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Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge

Walking out to face Wes Hall at Lord's in 1963

Possessed of the most prestigous set of initials a cricketer can have Michael Colin Cowdrey is a name that, in my youth, was one of the best known in the game. He was the first man ever to play in 100 Test matches, and he scored a century in the hundredth. He retired as England’s leading run-scorer after 114 appearances, with more centuries to his name than anyone else, and more catches as a fielder. He played Tests over twenty years, and First Class matches for Kent for twenty seven.

Today Cowdrey tends to be remembered, if he is recalled at all, as the man who was called out to reinforce Mike Denness’ beleaguered England side in 1974/75 when, apparently, he greeted Jeff Thomson with words to the effect of “I don’t believe we’ve met, my name is Cowdrey”. Thommo’s response was not quite so polite, and made reference to the bulky physique for which Cowdrey was always known, made the more obvious by the comprehensive padding he had carefully put in place before walking out to the middle.

That aging Cowdrey, by then just a few days away from celebrating his 42nd birthday, looked a far cry from the 13 year old who dominated with bat and ball on his first appearance at Lord’s in 1946, and went on to rewrite the record books during his time at Tonbridge School. Like many successful young leg spinners as he grew taller Cowdrey lost his “loop”, and by the time he reached adulthood his bowling was no more than an occasional digression. However his batting was something else, and the young man who was still only 17 when he made his First Class debut for Kent, was already known to be one who had extravagant gifts.

Even in his youth Cowdrey did not really look like an athlete, but he most certainly was, excelling at every sport to which he turned his hand, and his batting was universally acclaimed. Neville Cardus was always an admirer, particularly of the way Cowdrey dealt with pace bowling; He hooked the lightning bumping bowling with courage, power and a sabre brilliance. He was subject to physical hurt and didn’t flinch., but he was no one trick pony, Cardus adding there is majesty in his driving to both sides of the wicket and he can bend down and late cut with a charming intimacy of touch.

But Cowdrey’s statistics, impressive as they are, do not put him with the very best. Many have exceeded his Test average of 44.06, which fairly and squarely places him in the category of the very good rather than the great, and his overall First Class average is a notch lower still. As Cardus conceded he is subject to moods in which his strokeplay becomes inhibited. Now his bat seems leaden; he is temporarily a constipated Cowdrey. And his England teammate Trevor Bailey wrote of him he would scratch and potter around against mediocre bowling, making batting appear an extremely laboured and arduous process, before adding the rider thatin form, he is capable of taking apart a powerful international attack.

Cowdrey was, there can be no doubt, an absolutely delightful man who, many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting once at a cricket dinner. It was one of those all male affairs where, despite the dinner suits and commerbunds, there was plenty of swearing and conversation that these days might well amount to a crime, and even then was in poor taste. Cowdrey was the guest speaker and having played a minor role in organising the function I was tasked with accompanying the club president when he welcomed the great man, my role being to take his coat. On arrival Cowdrey warmly greeted our president and myself, and then proceeded to prioritise ensuring that there were appropriate facilities on hand for his driver, who he explained had just spent around five hours driving him to us, and would later have to spend another three doing the journey home.

Having ensured that his driver was fed and watered and had somewhere to relax Cowdrey then put on a virtuoso performance, regaling us with some wonderful tales, and taking the time to talk to all who wanted to engage him in conversation. He laughed at some of the ribald humour, and although he never once swore himself, nor indeed said anything that could not safely be said at a suffragette’s meeting, he seemed entirely within his own comfort zone, and was adept at keeping those of us who did feel a little in awe of him, in ours.

I am therefore confident that all who describe Cowdrey as one of the kindest and most considerate men to have played the game are right. He came from a priviliged background, and was born in India where his father managed a tea plantation. His family came from Surrey, and as a five year old he moved back to the home of his maternal grandmother in order to begin his education. He did not see his parents again for seven long years, during which time he completed his prep school education before moving on to Tonbridge. Those who favour that sort of spartan way of life call it character building, and historically it has turned out some great leaders of men, and plenty of self-important autocrats. The very human Cowdrey must therefore have been a case of the exception that proves the rule.

