Fowler's lasting legacy
"I set up the Centre of Excellence at Durham hoping to give guidance and be the coach I would have liked to have been coached by. I was there to help, not tell them what to do."
So says Graeme "Foxy" Fowler, who last month left his post at Durham University after 19 years. If it seems a fine mantra, it has certainly reaped rewards; Fowler departs having nurtured 60 county cricketers, six captains and six England internationals, including Andrew Strauss, who led England in half of his 100 Tests. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the other five university centres of excellence set up by the MCC - and the direct implementation of Fowler's methods - suggest a job well done.
So do his charges. Cricket-wise, as Essex's Tom Westley puts it, "Foxy was Durham Uni and Durham Uni was Foxy". The numbers tell the tale of a fruitful scheme but the impact on graduates endures. They fondly remember their salad days - under the stewardship of one of the game's most seasoned, successful and popular personalities - and continue to call on his counsel.
The endorsements are as notable for their regularity as their volume. Fowler, Strauss says, "was the man who turned me from a recreational cricketer to someone who believed he could play professionally". Warwickshire batsman Laurie Evans isn't alone in saying "Foxy taught me as much about life off the pitch as on it", while Nottinghamshire's Greg Smith believes he "brought me self-awareness and readied me for what was required to play professionally".
Throughout these conversations, the same ideas pop up: that Fowler was a brilliant communicator and refreshingly old school; brotherly not fatherly, a friend not a teacher; seldom worked on technique but focused on personal development; nailed the simple things and wasn't prescriptive, wanting individual students to think for themselves.
All this was born out of Fowler's personal experience, as a cricketer with Lancashire and England and as an educator: he is qualified as an Advanced Coach and a PE teacher. But most important was his experience as a teenager. Leaving school Fowler faced a decision: join Lancashire or continue his education at Durham.
"I didn't know how far I was going to go with cricket," Fowler says, "and had always been advised to go as far as I could in education, so I went to Durham. When I finished playing, 17 years after university, nothing had changed - young cricketers still had to make the same decision. It seemed unfair."
Strauss was a second-year student when Fowler returned to Durham. The university had a strong sporting tradition and attracted quality schoolboy sportsmen, of which Strauss was one, although he hadn't settled on cricket over rugby when he arrived from Radley College - a path also trodden at a similar time by Robin Martin-Jenkins and Ben Hutton. Instantly, Strauss remembers, Fowler's new scheme had the paw prints of his larger-than-life personality - his cackle has legendary status - all over it.
"He immediately transformed this archaic student-led club into something better than most county setups," Strauss says. "We had fitness programmes, psychological testing, more structured practice, plans and routines. My first summer with Middlesex was after my first year and I was shocked by the step up. But by the time I went to Middlesex after second year, I was very well prepared. I was one of the fittest and my thinking about the game had changed in that year under Foxy."
Smith and Westley believe that they were fitter under Fowler's watch than at any stage since. "Fox's take was that because we weren't as experienced as the counties, we had to be fitter," Smith says. "So he had us up at least twice a week for sessions at 7am. We were ridiculously fit considering other aspects of student lifestyle." Westley's abiding memory is the sight of Fowler atop a hill in winter, launching high catches for them.
The showpiece events for the university, inevitably, were the county season curtain-raisers, though Fowler defends the fixtures from gripes about competitiveness: "I never asked for first-class status for these, they just gave us them."
Patrick Foster captained Durham University in 2009, was on Northamptonshire's books and is now a teacher and coach in Oxford. Today Foster looks to use Fowler's methods in his own work, remembering the empowerment given to students and the refusal to fear failure Fowler preached, especially when playing the counties. "On my first-class debut against Nottinghamshire, they were full of big guns and you're a kid," Foster says. "He made you believe that you're on a level playing field with them, you had a right to play them and a chance of beating them. All that stood between us and them, he said, was experience."
It is this trait, master motivator and communicator, that pops up every time. "He tried to help and guide you to learn lessons about yourself," Strauss says. "He did things exactly the right way for a guy coaching a university team, with a balance between nudging us in the right direction, but also allowing us to feel, as you do as a student, that you're in control of your own destiny."
Fowler demonstrates this when discussing Strauss: "If I'd treated him like me and not as him, he'd have had a Test record like mine. We were exploring the limits of his ability."
That "balance" Strauss mentions is crucial. In the balance between academics and cricket, the former took priority - "that's why they're at university," Fowler says. Students were encouraged to know their limits - in terms of sleep, of drink and of time required in the library or the nets in order to thrive. They were expected to find their own way, often a new experience after teenage mollycoddling from counties.
In the balance between encouraging and leveling gifted youngsters whose attitudes test the border between confident and conceited, Westley and Smith - who Fowler claims are two of the only students he ever gave "a proper bollocking" - certainly appreciated his guidance. Both recall a visit to Fowler's office, where, Smith says, "he just let me have it for ten minutes. I left, a bit shellshocked". Westley agrees: "We'd got a bit above our station during winter nets. I'll remember that bollocking as long as I'm involved in the game."
Fowler bellows that infectious cackle when I mention the social side of his relationship with the students that every single one has recalled - from a beer and a burger to focus Smith the night before a Lord's final, through wild nights after away games, to the legendary Halloween parties thrown by Foxy and his wife Sarah. Fowler's struggles with depression are well-documented, and there were long illness-enforced absences from Durham, but it's the good times that stuck.
"The absences were sad but inevitable, and we didn't know much about what was going on," Westley remembers. "But when Foxy was on form, it was incredible. He'd be telling stories and laughing, with us hanging on his every word."
Perhaps the greatest credit to the scheme is not just these cricketers' sadness upon his departure, but that Fowler never lost touch with any of them. Smith had recently been to dinner with him; upon Foster's release from Northamptonshire, Fowler was the first person in touch and actively sought him a new county. Evans and Westley know he remains just a phone call - or tweet - away. The production line has ceased, but Foxy's mark has been as stark on the English game as it has on each of those cricketers.