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The Auckland Bull

Jack Cowie, as Len Hutton preferred to see him.

On the face of it there is no issue as to the identity of the finest bowler New Zealand has produced. With 431 wickets at 22.29 it is surely Sir Richard Hadlee by a distance. In terms of wickets taken only Daniel Vettori comes close, but so far his 360 wickets have cost more than 34 runs each. Amongst his fellow pace bowlers Chris Martin, with a haul of 230, gets past half of Hadlee’s total, but he too has paid nearly 34 runs each for his wickets. The only other man to get half way there is Chris Cairns, in the eyes of most a very fine bowler indeed, but even he paid almost 30 runs apiece for his successes.

Looking at the table of those with the highest averages however and the position is perhaps not quite so clear cut. Of recent vintage the fragile Shane Bond is fractionally in front of Hadlee, with 87 wickets at 22.09. It is true there were some cheap wickets against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe amongst them, but it is a great shame that Bond’s body would not permit him a full career. But there is another man above Sir Paddles, and he is the subject of this feature. Jack Cowie only played nine Tests, eight against England and one against Australia, and he took 45 wickets at 21.53. World War Two and a limited international programme conspired to thwart Cowie, but his figures are deeply impressive, the more so when it is taken into account that by 1949, when he played his last four Tests, he was already 37. In his five Test between the ages of 24 and 34 he took 31 wickets at 16.71 at a strike rate of less than 37 – much better than Hadlee’s 50 and even a little better than Bond’s remarkable 38.

Cowie began his cricketing career as a leg spinner. It was only when his school side fell behind to a team they were expected to beat that out of frustration he decided to bowl fast and, enjoying some success, the wrist spin was cast aside. Even so when Cowie started playing senior grade in Auckland, at the age of 17, he was regarded as a batsman who could bowl a few overs if needed. That the batting talent was there cannot be doubted, and he once scored 171 in under two hours, with 13 sixes. The bowling he faced included Test player Don Cleverley and the fine West Indian all-rounder SG Smith as well as Nessie Snedden, patriarch of the well known Auckland family.

Despite this obvious aptitude with the bat Cowie could see that Auckland’s batting was rather stronger than its bowling so he decided to concentrate on his bowling, and it was as well for his country that he did. There was a slow start, a 20 year old Cowie bowling just four wicketless overs on his First Class debut in December 1932. It was to be all but two years before he made his second appearance but in that 1934/35 season he took 16 wickets at 22. He fell back the following year, his 8 scalps coming every 65 runs, but he averaged less than 15 in 1936/37 and was a certain pick for the 1937 tour of England.

As a bowler Cowie was never genuinely fast, but wasn’t too far short of it in his younger days. He was six feet tall and was heavily built. He had a long run up, and always bore a grim and determined look on his face as he wandered back to his mark, his somewhat rolling gait making him instantly recognisable. As to the delivery itself Len Hutton described him as a fast-medium bowler with terrific pace off the pitch, a forked lightning off-break and lift and swing away that caught lots of our batsmen napping. Cowie also had a trademark appeal, only ever used when he was convinced of his cause, where he would turn to the umpire and shout “Aaaaaat” in stentorian tones, with one hand raised.

Despite his roar Cowie, always nicknamed “Bull” was an affable character. The pre-tour brochure for the 1937 tour, after summing up his bowling style added …. his congenial and sporting disposition should make him a favourite with the English public. That same brochure contained an article written by Erroll Holmes, who had captained a reasonably strong MCC side in New Zealand in 1935/36. Cowie had encountered the tourists three times, but met with little success taking just a single wicket at a cost of 248 runs. Holmes described Cowie as a fine figure of a man who can stand the strain of fast bowling for longer stretches than can the average fast bowler, but did not comment on how effective he might be. Holmes view was that the right arm medium pace of Alby Roberts would be New Zealand’s major threat, but in that opinion he was proved wrong, as in the Test series Cowie was, by a distance, his side’s leading bowler.

