One by one the records have gone down before him, 1969

M.C. Cowdrey — centurion and captain courteous

John Arlott

When England met Australia on June 12, 1968, at Edgbaston, Colin Cowdrey became the first man to play in one hundred Test Matches. He was captain of England in that match and, appropriately enough, he scored a century. Characteristically, too, he reached 95 overnight and appeared much less anxious than his friends while he made the next five runs on the following morning.

One by one the records have gone down before him. As this tribute is written he has scored more runs in Test cricket than any other batsman except Hammond. By the time it is printed he will almost certainly have passed that figure: and half a dozen years of play at the highest level should still lie ahead of him.

Among the batsmen we have seen, only Sobers, who is four years younger, can be expected to pass his ultimate total in representative play, while Graveney alone among cricketers still active has scored more runs in all first-class cricket. His once promising leg-spin bowling is no longer regarded seriously but he is arguably the finest slip fieldsman in the world at present.

At the end of the 1968 season he had captained England in nineteen Test matches, Oxford University for one season and Kent for a dozen: under him the county won the Gillette Cup in 1967 and were runners-up in the Championships of 1967 and 1968.

Colin Cowdrey's cricket and his behaviour are both characterised by unrufflable rectitude. His batting is correct, splendid in its controlled rhythms but never in unorthodoxy or violence. Similarly, his bearing in face of treatment which has often been at least tactless, and which would have roused most normally quiet men to indignation, has been impeccably courteous.

For more than twenty years -- ever since he was thirteen years old -- he has been subjected to the uncharitable scrutiny of publicity: in that entire time he has never said a word out of place.

Yet it would miss his quality completely to think him insensitive: his almost boyish jump of glee in the field when an important wicket falls or his gaily quick recognition of a joke are those of a responsive and lively-witted person. His family life is ample indication of the depth and warmth of his feelings. His entire upbringing, however, conspired to make him self-contained, a man who thinks before he speaks -- and then, often, does not speak.

His father, the cricket enthusiast (top scorer for the Europeans against Arthur Gilligan's 1926-27 touring team in India) who christened his son Michael Colin Cowdrey to give him the initials of the unique cricket club, was a tea-planter in India. His only child was born in Bangalore and, at the age of five, was sent to England, a boarding school education and the homes of different relatives during vacations. After 1938 Colin Cowdrey did not see his parents until 1945 and subsequently only during their four-yearly leave periods until 1954.

He believes that his cricket was decisively shaped by the headmaster of his preparatory school -- Homefield at Sutton in Surrey -- Charles Walford, a capable games-player who, as teacher and man, adhered strictly to Victorian public school tenets. Across a gap of almost sixty years he saw no need to congratulate the young cricketer of outstanding promise, only to give him ample practice under a sternly critical eye and infallibly to correct his errors.

So faithfully did he maintain this attitude that Colin Cowdrey left Homefield at the age of thirteen quite unaware that he was probably the finest child cricketer ever produced in England.

At the suggestion of his headmaster he would have gone on to Uppingham or Marlborough if either school could have taken him before his father returned from his leave in September 1945. Because Tonbridge had an earlier vacancy he went there almost by chance, as he was later to join Kent rather than Leicestershire.

Before his first cricket term he went for coaching to Gover's School where the experienced professionals were so impressed by his talent that Alf Gover wrote to Ewart Astill, then coach at Tonbridge, and told him to expect a thirteen-year-old good enough to play for the first team.

That judgement was confirmed as soon as he went into the Tonbridge nets. But the propriety of playing him in the XI was debated under the concerned attention of the headmaster. It was decided that he might be accepted on a kind of probation. The problem was put to him: he was good enough for the XI: but if he played it meant that he went from fagging perhaps to bowl out the school captain in the nets, and then to return and become a fag again: could he do so without violating protocol?

It was a savage dilemma for a thirteen-year-old under scrutiny. There is no more conclusive evidence of Colin Cowdrey's sense of purpose than the fact that he resolved it; but it is not surprising that it made him an undemonstrative cricketer.

He was originally chosen for Tonbridge as a leg-break bowler but when he went to the match with Clifton two months later, he was also batting first wicket down. The outcome would seem a storybook fantasy if it were not to be read in Wisden.

The youngest player ever to take part in a Public Schools match at Lord's, he scored 75 -- more than half the runs scored from the bat -- in the first innings of 156, and 44 out of 175 in the second. In the first Clifton innings he took three wickets for 58 and in their second, when they looked likely to win, he put out their last five batsmen for 33 to win the match by two runs.

He continued, as batsman and bowler, the major figure of Tonbridge cricket for four years, until 1950, when as captain of the Public Schools XI he scored a century against the Combined Services at Lord's and went on to play his first match for Kent. A full season with Kent and two centuries, three years an Oxford Blue took him to the end of the 1954 season.

The father who was so delighted by his success, whom he had missed, and whom he so much desired to please, had retired and returned to England at the beginning of that summer. Sadly enough he watched his son as captain of Oxford have a relatively indifferent playing season on a series of wet pitches so that it was for his unmistakable ability rather than current form that he was chosen for Hutton's 1954-55 team to Australia.

