A young Colin Cowdrey exhibits impressive poise.
England, holders of the Ashes and having stumbled at the first hurdle in their defence of the title, are set on their way to retaining the cherished urn by an iridescent batting performance, buttressed by a fiery fast bowler in irresistible form demolishing a favoured Australia for 111. "Ah yes, Headingley '81!" I hear you cry. But no - this particular tale of big-bottomed derring-do took place some 26 years before and on the other side of the world.
When I first began following the game in the 1960s, I was initially drawn more to batsmen as it seemed to me that they needed to be perfect - typically they were allowed just one mistake, resulting in their dismissal. Colin Cowdrey was one of the leading batsmen of the time so I was well aware of him, though he was by then well into his thirties, his somewhat corpulent figure usually enhanced even more by being encased in a sweater approximately two inches thick. So it came as something of a shock to me once I started studying the game's rich history to discover that, even as a callow youth Cowdrey had still cut something of a large figure.
Cowdrey's additional pounds became largely irrelevant, however, once he took guard and began to stroke the world's best bowlers to all corners of the ground with as fine a technique as you could wish for, and with little apparent effort. Study any photograph of Cowdrey in action and in every case the follow through will display a classically high left elbow. Such model technique had Cowdrey turning heads at an early age. He was awarded his county cap in 1951 aged just 18, the youngest ever for Kent. By 1953 he was turning out for Kent's first team and it was while representing the Gentlemen that he scored two good fifties against the touring Australians, a side featuring the great strike bowlers Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. That performance was to stand him in good stead when the team was selected for the next Ashes contest.
The following year, Cowdrey's numbers dipped somewhat, though this was in part caused by the wettest summer in a long time and this, together with final examinations at college, tempered any expectations he may have had of making the squad for the upcoming Ashes tour. As it happened, he was playing for Kent against Surrey at Blackheath when the squad was announced and, astonished to hear his name called while Surrey stalwarts Jim Laker and Tony Lock missed out, he hurried away from the ground before he could be accosted by the Surrey players over his inclusion. Cowdrey had not yet scored a championship hundred, played in a Test or toured overseas, so he was 'blooded' in that summer's final Test against Pakistan, named as twelfth man but only being required to field for twenty nervous minutes.
Skipper Len Hutton, obviously himself surprised by Cowdrey's inclusion and with an eye to Denis Compton's knee trouble, added fellow Yorkshire batsman Vic Wilson as insurance, so that it was an unprecedented 18-strong England squad which gathered at Tilbury ready to board the Orsava for what would be a seven and a half month tour of Australia and New Zealand. Cowdrey, the youngest member of the party by some three years, was impressed by the fact that Hutton made a point of reassuring his father that he would be taken good care of, speaking with him for a full twenty minutes. Sadly, it would be the last time Cowdrey would see his father alive.
There is a lovely story that, during the long sea voyage, Cowdrey was observed by Frank Tyson being addressed with some passion by a well-dressed man whom Tyson didn't recognize: "When you reach Australia, just remember one thing", exclaimed the older gentleman: "Hate the bastards!" Tyson enquired of scorer and baggage man George Duckworth as to the man's identity - "That", confided the 'Bodyline' veteran, "was Douglas Jardine".
On reaching Australia, Cowdrey received a telegram which informed him of the sad news of his father's death. However, after discussions with room-mate Peter May, he decided that nothing was to be gained by returning home. At the welcome dinner later that evening, Hutton did not approach Cowdrey, but afterwards over coffee he put his hand on the young man's shoulder and said "I'm sorry" - that the sentiment was heartfelt was confirmed by the tears in Hutton's eyes. Once the news became public there was a huge outpouring of sentiment towards him with many telegrams reaching his hotel, including one signed by one Robert Menzies, the prime minister of Australia.
Despite this most dreadful start to his time in Australia, Cowdrey played quite well in the warm-up matches. In the sixth match, against a New South Wales side which was at that time the pre-eminent state, Cowdrey finally took his game to a new level with a century in each innings, the first at number six while entering with the score at 38-4 and facing Keith Miller, Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud on a lively pitch, the second while opening. In between the two innings, which Alan Ross described as 'batting of honourable lineage', he received a somewhat cryptic cable which read 'See Two Kings Three-Fourteen'. As he later discovered, the cable was a biblical reference which read: 'And the Lord said to Elijah do it a second time.' "What a lovely message, but I never could reply to the sender", Cowdrey later told Cricket Today
Cowdrey played reasonably well in the first Test at Brisbane, with 40 and 10, but England lost heavily by an innings and 154 runs after Hutton had put Australia in and they had made 601-8 declared. England's much-vaunted attack had been toothless and it was veteran Alec Bedser who paid the price. Ironically, conditions at the start of the second Test at Sydney would have ideally suited Bedser, with overcast skies and a green pitch and England, put in first after the no doubt relieved England captain lost the toss, collapsed to 154 all out. Batting again 74 runs adrift, England were rescued by a scintillating partnership between May (104) and Cowdrey (54), setting up a thrilling climax as Frank Tyson bowled Australia out for 184 to give England an unexpected victory. Despite Australia's collapse, it's not hyperbole to say that had Neil Harvey not run out of partners on 92 his innings would undoubtedly also have featured in Masterly Batting
. Cowdrey had got himself out to a rash shot and sometime later George Duckworth saw him leaving church, commenting: "I should think you had a lot to tell 'im."
Before the third Test, in Melbourne, Hutton asked both Bailey and Bedser to inspect the pitch with him. Whatever he saw, he again decided to leave out Bedser and, as Compton was now fit, Graveney was asked to step aside. However, Compton's rustiness soon saw him dismissed for just four runs, the story of the first morning's play being the bowling of Keith Miller.
Miller's injury status had led many to believe that he would only be called on to bat in Melbourne, however there is a story that he was persuaded to have a go with the ball by none other than prime minister Menzies, perhaps mindful, avid student of the game as he was, of the great performance by the legendary SF Barnes on the same ground some 40 years earlier. It was during the opening session of the 1911-12 Melbourne Test that Barnes had ripped the heart from the Australian batting, posting the startling figures of 9-6-3-4. A couple of hours later, Miller went in to eat a hearty lunch having produced the remarkably similar figures of 9-8-5-3, including the prized scalps of Edrich, Hutton and Compton. Only two of his 72 balls had been scored off, Miller's dominance over some of England's greatest ever batsmen being absolute, as he was able to maintain a perfect length on the off stump all morning.
Cowdrey meanwhile had entered at 21-2 - as Alan Ross commented he was 'yet to come in to bat in a Test match with the drums beating anything but a dirge' - but Miller welcomed him with slightly less contempt, sporting a "G'day, young Cowdrey". The youthful batsman was fascinated to hear the badinage between the charismatic Miller and the equally-magnetic Compton, who was beaten first ball: "All these years Denis", said Miller to the man who had once scored 18 centuries in a single summer, "and you don't seem to get any better. You'd think with all this experience I've been reading about you'd at least get a touch." Lindwall meanwhile provided much entertainment to the vast crowd, first with a bouncer which attempted to unbutton Cowdrey's shirt, followed by a yorker right into his toes. Miller then fired a bullet of a ball into Compton's thumb, Harvey taking the catch in the gully; 50 minutes gone and England already four down for 41. Cowdrey was now joined by Trevor 'Barnacle' Bailey or, as the Melbourne Age
rather less solicitously referred to him, 'Dead Rat'.
Cowdrey soon found his feet, however, turning a well-disguised slower ball from Lindwall to mid-wicket for three with what a mischievous grin and, with the crowd now warming to him England went into lunch at 59-4, the most runs of any opening session so far. Shortly after the resumption, Cowdrey struck a regal four off Lindwall, then a luxurious square cut from Cowdrey flew to the pickets. Then Bailey should, by rights, have been comfortably run out but Archer missed the stumps. An impudent glance past the slips brought up Cowdrey's 50, made out of 69, and the warmth of the reception was astounding, genuine and heartfelt - the crowd was now most definitely on his side for exhibiting what Denys Rowbotham in the Guardian
described as 'high seriousness with a schoolboy sense of fun.'
