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Jack Cowie: New Zealand’s first bowling superstar

Back row, from left: Ces Burke (12th man), Tom Burtt. Middle row: Bert Sutcliffe, Roy Scott, Colin Snedden, Verdun Scott, Don Taylor, Jack Kerr (selector). Front row: Eric Tindill, Jack Cowie, Walter Hadlee (c), Mervyn Wallace, Brun Smith.
Back row, from left: Ces Burke (12th man), Tom Burtt. Middle row: Bert Sutcliffe, Roy Scott, Colin Snedden, Verdun Scott, Don Taylor, Jack Kerr (selector). Front row: Eric Tindill, Jack Cowie, Walter Hadlee (c), Mervyn Wallace, Brun Smith. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jack Cowie was born on March 30, 1912. Had he been born at the right place in the right time, he might have been remembered today as one of the greatest bowlers in history. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of New Zealand cricket’s earliest superstars.

Jack Cowie played for (a) New Zealand (b) from 1937 to 1949 (c) only against Australia (a solitary Test) and England and (d) he lost crucial years of his career to the Second World War. Change one of the parameters, and he would probably have been remembered as one of the greatest cricketers in history.

Instead, he had to be content with the tag of one of New Zealand’s earliest superstars. Given that his numbers read 45 wickets from nine Tests (these were the only Tests New Zealand had played during the era) at 21.53 and a strike rate of 45.0 one can only imagine the heights his numbers would have reached had he had a proper career. “[Richard] Hadlee is the only NZ [New Zealand] pace bowler who may have been superior [to Cowie], and he had vastly greater opportunities,” wrote Wisden.

To put things into perspective, if we put a 40-wicket restriction, Cowie has the best average among all New Zealand bowlers (ahead of Richard Hadlee and Shane Bond; they are the only three with a sub-25 average) and the second-best strike rate (after Bond; Hadlee had a strike rate of 50.8). His performances were all the more incredible given the fact that he never played Test cricket on the winning side. Wisden wrote: “A couple of generations later his [Cowie’s] career might have been very different.”

What was Cowie like? Len Hutton had mentioned that Cowie had “terrific pace off the pitch, a forked-lightning off-break and lift and swing away from the right-hand batsman.” He would have known: he was, after all, dismissed by Cowie four times in seven Tests; and it was not only Hutton. Cowie had troubled the best of batsmen with his mysterious movement off the pitch at a deceptive pace.

Cowie never had a middle name, and was, for whatever reason, referred to as JA. His other (and more appropriate) nickname was Bull. Wisden wrote: “His trademark [Cowie’s] was a hand-raised appeal-cum-roar of ‘Aaaaaat?’, though his next remark to the umpire could be: ‘You know, I reckon it’s getting a bit chilly. D’you think I could have my sweater?”

First-Class cricket in New Zealand was sporadic in the era; Cowie had managed to play only 86 First-Class matches with a haul of 359 wickets at 22.28 with 20 five-fors and a ten-for; only 42 of these were played on home soil. He never got the First-Class experience some of his contemporaries had. “Had he [Cowie] been an Australian, he might have been termed a wonder of the age,” wrote Wisden editor Wilfrid Brookes.

Early days

Cowie was born in Devonport, Auckland of Elizabeth Cromb Roach and Andrew Cowie (a grocer). He was a frequenter at the Devonport Domain ground, helping Ces Dacre with the rolling; Dacre, who had toured England with New Zealand in 1927, had a substantial career with Gloucestershire. Cowie started off for Devonport School as a leg-spinner but changed to fast-medium later.

He joined the Mount Albert Grammar School and subsequently the Takapuna Grammar School. He played for the Auckland Under-21s at an age of 14 and was called for overstepping six times. He got his action corrected, and had apparently bowled only two in his entire First-Class career.

The 20-year old Cowie made his debut in a Plunket Shield match against Otago at Dunedin; he bowled only four overs, and did not get a match for two years. On his comeback match against Canterbury at Lancaster Park he impressed with figures of three for 53 and three for 66.

Fiercely competitive matches were hard to come by in those days; Cowie had to wait till 1936-37 for his maiden five-wicket haul: as Wellington amassed 445 at Eden Park, Cowie returned a haul of five for 81. When Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) played New Zealand at Basin Reserve next month, Cowie managed to get Wally Hammond out cheaply. He finished the season with 21 wickets at 14.90, and was an obvious choice for New Zealand’s 1937 tour of England.

