Terry Jenner is struck on the head by a ball from John Snow, during the final Ashes Test at Sydney. Umpire Lou Rowan looks on. © Getty Images
Terry Jenner is struck on the head by a ball from John Snow, during the final Ashes Test at Sydney. Umpire Lou Rowan looks on. © Getty Images

Lou Rowan, who passed away on February 3, 2017 at the age of 91, umpired in 26 Test matches and the first ever ODI. However, he is remembered for the infamous Sydney Test in 1970-71 when John Snow felled Terry Jenner with a bouncer and all hell broke loose. Unfortunately, the other lasting memory of Rowan is the man standing at the bowler’s end while Col Egar called Ian Meckiff out of his career in 1963-64. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of this controversial umpire.

For the wrong reasons

Even his autobiography The Umpire’s Story has that infamous picture on the dust jacket: England fast bowler John Snow on the boundary line of the SCG while the ‘man in the towelled hat’ extends his hand over the picket fence and pulls him by the sleeve.

Umpire Lou Rowan’s name has been inseparably intertwined with that of Snow, with that of Ray Illingworth, with that of the unfortunate Terry Jenner and with controversy.

Yes, controversy is what irks the most when one reflects about the recently departed umpire. Because, all said and done, he the leading umpire of Australia for most of the 1960s.

Rowan first stood in a First-Class match in 1958-59, in a Test in 1962-63, officiated in Melbourne when the England and Australian sides contested what is now recognised as the first ever One Day International, and stood in three of the five ‘Tests’ between Australia and the Rest of the World in 1971-72. Yes, he was there at Perth when Dennis Lillee bowled that tremendous spell of 8 for 29.

And then he is the answer to an ideal trivia quiz question as well, his day job being that of a Detective Sergeant of the Queensland Drug Squad.

However, whenever we remember Rowan it is in association with the acrimonious 1970-71 Test series and his endless rifts with the England side, especially the seventh Test at Sydney, and there the second afternoon.

After the series was over, the battle was kept alive, moving from pitch to print, as Rowan penned The Umpire’s Story and Snow dedicated a chapter on him in The Cricket Rebel.

And it was further unfortunate that the other lasting memory is also a bitter one, although he was not the one at fault. He was officiating at the bowler’s end at Brisbane when his colleague at square leg, Col Egar, called the second, third, fifth and ninth deliveries of Ian Meckiff’s first over as throws. It effectively ended Meckiff’s career.

The 1970-71 Ashes

Perhaps it was his job as a detective that made Rowan a strict no-nonsense official. Besides, right from the start the 1970-71 series had seemed destined for bitterness.

Rowan stood in six of the seven Tests. And throughout he had clashed with the English cricketers.

In the First Test when Geoff Boycott had thrown down the stumps at the bowler’s end, Rowan had given Keith Stackpole the benefit of the doubt. The pictures in the dailies on the morrow had shown how clearly the batsman had been short of his ground. Stackpole went on to score 207, and Rowan refused to accept the decision, dubbed ‘one of the worst in cricket history’ as wrong. The seeds of ill-feeling were sown.

In the Second Test at Perth, Rowan refused Illingworth’s request for the roller to be used on the wicket before play began. He later acknowledged and apologised for his mistake. But when Stackpole survived two leg-before appeals, it did not amuse the Englishmen.

Snow later wrote: “I have never come across another umpire so full of his own importance, so stubborn, lacking in humour, unreasonable and utterly unable to distinguish between a delivery short of a length which rise around the height of the rib cage and a genuine bouncer which goes through head high and believed that chest high balls were not intimidatory.”

The Rowan-Snow battle was brewing. The umpire warned Snow twice for hostile tactics during the Perth Test, but the bowler refused to accept that rib high balls were intimidatory. He continued to bowl short. Rowan gave him an official warning; captain Illingworth informed him that it was going to be his last over anyway. And Snow sent his last ball flying over the head of Doug Walters, before turning to Rowan and observing: “Now that’s a bouncer for you”.

All through the summer the pace of John Snow caused much heart burn in the country, and left several cracked skulls in its wake.

