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Once more into the breach

The story of when 41-year-old Colin Cowdrey was summoned from his armchair, flown round the world, and thrown in at the deep end against the fastest bowlers in the world

A cheerful Colin Cowdrey leaves Heathrow airport bound for Perth  •  Getty Images

A cheerful Colin Cowdrey leaves Heathrow airport bound for Perth  •  Getty Images

The England squad in Australia this winter may be only 16-strong, but it is shadowed by an Academy side, never more than a few hours' flying time away. In previous winters, a small group of reserves has been kept on standby, in training, fit and ready to fly to reinforce the side at the drop of a hat.
A few years ago, when travelling was slightly harder, some opportunists happened to be in the right place at the right time, winning unexpected call-ups when emergencies left selectors hamstrung. In 1983 Tony Piggott , a player who, with the best will in the world, would not have been high in the selectors' minds, won a Test cap when he happened to be playing club cricket in New Zealand and an injury-ravaged England squad was desperate. Two decades earlier, Henry Bloefeld came close to being plucked from the commentary box to play for England at Bombay in 1963-64 when half the side went down with illness.
One of the most remarkable summonses, however, came in December 1974, when England sent for 41-year-old Colin Cowdrey in a desperate bid to instill some backbone to a top order ravaged by injury and self doubt in the face of a fast-bowling onslaught by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in Australia.
England had lost the first Test by 166 runs, and two front-line batsmen - Dennis Amiss and John Edrich - were ruled out of the second Test at Perth. Others were hardly in rude health. England's selectors in Australia, led by Mike Denness, the captain, decided during the Brisbane Test that another batsman was needed, and the consensus was that Cowdrey was the man.
While an ageing batsman who had made the first of his six tours to Australia 20 years earlier was not the obvious choice, the thinking was that his experience of the conditions was invaluable, and to expose a relatively raw batsman would be foolhardy. Others discussed included Frank Hayes, John Jameson, Mike Harris and Barry Wood. The most obvious replacement was Geoff Boycott, but he had already declined to tour and the feeling was that as long as Denness was in charge, he would not budge.
Cowdrey had enjoyed a decent summer, making 1027 runs at 38.00, and also made good hundreds against the pace of John Snow and Mike Procter. "We considered him," Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, said at the time the original tour side was announced, "but not that seriously."
Denness phoned Cowdrey at home on the last day of the Brisbane Test and asked if he had been watching the match. He confirmed he had, and then Denness asked if would like to come out and join them. "I'd love to," was the response. "It's nice to be remembered," Cowdrey told the press later that day: "I haven't been in cricket practice since the season ended, but I play squash and am quite fit."
In Australia, the reaction veered between surprise and ridicule. Keith Stackpole, who had played against him in 1970-71, described the decision as "amazing", adding that he quite expected Bedser to be summoned if one of the pace bowlers broke down. More ominously, Thomson warned that "Cowdrey is going to cop it as quick as anyone."
Within 36 hours, and after a quick net at Sevenoaks, Cowdrey was on his way to Perth, but the trip was anything but straightforward. The Boeing 727 carrying him and several of the players' wives developed engine trouble and had to detour to Bombay, where it was delayed for a day while parts were found. In the end, Cowdrey arrived in Australia after 47 hours' travelling.
As he emerged from the airport he was engulfed by the media, but was his usual charming and disarming self. The Australian press kept asking about how he would cope with pace at his age. "I can't believe they are as fast as Gregory and McDonald in the twenties, and I played them," he teased.
He had his first net the next day - 72 hours before the Test - trying to get accustomed to holding a bat again as well as the bright light in Perth and the extra bounce of the pitches. He could only manage an hour at a time, practising in the morning and evening to avoid the extremes of the midday heat, and he got his hands ready for his place in the slips by catching in batting gloves "to try to break them in without doing damage to the joints".
He had six nets in those three days, against bowlers ranging from schoolboys to former England spinner Tony Lock and Australia's Graham McKenzie, who warned him in advance when he was about to unleash a short one. "Cowdrey could have done no more to cram two months' practice into three days," wrote John Woodcock in The Times. "He went through his preparation with all the calm and dignity of a bishop, with time, a word and a smile for everyone," noted Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
On the eve of the match, England announced that Cowdrey would play, although Denness only told him he would be going in as high as No. 3 as the side returned from the nets on the morning of the match. "As Colin released the lock of his cricket case, it sprang open as if alive," recalled Tony Greig. "The gradually, like bread rising in an oven, a mountain of foam rubber rose from the interior. This was Cowdrey's protection, and he had obviously been well briefed. He padded almost every part of his body, but nobody laughed. We had seen enough to convince ourselves he was right."
England batted, and David Lloyd and Brian Luckhurst weathered the storm until, after 81 minutes, Luckhurst was caught in the gully. "It was the signal for tears to prick the eyes of all but the stony-hearted," Martin-Jenkins wrote. "The great crescendo of applause greeted [Cowdrey] as with his old familiar walk, sloping slightly forward as he moved, he strode out to face the music."
Soon he was shuffling across his stumps to get into line with the ball, his way of coping with the fast stuff. It was hard to believe that his only previous viewing of Lillee and Thomson had been little more than a fortnight earlier on half-hour highlights on the BBC.
Cowdrey hardly knew Lloyd at the other end, and Lloyd was left speechless (a rare thing) when after one torrid over from Thomson, Cowdrey met him mid-pitch and beamed, "This is fun." By this stage he had already walked up to a bewildered Thomson and shaken his hand. "Good morning, my name's Cowdrey," he said as Thommo gave him the eye. "I shook hands with him," admitted Thomson. "I thought 'good luck if you think that's going to do you any good'!"
Cowdrey took his fair share of blows, but he never flinched and won the respect of his opponents. He also met with some success in the match, making 22 and 41, but he struggled thereafter, ending the series with only 165 runs at 18.33.
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Assault On The Ashes Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Readers Union, 1975)
My Story Tony Greig (Stanley Paul, 1980)
I Declare Mike Denness (A Barker, 1977)
MCC Colin Cowdrey (Coronet Books, 1977)
The Cricketer

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo