A tribute to Statham and Cowdrey, 2001

Into the dark, cold night

Frank Keating

A radiant era, rich in recollection, seems in a sudden rush to pull down the blinds and shut out its sunlight. In 1997, cavalier nonpareil Compton; two years later, merry gallivant Evans and the rigorous Washbrook. Now, for pity's sake, Statham and Cowdrey.

For those of us of a certain age, when we were wide-eyed Jacks and they were giants, those distant mists through which strode England's cricketers of the 1950s will always be tinged with an auroral sparkle, a golden lustre. For summer after summer when we were young, a civilised, untroubled game rolled amiably along, genially cocooned in its own freemasonry. We in the grey, monochrome crowds, with our single-sheet un-glossy scorecards and unfancy picnics, were illuminated to a rosy glow by these knights in what seemed shining white. I am not absolutely certain about cloudless skies but, golly, the grass really was greener then. And progress was a simple fact, not an order-in-council directive of cockeyed and manic decree.

Those luminaries of England's cricket were household names that tripped off the tongues not only of monarchs and peers and bishops and fathers and sons, but just as readily of wives and mothers, sisters, cousins and aunts. They were praetorian guardsmen of the very culture and lore. Serious poets wrote seriously heroic poems about them. Fore and aft of that mid-century decade, towering figures serenade the memory in a rhapsody of twosomes like love and marriage, horse and carriage: Hutton and Washbrook, Edrich and Compton, May and Cowdrey, Laker and Lock, Statham and Trueman.

Wretched life - or, rather, loss of it. Only a solitary one is left of that resonantly stirring five-brace constellation: only the last is alive still and shining, the man called Fred, good true-to-himself brass tacks 'n' bluster Fred. He was 70 this year, almost two years older than Cowdrey and some half a year younger than Statham. Colin dedicated his whole self to cricket, and in those terms his life of devotion, and achievement, was a mighty long one. He was thinking of the good of cricket on the day he died (and, I daresay, on the day he was born). Brian devoted his life to bowling and so, in comparison, his was a short one. The phrase "he bowled his boots off" was surely minted for, or even because of, him.

Cowdrey and Statham were of the same time, the same land, and both were garlanded for their deeds at the sharpest end of their game's two disciplines. But they had arrived from totally different, and distant, points of ken and culture. In background and outlook they were alpha and omega, sun and moon, or, while we are about it, chalk and cheese. Did Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge choose that title because the lovelorn and lonely, but privileged, child had been happiest there at school under the familial canopy of its cloisters? Still in his school cap, the patrician princeling played first for Kent at windswept Derby. Welcome to the hard-graft workaday world, kid. Les Jackson, the former miner, shocked him by bowling a spiteful bouncer. The boy hurried off to enquire of Les Ames and Arthur Fagg the correct grip and technique for bouncers. He may have continued forever to fret over the intricacies of his talent, but there was never doubt about his valiance, or the touching gift of his quiet, sheepish, smile at triumph or disappointment alike.

Not many weeks before, in that precise midsummer of the century, the same staunch Arthur Fagg had opened Kent's innings at Old Trafford. He had followed on to that greenest of famed fields a Lancashire team that included for the first time, on his 20th birthday, a stringy uncoached colt who was being warned by his captain, Washbrook: "Don't bowl short to Arthur, lad, else he'll flog you out of sight." The cub, a natural, knew not what an out-swinger was, nor a yorker, let alone which Kent opener answered to Arthur. So he shrugged, and reasoned that if he dropped one short - just one - he would soon find out and take it from there. Arthur went for the hook, but the rearing ball hurried on him: Fagg c Wharton b Statham 4.

Four years later Cowdrey and Statham were England team-mates in Australia. For the next ten summers and winters, there was an aura about their different skills, and an innate pride in us that we possessed such players. Creative invention and authentic artistry. Both Cowdrey and Statham were strong and courageous in their totally different, craft-versed ways. Cowdrey's power was concealed in his timing; his was the gentlest of strengths. As Alan Ross had it, Cowdrey's batsmanship was redolent of both "the richest of ports and the lightest of souffl├ęs". For Statham, invariably up the hill and into the wind, line and length were inseparable companions. Maupassant wrote a tale of a circus knife-thrower who found, when he tried during their act to murder his unfaithful wife, that it was impossible to deviate from his ingrained and grooved pattern of hurling the daggers to miss her by fractions. Or as the bowler's Boswell, Eric Midwinter, bettered: "Brian could no more bowl a bad ball than Paderewski could hit a wrong note."

Even when, in later adult life, I was privileged to meet them, my sense of wonder in their presence never remotely diluted. Almost the sole published testament to his life's work that Statham uttered was, "If they missed, I hit." Enquire about details, and he'd shrug and say, with his unbothered half-grin, "Look it up in the book, it's all in there somewhere." And so it always will be. Indelibly. He lissomly bowled his last first-class delivery - his 100,955th, and the sixth ball of his fifth consecutive maiden - in the 1968 Roses match at Old Trafford, and then loped quietly away from the downstage limelight into more shadows. By happy fluke, all of seven summers on, I saw the very last of Cowdrey's 107 centuries, 119 undefeated against Procter and Graveney and Childs, and nicely at Cheltenham where the mellow, timeless, architecture of his drives, downhill all the way most of them, matched the slumbrous serenity of the College chapel in the golden evening of a heatwave.

In the winter before Colin Cowdrey died, when he was obviously none too well, I helped arrange for the now slippered, ermined eminence to make the journey all the long way westwards from Arundel to open a new technology wing at Hereford Cathedral School. And having done those honours, might he give an evening talk on cricket in Leominster? He would be privileged to do both, he said. Blimey! Squires and farmers' boys (and wives and sisters) packed the Corn Exchange to hear him. We were entranced, tight-squashed and some hanging off the rafters almost, till past 11 o'clock. Surely, he would stay the night? "What a wonderful evening, but no," the morrow was the House of Lords. And off he went, with that soft smile, into the dark, cold, night.

Frank Keating is sports columnist on The Guardian.

© John Wisden & Co