The Barnacle now decided to get in on the act, sweeping Benaud for four after which Cowdrey drove another boundary to bring up the hundred. Enough was enough for Australian skipper Ian Johnson, who set about changing the field to stifle Cowdrey's run-making. No doubt mindful of the shot by which he had perished in Sydney, the one for which he had apparently requested God's forgiveness, the Aussie skipper had Bill Johnston bowling to a packed cover field in order to try and entice him to further recklessness. Cowdrey found himself marooned on 56 for fully 40 minutes, causing the crowd to become restless - it wasn't that he wasn't trying shots, rather that the fielders were sticking to their task extremely well, Harvey in particular making several acrobatic dives to prevent additional runs.
Conversely Bailey had begun to make runs during Cowdrey's hiatus, but was now caught behind for 30, the partnership having realised 74. Finally cracking, after 11 straight maidens, Cowdrey came down the pitch and watched heart-in-mouth as a hard-hit shot headed straight for Archer, the same fielder who did for him at Sydney, however the ball just evaded his outstretched fingers and flew to the boundary. At last freed from his shackles, Cowdrey hit Johnson for his ninth and tenth fours and headed in for tea on 68 with England 130-5. He carried on after the break where he had left off, a sublime cover drive eliciting a "Good shot, Col" from Johnston, the young batsman showing his gratitude for this with a sweep to the boundary. A bouncer from Lindwall had Cowdrey rattled somewhat, though he forced a grin and smacked him for four the very next ball.
Godfrey Evans had joined Cowdrey on Bailey's dismissal and, though he initially met with little success, he now provided the crowd with some light relief when Miller returned to the attack. Evans managed to hit a ball that Miller pitched up for four, promptly marching down the pitch triumphantly and ceremoniously shaking hands with the obliging bowler. However, another four convinced Johnson that Miller's injury had now rendered him a spent force and he was promptly taken off. Evans had helped Cowdrey to add 35 in just 40 minutes since tea, but he was now trapped lbw for 20 by Archer, Miller's replacement, with England 169-6 and Cowdrey on 90. Hoping Cowdrey would be nervous in the nineties, Johnson brought himself back on but after seven dot balls the last one went for three. Having retained the strike, he now hit the leaping Archer straight back for his fifteenth four, taking him to 97.
A brassed-off Archer ensured the next ball was short and Cowdrey forced it to the on side, the crowd's cheers growing in volume with each turn, so that by the time they ran the third, bringing up his hundred, the noise was deafening. Hutton had earlier been absolutely distraught to lose his wicket for 12 and had glumly hidden himself away in the dressing room, but as Cowdrey neared three figures he was persuaded to watch and once the milestone was reached the captain's grin was as wide as anyone's. There was no doubt some sentiment being expressed by the crowd but it was mixed with great admiration for a magnificent, ultimately match-winning performance from a player just turned 22, playing in his third Test with the Ashes up for grabs and in front of 63,000 people. Frank Rostron of the Daily Express
believed that, 'It was the sort of adulation they reserved for Bradman in his heyday', while Alan Ross in the Observer
noted that, 'The crowd cheered long and movingly', the ovation being apparently comparable only to Bradman's 100th hundred in Sydney. It was a fitting century for an MGC stadium which itself celebrated its hundredth anniversary that same year.
Nevertheless, there was the small matter of a Test match to be won. However, after adding just two more, Cowdrey was dismissed, though it took a ball out of the blue to dislodge him. Ian Johnson pitched one into the rough patch caused by Bill Johnston's boots and the ball promptly turned approximately two feet, which was about two feet more than any other ball thus far, Cowdrey not even offering a stroke as it cannoned off his pads into the stumps. Disbelievingly he trudged off towards the pavilion as the ovation resumed where it had so recently left off from his century. He had made his 102 out of just 160 and once his guiding hand was lost the remaining four England wickets fell for just ten runs.
Despite England's low first innings total they were soon right back in the game with Australia at 92-5, although a strong rearguard saw the hosts build a 40-run first-innings lead. England were then buoyed by a fine 91 from Peter May, leaving Australia needing what should have been a reasonable 240 to win. It was not to be; with the pitch by now seriously breaking up, a typhoon called Tyson wrapped up the match, a spell of 6-14 on the final morning sending Australia reeling for just 111, his final figures being 7-27. The mood of the Australians during this collapse can be gauged by this exchange when Keith Miller came in to bat on the final morning, Tyson having just removed Neil Harvey with only five additional runs added: "Morning Godfrey". "Morning Keith". "I hope that bastard comes off soon!" Miller wasn't the only one to be disenchanted with Tyson's performance; after the match concluded just before lunch, a glum-faced man stormed into the umpire's dressing room, asking: "Who was the chap who gave Bill Johnston out?" "I was", replied Mel McInnes. "Well I'm the caterer and that decision of yours has cost me 10,000 bloody pies!"
