of the cricket calendar.
Cowdrey passed away in December 2000. Nine years later, he was posthumously inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame.
(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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