By 1954 Cowdrey had gone up to Oxford, and batted very well for the University. Later in the summer for Kent he was disappointing, no centuries and just three fifties coming in ten matches. By the end of the season his form was very ordinary indeed, and there were 21 men above him in the First Class averages. But the selectors remembered the twin fifties that a 20 year old Cowdrey had made against the frontline Australian attack for the Gentlemen in 1953, and decided to take a gamble on youth and select him for the 1954/55 Ashes tour.

The tour began with tragedy for Cowdrey as before he had raised a bat in anger he learned of his father’s passing, but perhaps that inspired him. By the time of the first Test a series of fine performances, most notably twin hundreds against a strong New South Wales attack in tricky conditions meant that the young reserve batsman was in the team. That Test was a crushing defeat for England by an innings and 154, although some comfort was drawn from Cowdrey’s composed 40 in the first innings.

In the second Test England carried on where they left off at the ‘Gabba and totalled just 154 before their bowlers did well to restrict the deficit on first innings to 74. In England’s second dig Cowdrey came in at the fall of the third wicket with his side on just 55. Without the 54 he contributed to a partnership of 116 with Peter May there would not have been enough for Frank Tyson and Brian Statham to conjure victory out of. The series as a whole tends to be remembered, because of the way it turned out, as a comfortable England victory, but it so nearly wasn’t. In the third Test Lindwall and Miller had reduced England to 41-4 before Cowdrey played a lone hand for his first Test century. It was 102 out of 191. No one else scored more than Trevor Bailey’s 30. The innings was to remain comfortably the best of Cowdrey’s Test career, despite his passing 100 on 21 further occasions, and it is rightly celebrated at number 22 in Ferriday and Wilson’s Masterly Batting.

The fact that without Cowdrey England might have been out of that famous series before the Typhoon that was Tyson blew Australia away, is something that has been forgotten today, but was fully recognised at the time.

No batsman made a deeper impression than Cowdrey. was the verdict of the Australian scribe Johnny Moyes. He went on for a young player his concentration was superb, and apparently he has no nerves in his sturdy frame, as the situation never worried him at all, but Moyes had also spotted the weakness; there were times when he would suddenly become almost immobile, like the actor who has forgotten his lines, and then he would dither about the place and cause everyone to bite his nails.

Cowdrey was an England regular from then on although it was to be 1957 before he made a big impact on a Test again. West Indies were England’s visitors that summer and the home side still had vivid memories of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine dismantling them on their previous visit seven years previously. In the first Test Ramadhin worked his magic again as he took 7-49 in England’s paltry 186. As the visitors took a first innings lead of 288 the calypso writers had their noses to the grindstone, working on a follow up to Lord Beginner’s “Victory Calypso” from 1950. They had however reckoned without the determination of Cowdrey, who in the second innings scored 154 as he put on 411 with skipper Peter May, playing forward to Ramadhin with his pads to the fore. Ramadhin was a spent force after that, and England powered on to a 3-0 victory.

One of the banes of Cowdrey’s life was that he kept being asked to open the batting. It wasn’t a position that he relished, but because of his flawless technique and courage it was a position he was sometimes asked to fill. It happened for the first time in 1956 when he averaged only 30, but that was not a batsman’s series, and more often than not he gave England a start in situations where all they needed were enough runs for Jim Laker and Tony Lock to bowl at, and that wasn’t very many.

In 1959/60, when England won a series in the Caribbean for the first time, Cowdrey again opened, this time in each of the five Tests. There was a slow start but after two ordinary performances two centuries, a 97 and another half century followed against the pace of Wes Hall and Chester Watson. Wisden commented that he
showed class in everything he did. Sometimes he batted with grim determination, scoring only when absolutely safe; on other occasions he showed his full range of classical strokes and completely dominated the bowling
. He also captained England in the final two Tests, Peter May being unavailable due to illness, and prompted from the Daily Telegraph cricket correspondent, EW “Jim” Swanton a special salute to Cowdrey who, at the crisis of the tour, took over the leadership in all its aspects and did so well.

The England captaincy was to prove a thorny issue for Cowdrey, but it started well for him out in the Caribbean, and he continued to deputise for May against the 1960 South Africans, and led England to a thoroughly merited success. May’s tenure at the helm came to an end following the 1961 Ashes series. Cowdrey decided not to tour India and Pakistan in 1961/62, so Ted Dexter took over for that tour. Both were given an opportunity to impress in the following summer against Pakistan, but Dexter kept the job, Cowdrey becoming his vice-captain. Dexter remained in charge until the next tour of the sub-continent, in 1963/64. This time Cowdrey was appointed to lead the party, but an arm broken at Lords by Hall in 1963 had not healed by the time the party set off. So although Cowdrey answered an SOS mid tour and travelled out to join the team for the last three Tests the side was led by Mike Smith. Cowdrey desperately wanted to lead England against Australia but due to the selectors sticking with the incumbent Smith he was vice-captain in five successive Ashes series between 1958/59 and 1965/66.