At Sydney in the fourth Test, Snow ran in on a sluggish wicket and made the ball kick viciously from the deck. Garth McKenzie was struck on the face by one that reared up from good length. “Bad” was the simple description Illingworth jotted down in the captain’s logbook that he maintained during the tour. The fast-bowling poet fired out the last 5 wickets for 20 runs in 8 overs and finished with a career-best 7 for 40. England went one-up in the series.

Snow, for his part, thought that the local batsmen were simply not good enough to face chest high balls, and Rowan was confusing their technical shortcomings with intimidatory bowling. Of course, Snow always felt that “some umpires cannot seem to distinguish between a cricket ball bouncer and a dance hall variety.”

Problems continued when in the sixth Test Boycott was run out and disputed the dismissal. There was no evidence this time to conclude that Rowan was wrong, but the Yorkshire opener refused to apologise.

When the series moved back to Sydney for the record seventh and final match, Illingworth stood on the verge of creating history by becoming the first England captain since Douglas Jardine to reclaim the Ashes in Australia.

Unfortunately, on the second afternoon, the Test brought back memories of the infamous Jardine days of 1932-33. Not only did Snow fell a man with the nastiest of balls — a lower-order batsman at that — just before the delivery Illingworth had shifted men to close positions in the leg side. Immediately after that Jenner clutched his head, staggered and fell.

The start was ominous, with Walters being given the benefit of doubt against an appeal for a stumping decision, and Stackpole given not out after a thick edge off Peter Lever. Illingworth said that it was really unbelievable.

Snow started off by bowling four bouncers to Ian Chappell in his second over and four more in his third. One of these was a no-ball and it took the Australian captain’s gloves on the way to Knott. It made Snow question Rowan’s no-ball call.

But the situation came to a crisis when on the second afternoon the No. 9 Jenner came in to join Greg Chappell.

And as soon as Jenner was in, Illingworth brought Snow back into the attack. Jenner’s problems against pace had been apparent in the first Test. Now, with the ball back in the hands of his prime fast bowler, Illingworth himself moved to short mid-wicket.

Snow now took hold of the new ball and ran in. The first ball of the eight-ball over rose up to Jenner’s rib cage and was fended towards the on-side for a single. Chappell played the next two balls quietly before taking a single off the fourth. The fifth ball rose to a level that Snow claimed to be arm-pit, but Jenner just about got his head out of the way. The sixth was down leg, and Jenner ducked without looking. And it went harmlessly to Knott.

Illingworth now rearranged the field. Willis was moved from mid-off to mid-on. Underwood was moved to long-leg. John Hampshire stood at backward short-leg and the captain himself took his position at forward short-leg.

The field almost resembled the notorious leg-trap and in the commentary box Jim Swanton was scandalised: did a batsman of Jenner’s quality merit such a posse of leg-side fielders?

As a matter of fact, Jenner was not too bad with the bat. He ended his career averaging 23 in Tests and 22 in First-Class cricket. In 1973-74, he scored 59 and 47 while taking 11 for 170 for South Australia against Western Australia, the first time a double of 100 runs and 10 wickets had been achieved in Sheffield Shield since before the First World War. So, he was far from a rabbit.

And now the seventh ball reared up. Snow claimed it was rib-height and it hit Jenner on the left side of his head. He fell with a thud, clutching his temple. The crowd erupted in violent disapproval. The English fielders helped him to his feet and Peter Lever supported him along with the Australian masseur as he walked off. As Lillee walked in to bat, Rowan approached Snow.

The umpire barked at the bowler about fair-play. The fast bowler snatched his hat, sulked his way into the outfield and got embroiled in some heated altercation with the crowd on Paddington Hill.

Rowan himself had strong views on Snow, as is evident from his book. About Snow’s bowling and the subsequent events that took place that day, he wrote: “For a few minutes … the whole future of cricket between England and Australia were in jeopardy.”

Of course Rowan was well within his rights to warn Snow for his bouncers to a tail-ender. However, some of the reasons provided by this Queensland Detective in his book are somewhat questionable.