Test debut

It was on the England tour that Cowie found international recognition. He finished with 114 wickets at 19.95 and a strike rate of 45.3 on the tour; four other New Zealanders — Jack Dunning, Norman Gallichan, Sonny Moloney, and Alby Roberts — had all gone past the 50-wicket mark, but none of them had numbers comparable to Cowie’s.

The New Zealanders were not expected to create a big impact on the tour, but they did: Merv Wallace, Moloney, Walter Hadlee, and Martin Donnelly captured the imagination of the locals with the bat; Curly Page with his astute leadership skills; and Cowie, thanks to his destructive bowling.

 

Oxford University became his first prey: Cowie returned figures of six for 50 and three for 70; the batsmen let him down against Lancashire and Derbyshire, though he picked up 11 wickets from the two matches. As the first Test at Lord’s approached, there was no doubt that Cowie would be the spearhead of the attack.

England had two debutant opening batsmen in the form of Jim Parks and Hutton; Cowie bowled Hutton first for a duck, and followed up by bowling Parks as well. He also bowled Charlie Barnett, but England still managed to reach 424 thanks to a 245-run third-wicket partnership between Joe Hardstaff junior and Hammond, both of whom scored hundreds. Cowie finished with four for 118.

After the tourists were bowled out for 295, Cowie struck again, removing Hutton for one and Parks for seven. The middle-order hit out, Cowie finished with two for 49, and set to bat four hours to save the match, Wallace and John Kerr saved the Test for them. In the very next match he helped his side to a win against Somerset at Taunton with figures of three for 66 and five for 60.

At Old Trafford, England batted first again; Hutton survived Cowie’s first spell and scored a hundred; Cowie picked up four for 73 (including Charlie Barnett, Eddie Paynter, Arthur Wellard, and Walter Robins) but could not help the hosts from piling up 358 and acquire a 77-run lead.

What followed was an outstanding performance from a man bowling for the then “minnows” of world cricket against a formidable line-up. Wisden wrote: “He [Cowie] always bowled at the stumps and considering he was sometimes handicapped by the slow pitch and wet ball, his was a masterly performance.”

His six for 67 included the likes of Hutton (again), Hammond, Hardstaff junior, and Robins. He had reduced England to 75 for seven at one stage before Les Ames and Freddie Brown bailed them out as New Zealand was “plagued by dropped chances.” Set to chase 265 a demoralised New Zealand collapsed to 134.

Cowie delivered another victory for his side before the third Test at The Oval, this time against Essex at Chelmsford with three for 56 and five for 66. The third Test ended in a draw with Cowie returning a match haul of three for 88.

The Cowie juggernaut continued: three for 46 and five for 36 against Combined Services at Portsmouth; four for 88 and three for 70 against Kent at Canterbury; four for 41 and three for 38 against Sussex at Hove; three for 105 and four for 57 against England XI at Folkestone; and finally, a near-absurd career-best of 8-5-3-6 (all batsmen were bowled for ducks) to bowl out Ireland for 30 at Dublin. Wisden called this spell “well-nigh unplayable.”

An expensive wicket

On their way back home, the Kiwis had a short detour of their trans-Tasman neighbours. Against South Australia at Adelaide Oval New Zealand were bowled out for 151 and the hosts were 64 for two at stumps with Don Bradman on 11. A huge crowd had turned up to watch their hero in action against a fast bowler they had heard of: the contest was expected to be a mouth-watering one.

Cowie’s first ball to Bradman took the edge and went straight into Eric Tindill’s gloves. As the great man walked back, so did the spectators, and the spectators supposed to come in during the afternoon did not. It was a bittersweet experience for Cowie: on one hand he had dismissed the greatest batsman in contemporary cricket; on the other he had robbed the squad of money with that one delivery.

Wisden wrote: “The crowds found another way to spend Saturday in an era when the visitors’ tour income depended on their share of the gate. NZCC treasurer Sammy Luttrell took (Doug) Cowie and keeper Tindill aside when they came home to tell them they owed NZCC £1,000!”

Cowie rounded off the tour with four for 76 and two for 27 against New South Wales [he bowled Stan McCabe in each innings — for 12 and a duck). Once back home Auckland thrashed Otago at Eden Park. Once again Cowie was the hero with a match haul of seven for 130, but he did something else as well.

After Otago scored 259 they had got Auckland down to 338 for nine when Cowie joined Bill Carson; Auckland already had a lead, but they needed to extend it; and Cowie, the quintessential no. 11, a man with no pretention whatsoever of being a batsman, got going.

