December 25, 2011

Being Eddie

Ed Cowan left the egos and personalities of NSW behind to forge a career with Tasmania, where his calm, happy demeanour helped his team-mates. It should help the national side as well

For a man who has bared his deepest thoughts and doubts in a diary of last summer, Ed Cowan's greatest attribute in the dressing room is quite the opposite of brooding introspection. It is an even temperament his Tasmania team-mates revere him for - so much so that younger members of the squad aspire to Cowan's unflappable attitude.

The Tigers captain, George Bailey, appears frequently in the book, often training one-on-one with the author, and at one point exchanging emails as they debate Cowan's place in the state's Twenty20 plans. Bailey has been as privy to Cowan's erudite, analytical mind as anyone, and he points to the lack of peaks and troughs in Cowan's dressing room mien as among the most valuable additions he has brought to the state since he moved down from New South Wales in 2009. It is the same strength of mind much desired by national selector John Inverarity in his vision for the Australian side.

"He doesn't fluctuate," Bailey said. "If he has a couple of bad games he doesn't suddenly change too much in terms of how he's preparing, and his attitude doesn't change much. That's a strength of his, and it has been impressed upon us in the Tasmania team.

"I'm sure within himself he battles those demons, but around the team you don't see that. He's very level-headed in terms of his performance. Whether that is scoring hundreds or scoring a duck, that same bubbly, smiling, chatty Eddie Cowan comes through the doors at training every day, and that is a great trait for a cricketer or a sportsman.

"It's something that I think he's brought to the team and he talks to the young guys a lot about, and something we certainly try to impress upon our younger players. You can have good days and bad days, but if you are sure that the way you're preparing is the right way to do it, there's no need for radical changes."

Cowan's reassuring visage around the team is no accident, but it was not something he always had. Before joining Tasmania, he spent six years on the fringes of the NSW team, carrying the drinks as often as not, and sitting far less comfortably alongside cricketers groomed in a far more merciless environment than that found at Bellerive Oval. Given the breadth of talent competing for a baggy-blue cap, NSW cricketers are expected to sink or swim. More than once Cowan sank, as the unflattering average of 26.10 in his 21 first-class appearances for the state might attest.

"What he hadn't had was continuity in his position and in his role in NSW cricket," Bailey said. "Whether that was good form or bad form, he couldn't keep his spot in the side, so the one thing we offered him was, if you perform, here's an extended stint in the opening position."

Cowan is certainly not the first from NSW to take the opportunity to move somewhere for a more regular spot, as Bailey points out. "I don't think it is the first team you look at if you want to relax and not be looking over your shoulder and playing for survival. He [is] someone who truly loved the game and wanted to give it one last crack at having a really good go."

The "fair go" is supposedly a universal Australian concept, but in cricket it may be best exemplified by Tasmania. Granted the chance to make a spot his own, Cowan began to flourish, emerging as the stolid opening bat and thoughtful and influential team man Bailey desired.

"I think when Michael Hussey started his career for Australia they talked about him being the best leaver in Australian cricket, and I think Eddie has that mantle now in terms of domestic cricket"
Tasmania captain George Bailey on Cowan's batting

"I don't think it is a bad thing for NSW cricket, but we just don't have the egos in the dressing room in Tassie," Bailey said. "Someone like Ed, who is great to sit down and talk cricket to, I'm not sure he had the opportunity to express that much in the rooms in NSW. There were probably a lot of people there whose opinions were more highly sought and considered more correct. So for him to be able to come down and start to express those more freely, and be so highly respected within the rooms, was really good for him."

Thus empowered, Cowan started to make runs in the volume that would get him noticed. Possessing a fundamentally sound technique well suited to the challenges of Hobart's often testy pitches, he had managed to overcome a few hitches down the years, notably a handful of early struggles against offspin.

An innings of 225 out of 389 against South Australia early in his first season with the Tigers provided a significant indicator of his potential for occupation of the crease. It remains his tallest tally, made while the rest fell to the swing and bounce of the one-time Test beanpole Peter George.

"I think when Michael Hussey started his career for Australia they talked about him being the best leaver in Australian cricket, and I think Eddie has that mantle now in terms of domestic cricket," Bailey said.

"He's got the capacity to bat for a long time, he's got the capacity to see off great spells of bowling, and what he's been able to do recently is on the back of good confidence and knowing his game so well, he's now able to start to punish bowling as well.

"One of the things I like about his four-day cricket is, he's pretty consistent in terms of if he gets a bad ball early he will put it away; if he gets a bad ball later he'll do the same. He doesn't accelerate too much, he doesn't get to 60 and think 'I'm in now, so I'll start playing a huge array of shots.' He just plays each ball as it is coming down.

"One-day cricket has challenged him to accelerate his scoring at times and look at different options, but I think if you look at his four-day cricket and where he scores, he's pretty well-rounded - he scores on both sides of the wicket, good off the front foot, good off the back foot, and he's highly competent against spin."

Spin has been less of a factor on Australian wickets in recent times than seam and swing, precisely the kinds of bowling that the team's batsmen have so struggled to combat in recent matches. Cowan's ability to fight through the best spells of skilled pacemen on sporting pitches has been evident quite consistently for Tasmania, typified by this year's Shield final, when he blunted the speed of Pat Cummins over more than six hours of obduracy.

"We've played on some pretty challenging wickets over the years in Shield cricket. I think Bellerive has proven since Eddie's been there to be a challenging wicket, and he's scored runs on that," Bailey said. "He's scored runs on just about every ground we've played at now, and he gets them in big games. Going on from his Shield final and a couple of tour games this year, the Australia A game last year [against England], he looked pretty good in both innings.

"That stems back to the fact he approaches each game the same. Even hearing him talk about the Boxing Day Test and shutting out the 80,000 people who are there, and just concentrate on the bat-versus-ball contest, and if he does that I've no doubt he'll succeed in Test cricket."

Aiding Cowan on Boxing Day will be the presence of David Warner at the other end. Like Cowan, Warner was forced to subsist on scraps of first-class selection for some time in NSW - the difference being that he was able to make his name in T20 matches all the while. Their marriage of aggression and consideration recalls many of the best opening partnerships. Bailey, for one, can see a future for the duo that extends well beyond the MCG Test.

"There is a nice feel to the way they bat together," Bailey said. "It looked pretty good in Brisbane [for Australia A v New Zealand]. The way Davey will punish the bowling if he gets in will allow Ed to not feel too much scoring pressure and just be able to bat the way he bats.

"Vice versa, I think Davey will flourish knowing he's got a solid partner at the other end - a great leaver of the ball and someone prepared to bat long periods of time.

"The opening partnership for Australia in Test cricket is so important, and if you think back to our more successful periods that's been the key area, so it'd be great to see a bit of longevity and a bit of faith shown in these two."

A little bit of faith and clarity shown by Tasmania allowed Cowan to grow from a junior member of the Blues dressing room to a senior one in the Tigers', and from a player of potential into one meriting a Test cap. It also helped him develop the temperament now so admired among team-mates and coaches old and new. And to pen a book. "All those things have just allowed him to be himself," Bailey said. "That is the most important thing, and the key to his success: he's just allowed to be Eddie."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo