28 September 1998

Cowdrey closes his Kent innings

By Robert Philip

WHEN you grow up thinking your full name is really Graham Son-of-Colin Cowdrey, so frequently are you reminded of your father's towering legend, you could easily turn into a resentful, envious little brat. Instead of which, Colin Cowdrey's youngest male offspring is the kind of son of whom any father would be justifiably proud.

He may never have captained England nor made 22 Test centuries, but G R Cowdrey represented Kent with honour and is just about the most entertaining lunch companion with whom you could wish to share a bottle or three of Sauvignon Blanc on a late summer's afternoon in the window seat of his favourite London restaurant, Launceston Place in Kensington. And having announced his retirement at the age of 34, thereby ending the Cowdrey family's 48-year dynasty at Kent, there is much to talk about.

"You don't want to talk cricket, do you?" he asks in mock horror. Yes, and no. I want to hear about Michael Holding knocking your teeth out, but I also want to find out how you came to be Irish rocker Van Morrison's chauffeur and Rory Bremner's regular drinking crony.

"My only regret as I ride off into the sunset is that I never played for England. But cricket has given me a wonderful, wonderful life. If I hadn't become a cricketer, I'd never have met so many fascinating people. Van Morrison, Albert Finney [another regular dinner companion] and Rory, who I met during a cricket tour in South Africa, among them."

A friend of the cricket-loving Georgie Fame, Cowdrey was introduced to Van Morrison ("my absolute No 1 music idol") backstage following a concert in Hammersmith. They became instant soul-mates, to such a degree the singer asked him to accompany him on his next British tour. "We just drove and chatted. I was in groupie heaven." Cowdrey repaid the honour when his step-mother, racehorse trainer Lady Herries, was looking for a suitably Irish name for a thoroughbred yearling of which she had high hopes and he proposed the title of a classic Van Morrison track Celtic Swing, the four-legged version of which went on to win the French Derby. "That's my only claim to fame as far as racing's concerned, though I've lost a few bob on Rory's ruddy nag."

Son-of-Colin was born to play cricket, of course. From earliest memory he and his brothers, Jeremy and Chris (another former Kent and England captain), spent their joyous boyhoods in the net of their garden in Surrey while dad fed them gentle off-breaks. "When I was 16, somebody - I forget who - made the mistake of saying I would be the best of the lot. Oh, yeah, said I, only 120-odd centuries to go. It wasn't to be."

Even so, Cowdrey's county average of 35.07 was only seven less than that of his father, "and one higher than Mark Nicholas. Go on, I dare you to put that in just to annoy the blighter." He also combined with Sri Lankan Aravinda de Silva in a stand of 368 against Derbyshire at Maidstone in 1995, which remains a Kent record for any wicket partnership.

Bremner said I should ask him about his teeth. "Oh, he did, did he? I was only 22 or 23 and it was my first game batting at No 3. I made 70 against Derbyshire in the first innings and returned to my hotel room that night thinking my career was really under way.

"Second innings, it's after tea on the final day and the match is heading for a boring draw. Our openers put on quite a few then a wicket fell and by the time I get out to the crease it's dark and gloomy. I don't know why but Michael Holding was still all fired up, I think he was really pissed off we hadn't made an earlier declaration.

"First ball was just short of a length and I sort of groped forward trying to see in the dark. Crash! All my teeth down the left side were knocked out and my jaw was broken in four places. I was shipped off to Derby infirmary covered in blood and had my jaw wired up. There's no doubt that put me back a few years. I was never frightened, honestly I'd tell you if I had been, but somehow my technique against pace was never quite the same. From then on I always struggled against the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose and Allan Donald. Did you know they called Michael Holding 'Whispering Death' because you couldn't hear him running up to the wicket?" ('You could hear your teeth dropping out, though,' interjects Phil the photographer a mite unkindly.)

Therein lay the great difference between father and son. "The old man never looked his best against your typical county stalwart bowler. I suppose that's why a lot of writers say he can never be called the greatest. But when the going got tough against the really great bowlers, he seemed to come into his own. I preferred them the other way around. Against the county stalwarts I was actually quite a good player . . ."

Graham Cowdrey first became aware of his father's great deeds shortly before Christmas 1974 when, with England facing Ashes ruin against Lillee and Thomson in Australia, the selectors sent for the most famous initials - M C Cowdrey - in the land. "I was allowed home from school for a week early because everyone thought it would be the last I'd ever see of the old man given the havoc Lillee and Thomson were wreaking on English batsman. I was only 10 so I had no conception of what was about to happen to him. Sadly, like most things in life, by the time I came to appreciate exactly who he was he'd retired so I never really got to see him batting at his best."

Although Sir Colin was bruised and beaten by the Aussie pace bowlers, the legend survives intact. "Especially overseas," says the son proudly. "He's speaking to a cricket academy in Zimbabwe tonight, but any time I visit Australia or India, where the old man was born, there are always reminders. In fact, I've lost count of the number of times in Bangalore or New Delhi someone has come up to me and said: 'Please say hello to your father. I was at school with him, you know.' And I say: 'No you bloody weren't, you're only about 26.' Everyone claims to know him."

A particularly depressing outing for Kent in a second XI match against Somerset at Taunton convinced Graham it was time to end the family's near half-century innings for the county. "I played and missed the ball a dozen times when this young pup in the slips says 'Jeez, I think we'd better tie a bell on it for the old codger'. He was only about 17 and I should have been annoyed. But he was right. I had the talent, I think, to be a top player, a really top player, but mentally I wasn't quite there.

"Did the pressure of being a Cowdrey get to me? It was probably worse for Chris because he got into the Kent team the year after the old man retired and was still fresh in the memory so he had to put up with a fair amount of odious comparisons with dad. But, yeah, I might have played for England if I'd been Graham Smith and not Graham Son-of-Colin Cowdrey."

There are some things he will miss ("the crack in the dressing room, mostly"), and some he will not. "I certainly won't miss having to face Curtly Ambrose at Northants. I had a real problem with him. I remember one time Dickie Bird giving me out then calling me back as I was making my way to the pavilion after one of Curtly's bouncers caught me on the arm and flew into the hands of a slip fielder.

"I knew I wasn't out but when Dickie waved me back to the crease, as I passed Curtly he growled 'you're a blankety cheat, Cowdrey'. From the look on his face I knew I'd made an awful mistake - I should just have whispered 'Dickie, you were quite right' - and predictably the next ball came right at my head. I swear to you, without trying, that was about the last ball I faced from Curtly all afternoon. Poor Matthew Fleming and Mark Ealham bore the brunt of the great man's anger while I made 139 at the other end.

"He never forgot, though. Sunday league games particularly annoyed him because he wasn't allowed to bowl bouncers, so I could hoist him over third man for six if my eye was in. But every time I took him for 40 or so on a Sunday as luck would have it we'd be playing Northants in a championship game the next day. The look in his eyes when I walked into the pavilion said it all. I'd love to have taken Curtly to the cleaners just once, but I never did. Still, what the hell . . . how about another bottle?"

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)