In the three Test of 1937, against the full strength of England, Cowie took 19 wickets at 20.78. His teammates took 21 at 49.24. England won the three match series 1-0 but might, had the New Zealand fielding in the second Test not fallen apart, have lost. The first Test was at Lord’s and while England were on top throughout the visitors held on for a draw. It was Cowie’s Test debut, and for England a young Len Hutton made his first appearance. Cowie’s match figures were 6-167. Five of his victims were, in a pattern that was to repeat itself, front line batsmen. He dismissed both England openers in each innings. The Cricketer wrote Cowie bowled very well. He is fast medium, right-hand, and bowls an uncommonly good breakback. Hutton lost this battle, scoring 0 and 1. Many years later he wrote At Lord’s on that far-off morning he bowled fast off-breaks, as I can vouch to my cost. His future captain, Walter Hammond, confirmed that Hutton looked very surprised when Cowie brought the ball back amazingly to hit off stump.

The second Test at Old Trafford was won by England, comfortably enough on the face of matters, by 130 runs, but this is the came they could and probably should have lost. Batting first after winning the toss Hutton made up for his disappointment at Lord’s by top-scoring with exactly 100 in his side’s total of 358-9 declared. There were four good wickets for Cowie. New Zealand, thanks in large part to 93 from Walter Hadlee, conceded a first innings deficit of just 77. When England replied they were reduced to 75-7 before the Surrey amateur Freddie Brown, coming in at number nine, hit a quick 57 and the last three wickets were allowed to add 112. Brown was dropped no less than four times, none of them difficult. Cowie eventually took the last three wickets, to go with those of Hutton, Hammond and Joe Hardstaff that he had taken at the other end of the innings and 6-67 meant he had a match haul of 10-140. Wisden wrote He always bowled at the stumps and considering he was sometimes handicapped by the slow pitch and wet ball, his was a masterly performance. The Cricketer was no less effusive its reporter writing Cowie once again was the best bowler on an unresponsive wicket …. he bowled superbly for New Zealand and showed great determination. In one spell he was on for an hour and a quarter without a rest, but he never lost his efficiency – a very fine piece of bowling.

New Zealand had plenty of time in which to attempt to get the 265 needed for victory but were all out for 134. Had the target, as it could so easily have been, around 100 less and they had gone out to bat with the confidence of having just bowled England out for less than 100 then it may well have been a very different game.

The third Test was spoiled by rain and left drawn with England 160 short of victory with all but one of their second innings wickets intact, so a moral victory perhaps, as they had bowled the tourists out twice and declared their first innings with only seven down, but it might still have proved a tricky target if Cowie had bowled again as he had at Old Trafford. As it was he had to content himself with just the wickets of Hammond, Hardstaff and opener Charles Barnett at a personal cost of 88.

Cowie’s overall figures for the tour were 114 wickets at 19.95 and he must be considered unlucky not to have been selected as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year in the Almanack’s 1938 edition. The editor did however still wax lyrical, describing him as; … a bowler equal to anyone of his type in present-day cricket. Some of Cowie’s colleagues who had played with or against him in New Zealand were surprised at the pace off the pitch that he obtained on English wickets. A player with an enormous capacity for work, who seemed impervious to fatigue and was accurate in length and direction, he often bowled a vicious off-break and, as he could also make the ball lift and swing away, he was a bowler to be feared. Had he been an Australian he might have been termed a wonder of the age.

It is the final sentence of that passage that is probably the most interesting and was a them picked up on by Hutton who wrote If Cowie, like Grimmett, had gone to Australia and played on pitches of pace and bounce, he would, I am sure, have been even more highly regarded. Cowie played just twice in Australia, in fixtures against South Australia and New South Wales on the tourists way home from England in 1937. They lost by 10 wickets to South Australia, but not before Cowie had cost thee New Zealand Board a very substantial sum of money. The second day of the match began with Donald Bradman unbeaten on 11, and a large crowd outside waiting patiently to get into the ground. The Bull clearly did not view himself as having any fiduciary duty towards the Board as he moved one away from the great man in the first over of the day and ‘keeper Eric Tindall completed the catch. he waiting thousands had a rethink about the attraction of the day’s entertainment, and melted away. Cowie sat out a defeat by Australia but was back for the encounter with New South Wales. that was another defeat but Cowie took 6-93 and dismissed Stan McCabe in both innings, for 12 and 0, proving beyond any doubt that he could live with the best.