To add to his growing collection of telegrams received during this tour, Cowdrey received possibly the most welcome one from 'Plum' Warner, consisting of just four words: 'Cowdrey. Melbourne. Magnificent. Warner.' England, following the abject humiliation of Brisbane now found themselves with a 2-1 lead in a series they only needed to draw to retain the Ashes.
Other than the cricket, there had been additional drama earlier in the week as a result of controversy over the pitch used at Melbourne. On Tuesday morning the Age cricket correspondent Percy Beames, after discussions with some of the Australian players, alleged that the pitch had been watered on Sunday evening; once a match had started, this was against the laws of the game so it represented a serious allegation. The authorities vehemently denied any wrongdoing and, after the Test was over, two civil engineers presented their opinion of what had happened in the form of a long and very detailed letter to the Victorian Cricket Association, claiming that the cause was a combination of very hot temperatures and sweating under the unventilated covers. One critic in a Sydney paper, however, commented 'Has anyone worked out how the wicket rolled itself out to close up all those cracks?' Whatever the reason, it must be stressed that the whole of Cowdrey's innings had been played before the alleged watering had taken place.
Australia now needed to win both remaining Tests in order to wrest the Ashes from England and, after making several changes they made a promising 323 to start the fourth Test at Adelaide on a perfect wicket. After sharing a 99-run partnership with Hutton, Cowdrey again started to look impatient, so Hutton sent out 12th man Vic Wilson with some bananas. "What the hell are these for?" asked Cowdrey, who hadn't requested anything. Wilson replied "Well the skipper thought you might be hungry. He watched you play a couple of wild shots just now. It rather suggests he is keen for you to stay out here batting a little longer." Suitably chastened, Cowdrey went on to make a fine 79 as England passed Australia's total with 341. When Australia batted again, Cowdrey had his nose broken while fielding and this signalled an Australian collapse. As a result, England required just 96 to retain the Ashes but, at 49-4 an apparently crestfallen and wildly pessimistic Hutton exclaimed: "The buggers have done us!" Compton, standing at his shoulder at the time, had other ideas and safely saw England home.
The fifth Test was all but washed out but England had retained the Ashes with a 3-1 series victory, a result which had been unthinkable after the first Test debacle. Cowdrey's first Ashes tour had been a great one, as he ended up in a low-scoring series with an average of 35.44 (only Graveney, in just three innings, topped 40), and was second only to May in the aggregates with 319. England had, in Cowdrey, May, Statham and Tyson uncovered four young players with huge potential and the series was a triumph of youth over experience.
After such an impressive start to his Test career, there were some who considered that Cowdrey did not live up to that early promise. Brian Johnston wrote, 'I am not the only one to think that, great player as he undoubtedly was, he could perhaps have been the greatest.' while Cardus noted, 'His trouble has been a certain introspective modesty; he has never realised quite how great a batsman he is.' A good example of this introspection came during the 1962-63 Ashes series when, having helped win the second Test with innings of 113 and 58 not out, he countered the praise with, "Yes, but now there's the next one to worry about." However, Christopher Martin-Jenkins considered Cowdrey good enough to plump for him in his all-time England XI, and this quote from Fred Titmus surely confirms his great skill:
"Sometimes if a game was drifting to a draw, we'd say "Come on, play us some shots", and John Murray behind the stumps would nominate a particular stroke and he'd play it whatever the delivery. Amazing talent, done without showing off. He was just amusing himself."
I will leave the final words to his good friend John Woodcock, who covered the 1954-55 tour for the Times: 'Of all the outstanding Test innings I watched, played by all the best players, I think the one I would most like to live through again is Colin's at Melbourne.'
As the members of the famous Hill at Sydney would have it, "Good on yer, Pearshape."