January 19, 2016

What comebacks tell us about cricket cultures

A look at three returns to the top flight from the 1970s

Forty is the new 20: Colin Cowdrey gets ready to travel to Australia, 1974 © PA Photos

There's something about a comeback by a Test cricketer that piques our interest. Will he make a better fist of things this time around? Has he changed his technique, or has his temperament improved? If we had been fans of the player to begin with, we root for him on his return. If we thought his inclusion a mistake in the first place, we remain sceptical and may even wish him to fail. I'd like to consider three different comebacks in the 1970s and ponder on what they tell us about differing cricket cultures.

Michael Colin Cowdrey was over 41 years old and had not played a Test in four years when in early December 1974 he received a phone call from the MCC captain Mike Denness in Brisbane. Denness inquired if Cowdrey might be interested in joining them for the rest of the Ashes. His team had been shellacked - shell-shocked might be more apt actually - by Lillee and Thomson and had lost the first Test by a small matter of 166 runs. They needed a steady hand at the top of the order, and who better than the calm, affable and ever-reliable Cowdrey?

Cowdrey duly went off on a multi-leg 72-hour journey to make it in time for the second Test, which began on a Perth trampoline on, appropriately enough, Friday the 13th. Cowdrey made 22 off 101 balls at one-down in the first innings, and even more impressively, 41 off 96 in the second as an opener. He was always behind the line of even the fastest balls and seemed to have plenty of time to play Lillee and Thomson, making it a bravura performance, one that had to leave the most cynical of fans impressed.

Yet, in the remaining seven innings over four Tests (England won the final, inconsequential, sixth Test by an innings, having already lost four of the preceding five) Cowdrey had four scores in single digits and never once reached 50.

For all the feel-good drama it evoked, Cowdrey's comeback was emblematic of peculiar, if also sometimes endearing, English traits. There was the instinctive tendency to look to the past for answers rather than to the future. Where others might have sensed an opportunity to blood (okay, unfortunate metaphor there) some young talent for years to come, England chose to go with what was already known. Even if Cowdrey had succeeded, at 41, surely his Test-playing days were firmly over?

There was also a whiff of class politics to it: Cowdrey, the gentlemanly amateur, setting off in all his plump affability, like the bobby on the street corner, to bring calm and order in a faraway land where the settlers were getting a bit too rowdy. More than anything, it reminded me of an episode in one of Frank Richards' Billy Bunter novels set in Greyfriars school, in which a languid and rather reluctant Lord Mauleverer finally gets off his duff and teaches the rambunctious (and presumably working-class) bully Coker a thing or two about boxing - all within the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, of course.

Chetan Chauhan enjoyed three lives in Test cricket © PA Photos

Despite huge scores on the domestic circuit, Chetan Chauhan seemed out of his depth as a Test opener. In his first coming, in 1969, he played three home Tests - two against New Zealand and one against Australia - and managed a top score of 34 in six innings. Duly dropped, he returned four years later for two more Tests, against Tony Lewis' visiting MCC, scoring 34 runs, including a painful 22 in nearly three hours on a Kanpur featherbed. Chauhan was exiled again.

He returned to domestic cricket and scored runs by the ton. At one point in the mid-1970s, Chauhan's father actually filed a lawsuit in an Indian court alleging unfair treatment of his son by the selectors, and also wrote a letter to the editor of the popular Sportsweek magazine complaining about the matter.

Whether all that had anything to do with Chauhan's recall for the tour of Australian in 1977-78 I don't know, but that was a turning point. He went on to play another 35 Tests, in which he scored over 1900 runs with 16 scores over 50, and, with Sunil Gavaskar, formed one of India's best opening pairs.

I always had a soft corner for Chauhan. Early in his career, his Test match batting seemed (and I know this is very unfair to the man) to mirror my own ineptness, and his later success seemed vicarious redemption, as it were. The race is not always to the swift and the talented; sometimes dour determination will do just as well. Chauhan's belated success forces us to revise our estimation of Indian selectors and their ways. At least on this occasion someone's hunch in giving Chauhan a third chance paid off.

Bob Simpson: 10 years, no difference © Getty Images

My final instance is perhaps the strangest of all: Bobby Simpson, who retired from Test cricket in January 1968 after averaging a healthy 48 with the bat in 52 Tests. Ten years later, Simpson resumed his career as Test cricketer and captain of Australia, against Bishen Bedi's visiting Indians in December 1977.

Simpson was 41 but fitter than almost anyone on the Indian team, barring, possibly, Madan Lal. Besides scoring over 500 runs in the five-Test series (which Australia won 3-2) at an average of over 50 in the middle order, Simpson picked up four timely wickets with his spin and took many a catch in the slips.

And he did all this with essentially an Australian 3rd XI, as most of the top players (with the exception of Jeff Thomson and Kim Hughes) had left to play in the Kerry Packer World Series. Indeed, it was the latter threat to mainstream cricket that had occasioned Simpson's comeback to the game in the first place. It was simply astonishing that a 41-year-old could return to top-flight cricket after a decade and just pick up where he had left off.

As an Indian fan, it gave me a window into a cricketing culture where many players retired long before they actually needed to because competition from younger players was so intense, and seniority was never confused with sinecure.

Perhaps most depressing of all, it underlined the chasm that separated India's cricket from that of the top nations at the time. The famed spin quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkat, along with a batting order that featured Gavaskar, Viswanath and Amarnath could not win a series against an Australian team that in the first Test featured six debutants.

In the West Indies, immediately following India's tour, Australia and Simpson lost 1-3, with the West Indies pace bowlers ensuring Simpson averaged a mere 22 and retired for good at the end of the tour. And a year later, the touring English lambasted the still Packer-weakened Australians 5-1 in a six-Test series.

Three comeback stories, all from the 1970s, and each a window into a distinct cricketing culture. I wonder how much things have changed in the decades since.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. @SankaranKrishn