It was to be the greater part of nine years before Jack Cowie played his fourth Test. In March 1946 Australia sent what was, Bradman apart, a full strength side and matches were scheduled against Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington with a solitary Test match to be played after that. It was clear from the outset that the Test was going to be a mismatch as the tourists won all the preliminary fixtures without breaking sweat and New Zealand were doubtless beaaten in the Test before the match even begun. Conditions at the Basin Reserve were extremely wet but, to satisfy the large crowd, both captains agreed to start promptly. Hadlee won the toss and after much soul-searching decided to bat. He was concerned at the inexperience and fragility of his batting line up but reasoned that with conditions so wet at least Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller would struggle. Lindwall did indeed struggle, and Miller was not even called upon, but unfortunately for Hadlee and New Zealand that did not really help them given that the sun came out, and Ernie Toshack and Tiger O’Reilly thrived in the conditions. They were all out for 42. When Australia replied Cowie quickly sent back Ken Meuleman, but Aussie skipper Bill Brown was dropped and after that the sun went in, the life left the pitch, and Australia went through to 109-1 at the close of Day 1.

The sun was back out next morning and Cowie put Australia under the cosh. They made a steady start but then slumped from 174-3 to 199-8 and Brown declared. Cowie had made the ball rear awkwardly and his trademark accuracy had put a stranglehold on the Australians. His final figures were 21-8-40-6. In the New Zealand second innings the wickets were shared rather more evenly than in the first but the outcome was much the same. he home side managed only 54 between them to lose by an innings and 103. It would be 28 years before Australia deigned to play their neighbours again in a Test.

Rain also played a prominent part in Cowie’s next Test a year later, a one-off again, this time against an England side who had just been heavily defeated in the first post war Ashes series. Hammond won the toss and invited Hadlee to bat but there was no repeat of the previous year’s debacle as Hadlee and Bert Sutcliffe opened up with 133. The start was not fully capitalised on and the hosts were on 258-7 when Cowie got to the crease. When Hadlee declared next morning he had scored 45, exctly half the total of his Test aggregate, and New Zealand were 345-9. The England reply was dominated by Hammond’s final Test innings, an imperious 79, but Cowie kept plugging away and at the close the visitors were 265-7. Cowie bowled 30 overs, inevitably more than anyone else, and took 6-83. If he had had a quality support bowler England might have been in all sorts of trouble, although as rain ensured that there was no play on either of the final two days it would not have made any difference to the final outcome.

And that might well have been that, and Jack Cowie could have retired with a Test bowling average of 16.71 but, at 37, he still had one last hurrah to come, in England in 1949. He didn’t smoke or drink, so that in part accounts for his longevity, but he was not quite the bowler he had been and his wickets were becoming a little less frequent, and a little more expensive.

The Test series in 1949 consisted of four three day matches. New Zealand had wanted five four day Tests and MCC had offered initially just three shorter matches. The compromise was four shorter Tests, all of which were drawn. The myth was born and perpetuated for a number of years that New Zealand had requested three day Test in order to give them the best chance of drawing the games. This was simply not true nor does the assertion that they played defensively stand up to close scrutiny.

In the first innings of the first Test at Headingley Cowie took his final five wicket haul, top order batsmen all, as England were restricted to 372. Unfortunately for him he then pulled a leg muscle and was unable to bowl at all in the England second innings. Perhaps he was just getting too old for bowling, as he did on the Saturday, 36 overs in a day. A young John Reid, later to become the major figure in New Zealand cricket for a generation, wrote later Jack Cowwie was magnificent in this match ……. it was a lion-hearted performance I wil never forget.. The game was drawn comfortably.

