Colin Cowdrey batting in the 1968 Ashes series. Keeping wickets is Barry Jarman © Getty Images
Colin Cowdrey batting in the 1968 Ashes series. Keeping wickets is Barry Jarman © Getty Images

On July 11, 1968 Colin Cowdrey became the first player to play a hundred Tests. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a milestone celebrated in the grandest possible fashion at Edgbaston.

It was fitting that the first person to play a hundred Tests would have the initials MCC. It was also fitting that he would end up having a name as grand as Michael Colin Cowdrey, Baron Cowdrey of Tonbridge, CBE later in his life.

By the time the 1968 Ashes began, the focus of the entire world of cricket was on Cowdrey. England were thrashed by a 159-margin at Old Trafford; they almost pulled things back at Lord’s but Australia managed to get off with a draw due to rain.

Cowdrey had already gone past Godfrey Evans’s world record of 91 Tests. The Lord’s Test was his 99th and the build-up for the hundredth Test was enormous. Running a feature on the milestone two days before the landmark The Canberra Times wrote “Cowdrey has no thoughts of an early retirement and he could well push this figure up to around 150.”

Injury, then glory

Day One was a complete damp squib: the outfield was so wet that play was called off at 10 am. However, groundsman Bernard Flack and his team did a commendable job and play got underway the next day. Cowdrey won the toss and elected to bat. As the team lists were submitted, he created history in front of 18,000 spectators present at the ground.

John Edrich and Geoff Boycott provided England with a cautious but solid start, putting on 65 before lunch. Boycott eventually fell after a 155-minute partnership of 80 runs. He lost his concentration and tried to sweep a full one from John Gleeson and was trapped leg-before.

Cowdrey entered amidst a standing ovation from the Edgbaston crowd and immediately raised the tempo with some fluent strokeplay. The 35-year old was batting in a form as sublime as ever: the booming trademark cover-drives (the ones that had made Denis Compton request in awe “one day you must teach me that shot”) easily beat the fielders to the fence.

Gleeson’s deliveries often kept low, and the three Australian seamers move the ball around prodigiously. Cowdrey, however, mixed aggression with sense and kept on finding the gaps with ease. When Bill Lawry packed the leg-side and asked his bowlers to bowl a leg-stump line, the English captain played on the leg-side with equal proficiency. Wisden wrote that he was “continually beating the field on the leg side no matter where Lawry placed his men, and it must be emphasised that the agile Australians, notably Redpath, Sheahan and Walters, saved many runs.”

Frank Tyson wrote in The Age: “He is still the possessor of the same bulkless timing and easeful power through the covers — and he still has the identical pinpoint precision on the square-cut past covers’ left-hand and the characteristic flicked on-drive.”

Tyson had batted with Cowdrey during his maiden Test hundred at MCG in 1954-55. Over 13 years he wrote: “Now 21 Test centuries and 7,000 international runs later, nothing has happened to change my impressions and admiration of Cowdrey the batsman.”

However, when he was around the 50-mark, Cowdrey tore a muscle at the back of his left thigh. Boycott, the only batsman dismissed till then, had to come out as runner (perhaps to the amusement of some). Cowdrey, however, calmly reached 60 — which made him the second batsman after Wally Hammond to cross the 7,000 run mark in Test cricket.

Edrich eventually fell to the second new ball, caught beautifully by Brian Taber down the leg-side off Eric Freeman. Ken Barrington was trapped leg-before for a duck, but Tom Graveney’s reassured presence calmed things down. England eventually finished Day Two at 258 for 3 with Cowdrey on 95 and Graveney on 32.

Cowdrey did not recover the next morning and continued with Boycott as a runner. He eventually reached his 21st Test hundred before being bowled by Eric Freeman for a 247-ball 104 with 15 fours. The innings had lasted a shade over four hours. He remains one of the elite few to have scored a hundred in his hundredth Test.

Tyson added: “He has added the sophistication of a flapping Compton sweep and adopted a more open back-foot defensive attitude, but his masterful 104 here yesterday demonstrated that the old courage and natural prowess are there.”

The rest of the match

England eventually scored 409 but ate up a lot of time, scoring runs at 2.36 an over. Graveney scored a 220-ball 93. Freeman finished with 4 for 78 and Alan Connolly with 3 for 84. Combining with the weather, the atrocious run rate as good as killed the Test.

England fans found saw hope when a ball from John Snow jammed Lawry’s finger on the bat handle resulting in a fissure fracture, ruling the Australian captain out of the Test. As Redpath also fell with 10 runs on the board Australia were in trouble, but Bob Cowper and Ian Chappell batted brilliantly, putting up 111 for the second wicket.

Chappell played some spectacular strokes and was well-supported by Walters; Australia eventually saved the follow-on and England began their innings 187 ahead with 9 hours in hand. In a race against time Edrich and Graveney batted with purpose and England eventually declared on the fourth afternoon, setting Australia a target of 330. Australia finished Day Four at 9 without loss.

The final day saw some drizzle again and play was eventually called off at 12.30 with Australia at 68 for 1. The Test ended in a draw. Cowdrey, off the field just like Lawry, returned to acknowledge the cheers from the crowd. He shared the Batsman of the Match award with Chappell.

What followed?

– England finished the fourth Test at Headingley on 230 for 4 chasing 326. In the final Test at The Oval, though, they won dramatically with the crowd participating in cleaning the ground and Derek Underwood picking up 7 for 50 and bowling England to a series-levelling victory with 5 minutes to spare.

– Cowdrey eventually finished with 114 Tests (including a late comeback in 1974-75). He also went past Hammond’s tally of 7,249 Test runs and eventually scored 7,624, holding the world record till 1972.

Brief scores:

England 409 (Colin Cowdrey 104, Tom Graveney 96, John Edrich 88; Eric Freeman 4 for 78, Alan Connolly 3 for 84) and 142 for 3 declared (John Edrich 64) drew with Australia 242 (Ian Chappell 71, Bob Cowper 57, Doug Walters 46; Ray Illingworth 3 for 37, Derek Underwood 3 for 48) and 68 for 1.

(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 Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42.)