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Colin Cowdrey: a cheerful master who radiated pleasure while accumulating runs

By Harsh Thakor 

Colin Cowdrey ranks amongst the most complete batsmen in the history of cricket. On his day few batsmen ever negotiated great pace bowling with such contemptuous ease or conviction. In full flow he was galleon in full sail. Cowdrey was medley of perfect technical skill with outstanding natural ability like a technician and musician blended into one. He was an epitome of cricket’s grace and sportsmanship. Few were ever more gentle, polite and friendly.
I could hardly name a right handed strokemaker who treated a cricket ball as effortlessly, in the manner of another putting a child to sleep. Few were more adept in manipulating a cricket ball. None had more wondrous timing as Cowdrey, who resembled a violinist playing in musical concert, opening the face of the bat to send ball scuttling to the fence.
His hooking and cover driving was personification of perfection or glory and his paddle shot of a straight bat against spinners was manifestation of deft touch. Cowdrey’s plump build, surprisingly was no handicap to him, whether batting, bowling or fielding. In additional to supreme skill as batsmen Cowdrey , was a competent bowler of leg breaks in his early days and a stunning slip fielder throughout. Cowdrey was born in the hills of Bangalore, on Christmas eve in 1932, with his father, a tea garden broker.
Cowdrey gained his baptism into cricket as a schoolboy, in Alf Gover’s cricket school, and at the age of 17 played for Kent. As a 16-year-old he scored an unbeaten 181 against the Buccaneers and was picked for Kent Second Eleven; at 17, he averaged 79 at school and, in August 1950, was inducted into the county first team. He gave the first blemishes of his outstanding talent when scoring a hundred for gentleman against the Players at age of 18. Playing for Oxford, his batting was impressive scoring a century in the 1953 University Match, which prompted E.W. Swanton, in the Daily Telegraph, to compare him to Walter Hammond.

Cricketing Career

Cowdrey’s 102 out of 191 at Melbourne in 1954 was one of cricket’s classics, exuberating technical skill, innovation and domination in heights rarely penetrated. Rarely has a batsmen ever as single-handedly rallied a sinking ship, as Cowdrey that day. In 1957 at Edgbaston Colin scored 154 in a 411 partnership with Peter May, resembling 2 architects constructing a monument. Cowdrey resorted to extensive pad play, when tacking spinner Ramadhin. Cowdrey averaged 72.5 and scored 435 runs in that series.
At Kingston in 1959-60 Cowdrey’s 114and 97 was a hallmark in the art of handling top pace and a challenging wicket, manifesting bating prowess in regions rarely transcended. He literally made the pace bowlers look pedestal. In that series, his hooking of Wes Hall, was a personification of mastery Colin averaged 54.55 in that series, scoring 491 runs.
In 1960 at the Oval, batting as an opener, Cowdrey scored a mecurial 155 against South Africa, tearing to pieces Neil Adcock, taking domination to heights rarely scaled. In 1966 at Melbourne Cowdrey scored a blemishless 79 at Melbourne, where he literally had 2 shots to each delivery. It had classical overtones.
In the 1962-63 tour of Australia Cowdrey scored 113 at Melbourne and career highest 307 at Adelaide against South Australia. His 307 surpassed Frank Woolley’s previous highest score for an overseas batsman of 305 against Tasmania. In 5 tests on that tour, he averaged 43.77, scoring 394 runs. In 1965 at Trent Bridge he scored breezy 105, against a powerful South African attack. In that series he was consistency personified, scoring 327 runs at 65.40. In 1965-66 in Australia Cowdrey scored 267 runs, at an average of 53.40, including scoring 104 at Melbourne. His batting was an embodiment of high technical skill, rarely witnessed down under.
In 1968 in West Indies Cowdrey was consistency personified, and the architect of his team’s series victory. It was a sight beholding Cowdrey handled the pace and bounce of challenging West Indies surfaces. Colin averaged 66.75, aggregating 534 runs .in that series. His match-winning 148 at Port of Spain and 101 at Kingston were masterpieces. Sadly, in 1968 Cowdrey became a victim of a snapped achilles tendon and was forced to retire.
In 1974-75, at the ripe age of 42, Cowdrey made comeback like a phoenix from the Ashes to resurrect England from the grave, in the 1974-75 Ashes, in Australia, Cowdrey with the skill and courage of a military commander was the only batsman able to combat or offer any effective challenge the lethal pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. The duo literally caused a carnage or left the English batsmen shell shocked when bowling, with Cowdrey performing the equivalent of a counter attack to a bombing raid, or a surgeon performing on patient considered incurable.Cowdrey would drop his wrists to anything short of a length and take his bat down and across his body, away from the ball, even on the fastest of wickets at Perth. His outstanding technique won him the day. He was literally farming in a desert, with the wickets not suiting his front foot style of play.
Later in 1975 Cowdrey scored match-winning unbeaten 151 out of total of 354 against the touring Australians, with Jeff Thomson bowling at his fieriest. Cowdrey that day took batting prowess or art, to sublime proportions. Cowdrey captained Kent for 15 seasons, and led them to a County championship success in 1970.
Cowdrey retired scoring 7624 runs, with 22 centuries, at an average of 44.06. in 114 test matches and 188 innings. In first class cricket he scored 107 centuries at 42.89 aggregating 42,719runs.Cowdrey amassed over 1000 runs in an English season, 27 times. He was the first cricketer ever to play 100 test matches and overall century aggregate.
Remarkable that Colin in test cricket, scored more runs and averaged more away, than at home. At home he scored 3537 runs at an average of 43.13while away he scored 4087 runs at an average of 44.91, with 13 centuries. In test matches won Cowdrey averaged 55.12, scoring 10 centuries. This is laudable. He was the first batsman to score a century against every test playing nation of his time. Praiseworthy that Cowdrey had 120 test catches to his name, a then England record.