Carson and Cowie added 119 for the last wicket — still a tenth-wicket record for Auckland. Carson finished on an unbeaten 108, but to the delight of the home crowd Cowie went on to score 54, his only First-Class fifty. Unfortunately, when he was just at his prime, The War happened and took away what could have been the best years of his career.

Post-War

Cowie was almost 34 when Plunket Shield resumed, and he celebrated his comeback when four for 77 and three for 16 against Canterbury at Lancaster Park. The Australians came along that season — sans Bradman — to play a solitary Test at Basin Reserve.

Hadlee decided to bat, and in 39 overs Bill O’Reilly (five for 14) and Ernie Toshack (four for 15) bowled out the hosts for 42. Asked to bowl against the wind after Don McRae, Cowie shattered debutant Ken Meuleman’s stumps in his first over. He could also have had the stand-in captain Bill Brown who was dropped on 13 off his bowling.

Brown and Sid Barnes then added 109 for the second wicket, but once they fell (Cowie bowled Barnes) our hero scythed through the middle-order, removing the formidable quartet of Lindsay Hassett, Colin McCool, Don Tallon, and Ray Lindwall and finished with figures of 21-8-40-6.

Brown declared with a 157-run lead, Toshack (two for six) and O’Reilly (three for 19) led the rout once again, and New Zealand were bowled out for 54 in 32.2 overs.

England came over a year later: the solitary Test at Lancaster Park was not washed out despite the addition of an extra day; Cowie batted at nine (something that certainly did not speak very highly of the New Zealand side) and scored a Test best of 45. Hadlee declared at 345 for nine and rain came down with England on 265 for seven.

Of course, Cowie had his customary bit of glory, accounting for six of the seven English wickets for the cost of 83 runs. The scalps included the likes of Hammond (in his last Test innings), Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, and Cyril Washbrook. When ICC calculated their rankings for the past in retrospective, it was found out that Cowie became the first New Zealand bowler to reach the top ICC ranking among Test bowlers after this Test; Richard Hadlee is the only New Zealand bowler to have emulated him. At this stage his career read 31 wickets from five Tests at an average of 16.70 and a strike rate of 36.9.

The final England tour

Cowie was 37 when he took his final tour of England. New Zealand impressed the world by drawing all four Tests; despite being past his prime and having cut down his pace Cowie was still the spearhead of the attack. He finished with a mere 14 wickets from four Tests at 32.21 (quite average by his lofty standards), but still finished only after Tom Burtt and Trevor Bailey. Wisden wrote that Cowie’s figures did him “far less than justice”.

He started the series with a haul of five for 127 at Headingley, and it seemed that day that the golden days of 1937 would be back. Cowie was, as per Wisden, “the only bowler who presented England with any serious problem” on that day. However, he was never the same bowler anymore, and the “minor strains” that kept him out for three weeks during the tour did not help either.

Despite all that, Cowie still bowled better than almost anyone in the series, but it was evident that he was nowhere close to the form of 1937. He bowed out of Test cricket with four for 123 in his final Test innings at The Oval. He finished the tour with 59 wickets at 27.14.

Cowie played only one First-Class match thereafter, for Auckland against the touring Australians the following New Zealand summer. He picked up two for 59 before hanging up his boots for good.

Post-retirement

 

Cowie had joined the insurance sector at 21. He was transferred to Wellington by Australasian Temperance and General Mutual Life Assurance Society soon after his First-Class career ended; he did not return, and had a 47-year long career. He had married Nyrie Wallen at Auckland on September 12, 1936; the couple went on to have two daughters (Janet and Sue), and two grandchildren.

He also went on to become an umpire, and stood in the 1955-56 West Indies Test at Lancaster Park and the 1958-59 England Tests at Lancaster Park and Eden Park. In between, he also stood for two unofficial “Tests” when Ian Craig’s Australians toured New Zealand.

From his early days, Cowie had been a keen footballer, playing as the Auckland goalkeeper for in 1933, 1938, and 1939. He later went on to become a member of the New Zealand Football Association (NZFA) for 14 years, and remained their Chairman from 1967 to 1974. Wisden wrote: “He (Cowie) was a stickler for the national soccer team retaining their black-with-silver-fern colours; after he retired, they became the All Whites.”

Cowie was awarded an OBE for services to cricket in 1972 and was made a life member of NZFA in 1976. He was also a delegate to Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and managed several New Zealand touring teams on overseas tours.

He passed away at Lower Hutt, Wellington on June 3, 1994 at 82 years 65 days.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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