The second Test at Lord’s was like the other three, drawn as well, although New Zealand were on top throughout. England were, with Cowie taking two wickets, reduced to 112-5 before recovering to reach 313-9 before declaring. Wisden noted that Cowie, during a long spell, maintained a perfect length at a fast pace… and later explained England’s recovery as being because ..the pitch eased and Cowie tired in the oppressive heat.. New Zealand then, thanks largely to a memorable 206 from Martin Donnelly, secured a lead of 171 but there was insufficient time left in the match to put in England in any difficulty.

The pattern of the second Test was reversed in the third and Cowie took three more wickets in England’s only innings, but he damaged his leg muscle again and missed all but one of the matches played prior to the final Test which was again drawn comfortably enough in the end, although New Zealand were certainly on the back foot for a time on the third day. Cowie’s last bowling in Tests brought him another four wickets in England’s only innings and, for once, he mopped up the tail. By his own standards his return of 14 wickets at 32 was disappointing but he had his injuries as well as a hot summer to point to. The editor of Wisden certainly understood those factors as he wrote, in the 1950 edition, The final figures did far less than justice to Cowie …. for a bowler of his pace his consistency was remarkable …. his direction, swing and lift from the pitch invariably impressed. He went on to express the view that on the tour as a whole another 25-30 wickets for the same number of runs would have been more in keeping with his value. His captain, Hadlee, wrote of his contribution to the tour Jack Cowie had proved yet again that he was undoubtedly one of the world’s best bowlers.

New Zealand’s next Tests were played in 1951 when England visited after that winter’s Ashes and Cowie had retired by then. In fact he only played one more First Class match after 1949, for Auckland against another Australian side led by Bill Brown, albeit one nothing like as strong as had visited in 1945/46. There were a couple of wickets, and match figures of 44-15-59-2, so if the old penetration wasn’t in evidence, the accuracy and stamina certainly were. There was a move from Auckland to Wellington for Cowie later that year at the behest of his employers, the Australasian Temperance and General Mutual Life Insurance Society, and that move meant the end of his First Class career. Altogether he spent 47 with the company.

An older Cowie was not however lost to sport in general or cricket in particular. His other main sporting interest was soccer, and he was elected to the council of the New Zealand Football Association in 1950 and played various roles in that organisation for the next 26 years. At one time he was a FIFA delegate and he managed touring teams. He also, in the late 1950s, became one of the few men to both play in and umpire in international cricket when he stood in three Test matches, one against West Indies and two against England.

Jack Cowie died on 3rd June 1994 at the age of 82. As he slipped away probably the most anodyne attack New Zealand has ever fielded in a Test match was conceding 567 runs to England at Trent Bridge on their way to an innings defeat. Perhaps with the Bull’s passing some of his spirit imbued the side, as two weeks later they so nearly avenged that defeat at Lord’s, and Dion Nash looked like a different man as he took 11-169.

Was Cowie as good as or better than Sir Paddles? In reality that conclusion is impossible to reach as there simply isn’t enough evidence. But he was clearly a bowler of the highest class and, if he had been able to play on during what should have been his best years who knows what he might have achieved. Let it not be forgotten also that Hadlee was the consummate professional. The Bull was a true amateur as, of course, were his teammates, but the same cannot be said of his Test opponents. Eight of those nine matches were played against the full strength of England and the other against a very fine Australian side. So next time you sit back to imagine who you might select for your All-Time XI, and the name of Richard Hadlee, as it should, crosses your mind, remember too Jack Cowie.


Yeah, great article. Have had a love/hate relationship with Cowie for a while myself ever since early editions of my statistical rankings insisted he was in fact the greatest bowler of all time; made me read into him. :p

Comment by Prince EWS | 12:00am GMT 4 November 2012

Quality stuff. Have often wondered why we don’t rate Cowie as highly as others with similar stats. Now I’m even more unsure.

Comment by Eds | 12:00am GMT 4 November 2012

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