Rowan’s earlier dealings with MCC officials like Gubby Allen and Billy Griffith had left him with some clear opinions. He felt comfortable with the many titled gentlemen so closely connected with cricket in England, along with great players and personalities like amateur captain Colin Cowdrey and Mike Smith.

It was his view that the England captaincy “would best be in the hands of amateurs rather than professional players.” Another rather strong conviction was that “men like Mike Smith possessed the ability to handle the most difficult professionals.” Both Snow and Illingworth belonged, in his book, to this category of most difficult professionals.

Rowan did not even spare Snow’s poetic works. ‘Verse-writing’ was employed as a sneer term in his An Umpire’s Story. Although, arguably, Snow’s poetry did enjoy a rather mixed reception in the Australian cricket community, it was rather uncharitable in his views.

Twice the umpire spoke about fair and unfair cricket. Twice he told Snow to ease up on the short deliveries. And finally, he signalled one finger to Tom Brooks officiating at square-leg, indicating that the first official warning had been given. Brooks, however, wanted nothing to do with it. Rowan later indicated that Brooks, standing in his first series, differed from the senior umpire in his reading of the matches. If only Egar had been at the other end, Rowan would perhaps have everything under control.

Snow objected. Illingworth joined the fray. Fingers were wagged, nostrils were flared. The over was completed in growing tension. An appeal for a catch behind the wicket was turned down off the last ball. Snow snatched his cap away and returned to his fielding position on the fine-leg boundary beneath the Paddington Hill. Some members of the press suggested that Snow deliberately taunted the crowd by moving closer and closer to the fence till it was possible to lay hands on him. Snow denied this charge.

But, with Snow near striking range, hundreds of beer cans were thrown inside the field of play. Illingworth asked the fast man to go down to the third-man while the gutters were cleared. But, Snow made for fine leg again. There the drunken man in the towelling hat briefly grabbed him by his shirt.

And when a further shower of cans followed, Illingworth turned and led his team off the field without a word to the batsmen or umpires. England stayed off the ground for seven minutes.

Rowan explained to Illingworth that if he did not return, he would have to forfeit the match. And Illingworth said he would return as soon as the ground was made fit for play. He asked Alan Barnes, secretary of Australian Board of Control, to announce this over the public-address system, asking him to add that he would lead his team off again if such disturbance recurred.

Ex-cricketers were scathing in their censure. Bill O’Reilly in Sydney Morning Herald, Jack Fingleton in Sunday Times and even Denis Compton in Sunday Express all criticised Illingworth rather harshly for losing control of the situation and acting in hasty, unnecessary manner. Compton even called it the worst mistake of Illingworth’s career. However, the England captain maintained that the physical safety of his players had been his primary concern, and he would not allow the crowd to determine his field placements.

Nine people were arrested, charged with unseemly conduct and language, or offensive behaviour, and a total of $700 was exacted as fines on 13 men — consisting of labourers, a welder, a fireman, a clerk, a student, and a glazier who had remained true to his profession and had thrown two stubbies on to the field. There were inebriated fights on The Hill as well, leading an ex-Test cricketer to call it the worst display of hooliganism at an Australian cricket match.

Thankfully the forfeit did not take place. Rowan was spared notoriety that was earned by the pig-headed Darrell Hair three-and-a-half decades later. The match was resumed and turned out to be a thrilling Test after all. It was Illingworth’s spin which turned the tide and snatched a 62-run win for England and thereby clinched the Ashes.

In 1998, an 80-year-old man named Trevor Guy responded to an ABC radio appeal and admitted to being the one who had reached across over the boundary fence and grabbed Snow by the shirt. Guy confessed to the Sydney Morning Herald that he was angry with Snow for felling Jenner with a bouncer and had grabbed him by the shirt to make sure he heard what he had to say.

Snow, however, revealed that he had no hard feelings: “Sure I’d shake his hand if I met up with him. That was a long time ago.”

But, for umpire Rowan, it never became a long time ago. He continued to be remembered for the infamous series and especially the heated Sydney Test. Even after all these decades, he is synonymous with the Jenner-Snow affair.

At the time of his death, Rowan was the oldest Australian Test umpire.