While he was on the voyage out, his father died. Once more Colin Cowdrey contained his emotions and went on to the success that was, we may suspect, his tribute to the father he had so briefly known.

He batted capably in the first two Tests and then at Melbourne, with the rubber even and England reduced by Miller to 41 for four, he made his first Test century and tilted the match which turned the series.

From that innings he has remained one of the world's outstanding batsmen. He was dropped from the team against Australia in 1964 and West Indies in 1966 by selectors torn by the old tug between class and current form.

Over the last six years, too, the England captaincy has been given to him and taken from him in a fashion which, if it happened in a school or club would have been regarded as pettifogging. Always, however, he has continued without apparent pique and now is captain and major batsman of his country, as he and his father wished him to be. He has gradually found his feet in captaincy and his handling of Kent, particularly in knock-out matches of the Gillette Cup, has become enterprising, intuitive and successful.

His lasting reputation will be based upon his batting. The mark of greatness is clear in the air of time to spare about his stroke-making. He never appears to have to hurry and he is remarkably sure of the ball. The nicety of his timing and assessment of line and length are such that, with perhaps the exception of Garfield Sobers, he middles the ball more consistently than any other batsman of this time.

Because, in his early training, Charles Walford compelled him to concentrate, and because of his own studious bent, he has constantly enhanced his technique. Until he reached county standard his natural powers were such that he could play effectively with minimal foot-movement.

In his first season with Kent, between school and University, however, he was puzzled that he frequently founded an innings only to be out to the faster bowlers. Arthur Fagg, with characteristic terseness, told him "You aren't moving early enough" and left him to follow the thought.

He became more mobile and on Australian wickets in 1954-55 under the influence of Len Hutton, for whom he retains immense admiration, he became predominantly a forward player in defence against pace. This led to a series of injuries on faster pitches in England during 1955 so that afterwards, in the manner of the true masters, he became completely adaptable, a back foot player in some circumstances, front foot in others.

From the first his eye was such that he was untroubled by the speed of bowling. He showed his mastery of spin against the West Indies at Edgbaston in the first Test in 1957 when he and Peter May, by their partnership of 411, changed an apparent losing position, broke Ramadhin's domination, and set England upon a winning course in the rubber.

In dealing with Ramadhin primarily as an off-spinner Cowdrey evolved the technique of playing forward with the bat close to the left leg and behind the pad which has since proved remarkably effective and dispiriting against off-break bowlers.

Partly because he is tall, broad, reposeful and commanding in style, Cowdrey has been likened to Walter Hammond. He has, too, Hammond's power and control in cover strokes. He is, however, fundamentally different in method because, as he himself regrets, he is an instinctive off-side player born in to a leg-side age.

He has become adept in gathering runs to the on but he is at his happiest when he drives anywhere between point and straight. In recent years, too, he has refined his cover play so that by adjusting the point and angle of impact or by the turn of his wrists, he can direct the off-side ball along almost any line between third man and mid-off.

His stroke-making is all but perfect. Once in a charity match -- true it was no more, and the bowler co-operated -- he hit every ball of an over exactly over the centre of the sight screen for six: and the bat moved as gently as if he were patting a tennis ball back to a child.

For more than a dozen years he has been a target for the most intimidating bowling at the command of the Test captains of the world. In the West Indies in 1959-60 he took a heavy battering and at Lord's in 1963 his arm was cruelly fractured. Yet in 1968 he was playing with all his old assurance.

He is less acquisitive, less run-hungry and less combative than some of his contemporaries but he seems to relish, almost as an intellectual exercise, the problem of a difficult pitch or bowler.

If he has come gradually to his fullest maturity as a batsman, his advance as a captain has been rapid in recent years. His modesty and his deep Christian conviction have always combined to make him less aggressive than some in his approach to cricket.

But in 1968, perhaps because he had the reassurance of the rubber won in the West Indies, he handled the English team after Old Trafford with a firm sense of purpose. He had already worked to create a basis of communal feeling within a cadre of players and he built steadily on it until, at the end of the series, his players, rather than those of the touring side, had made the greater advance in team power.

His natural ability at ball-games made him a useful Rugby and soccer player while, in 1953, he surprised some mature opponents by advancing through the English Rackets Championship until he was defeated by Geoffrey Atkins, the World Champion, in the final. He is still a capable performer at squash, rackets, tennis and, increasingly, golf.

Cricket, however, remains his main interest outside his family and he still approaches it with an impressive blend of enthusiasm, respect and modesty. The chronic congenital weakness in his feet -- hallux rigidus -- which caused him to be invalided out of the R.A.F. will, he fears, eventually end his cricket career.

Until that happens there is no doubt that the first man to appear in a hundred Test matches will continue to play cricket in the classic style with good will and dignity.

© John Wisden & Co
 
Sponsored Links

Why not you? Read and learn how!