After a heavy defeat to Garry Sobers’ West Indies in the first Test of the 1966 summer Smith found himself dropped and Cowdrey was at last restored to the captaincy. A much improved performance in the second Test augured well for the future, but two more heavy defeats followed and as a result Cowdrey lost not only the captaincy for the final Test but his place as well. The people’s favourite, the charismatic Yorkshireman Brian Close, took over and led England to a remarkable consolation victory.

There was no winter tour in 1966/67 and Cowdrey remained out of favour for the Indian half of the following summer before, pressed into service again as an emergency opener, he came back for the final two matches against Pakistan. Despite the modest opposition the move was not a success and, with Close set to lead England to the Caribbean that winter Cowdrey was by no means certain to even make the trip. As it was Close blotted his copybook in a Championship fixture with a display of gamesmanship that Lord’s did not approve of, and suddenly Cowdrey had another crack at the captaincy and with it his greatest success in charge.

England won their second consecutive series in the Caribbean thanks to that famous over-generous declaration by Sobers in the fourth Test. There were some who, as ever, criticised Cowdrey for his safety first tactics, and the slothful over rate that his fast bowlers achieved during the series certainly infuriated Sobers. But in truth Cowdrey had a plan and he stuck to it. His own form was excellent, as he averaged more than 66, and whilst he may have needed some convincing by his teammates that the target set in the fourth Test was achievable, once he was persuaded it was he who made it possible with a run a minute 71. Wisden described his leadership as ruthlessly brilliant.

In 1968 Cowdrey at last had his chance to lead England to regaining the Ashes. It was not to be after Australia won the first Test comfortably enough. The weather thwarted Cowdrey at Lord’s and again at Edgbaston, after he had celebrated his 100th Test with his penultimate Test century. He missed the fourth Test with injury but England played well again and a measure of justice was done in the final Test when a fit again Cowdrey led England to a famous victory courtesy of Derek Underwood’s most famous bowling spell, just as it looked like rain might save Australia again.

That winter Cowdrey should have taken England to South Africa, but the controversy over Basil D’Oliveira’s belated selection put paid to that, so Cowdrey and England visited Pakistan for The Forgotten Tour where, prior to his early return, Cowdrey recorded what was to prove his last Test century. In 1969 he looked forward to building on what he had achieved as captain with a view to finally taking his own side to Australia in 1970/71. Sadly for him however in an early season forty over game he suffered a horrible injury to his achilles tendon that threatened the continuation of his career, and meant he missed the entire season. In his absence Ray Illingworth led England against West Indies and New Zealand and won both series. The Yorkshireman’s star was clearly in the ascendancy and whilst he could not prevent England losing 4-1 to the powerful Rest of the World XI that was assembled to replace the South Africans in 1970, his captaincy was highly regarded and his own form against the Rest, particularly with the bat, was exceptional.

The selectors had little real choice but to re-appoint Illingworth for Australia, and to offer Cowdrey the vice-captaincy for the fourth time. He took a while to decide before accepting, but it was not a wise move. He was bitterly upset at having not got the captaincy himself and that, coupled with the fact that he did not in any event enjoy a good relationship with Illingworth, meant that his tour was doomed from the start. He was not cut from the same Jardinian cloth that Illingworth came from and their attitudes to touring were very different. Cowdrey cut a lonely figure as he tried to play the ambassadorial role that he considered vital to an Australian tour, and distanced himself from the hard-nosed attitude that Illingworth adopted both on and off the field. It might have been easier for him if he had found any form, but he didn’t, playing in just three of the Tests, and barely averaging 20.

Following his unhappy time in Australia in 1970/71 Cowdrey had an excellent start to the new English season and played in the first Test against Pakistan. After that however his form fell away and by the time the second Test arrived the selectors preferred to recall Geoffrey Boycott. By 1974 it seemed that Cowdrey’s Test career was long gone, but he was still a little disappointed that a fine season was not enough to see him on his sixth Ashes trip. He had long since given up hope of regaining the captaincy, but would have enjoyed playing under the man who he had passed the Kent captaincy to and was in a number of ways his protege, Scotsman Mike Denness. In the event Cowdrey did not have to wait very long before he was called out to reinforce a side that had been badly battered by Thomson and Dennis Lillee in the first Test.

Just as he promised Thomson did not let up against Cowdrey, but despite his initial reaction to the unfamiliar sight of a true English gentleman he grew to respect him saying later I heard a lot about the ability and class of Colin Cowdrey and he revealed in the Perth Test match just how good he was and how great he must have been. He might have been pretty old and past his former brilliance but I saw enough to tell me that this guy was one of the very great players in Test history. And it wasn’t just Thommo, a senior Australian cricket writer observing after the second Test What an amazing cricketer England have in Cowdrey. He has been in Australia for less than a week and it is doubtful whether any opener in the world could have surpassed his handling of Thomson. Cowdrey seldom appeared ill at ease against the thunderbolts. At times he was so perfectly positioned to make it appear as if Thomson were a medium pacer.

In terms of figures Cowdrey was not a great success, but he almost always got a start, and his peerless technique was still in evidence. Australia’s off spinner Ashley Mallett later wrote Cowdrey batted with grace and great skill. and his old teammate from 54/55, Frank Tyson, noted in his book on the series that Cowdrey did his upmost to combat the fire of Lillee and Thomson with an unshakeable asbestos calm. When England needed an emergency opener due to the carnage Lillee and Thomson had caused Cowdrey was of course the one, and as David Lloyd is fond of recounting, after one particularly torrid over from Thomson, in the course of which his old bones had been struck about four times, he opened one mid wicket conference with a smile and the commentthis is good fun isn’t it.

On his return from Australia Cowdrey announced that he did not wish to stand in the way of Kent’s youngsters, but that he would be happy to make himself available when called upon by the county, thus to all intents and purposes announcing his retirement. He was however taken up on his offer on a few occasions and, at the end of June, there was a remarkable parting shot at Australia, whose bowling was in the seemingly safe hands of Lillee, Mallett, Gary Gilmore, Alan Hurst and Jim Higgs as Chappelli, whose side had dismissed Kent for 202 first time round, invited Kent to score 354 in five and a quarter hours to win. Cowdrey, who spent the season going up and down the batting order like the proverbial fiddler’s elbow was in at first drop. The stiff target was made to look like a gift by Cowdrey as he rolled back the years and delighted the crowd with an unbeaten 151 as Kent won at a canter. According to Kent’s stand in skipper Brian Luckhurst it was one of the most brilliant hundreds of his entire career and that despite being 42 he had that extra split second to play the ball that batsman of the highest class always have before adding, no doubt with some satisfaction as he remembered the way that Lillee and Thomson had ended his own Test career on the softer English pitches he played Lillee’s short stuff so well and so early that he was hooking him in front of square.

Cowdrey repeated his offer to Kent at the beginning of the 1976 season, but this time he was called upon just once, to play Surrey in August when, in a drawn encounter, he bade farewell to the First Class game with scores of 25 and 15. His one disappointment in that final season was that he was not given the opportunity to step out for Kent in the same side as his eldest son Christopher who, a few weeks before, had made his first team debut on a Sunday afternoon. Christopher went on to emulate his father in captaining England, but he made little impact at Test level, and in truth simply wasn’t quite good enough, but he enjoyed a long and successful county career, as did younger son Graham, who to my mind always looked the better player, but who was never give a chance on the game’s biggest stage. We will have to wait and see what Christopher’s son Fabian, who made his debut for Kent in the summer just gone, might achieve in the future.

After retirement Cowdrey served the game in a number of ways. He had, as they used to say in those days, married well, and after his first marriage ended in divorce he remarried well too, so Colin Cowdrey never had to be anything other than a gentleman amateur, and whilst he went on to be a Knight, and then a Peer of the Realm, as I know myself he never ceased to be the most genuine of true gentlemen, and it was a great loss to the game when he died in 2000, at the comparatively early age of 67.


There’s a rumour England will be flying him out to face Johnson in Sydney.

Nice read mate. Would be a thrill to meet someone of MCC’s stature in the game.

Comment by Burgey | 12:00am GMT 28 December 2013

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