It is hard to analyse whether Cowdrey stood in the pedestal of the all-time great batsmen. Often Cowdrey looked out of touch and could be inhibited in his stroke play. His highest test score was only 182.Stiil, at his best, he could sit with the Gods of Olympus.
On basis of first class cricket Cowdrey was entitled to join club of ‘greats.’ Only 12 batsmen have aggregated more runs in first class cricket, than Colin, and only 2 have scored 1000 runs in season, more. In his era, for longevity, he outclassed any batsmen. In test cricket in his day, only Gary Sobers was more prolific.
I would have backed Colin, to have confronted the great West Indies pace quartet of the 1970’s and 80’s, better than any batsmen of that time. He averaged a remarkable 60.29, scoring 4 centuries and 1025 runs in West Indies. Facing pure pace, Cowdrey was almost as effective as the greats like Viv Richards or Sunil Gavaskar.
However, Cowdrey was not at his best, on the slower tracks, lacking bounce or pace. His batting could turn laborious on wickets devoid of pace, making him fret. Still he averaged a phenomenal 103, playing in 3 tests in India. Cowdrey lacked the reliability and consistency of his compatriots, Ted Dexter and Peter May, or Ken Barrington. He was relatively disappointing against Australia, averaging 34.26 overall against them and 35.13 on Australian soil.
Over introspection, or inhibitive approach often, led to his demise. More than often, he would contribute to his own dismissal, or look completely aloof, or in a state of trance. When the going was adverse or against him, he would look completely out of steam, like a burnt boat with his game turning stagnant and strokeless. Best examples are when he gave a slip catch in 1966 at Melbourne on a delivery which he should have caressed through the covers and in South Africa in 1967-7 facing bowler Hugh Tayfield, when after scoring a six, he restrained any stroke play for 10 overs, to eventually get out.
“He could sink into pits of uncertainty when the fire ceased to burn,” said late cricket commentator John Arlott. Fred Titmus felt “if Cowdrey had been forced to earn his money from the game as a professional instead of clinging on to an old-age amateur-like status, he would have been more pragmatic in his approach.”
Nevertheless, he worked assiduously at his technique. For technical correctness, I would rank Cowdrey, in the Greg Chappell class and arguably amongst the dozen best ever batsmen, technically. He was also a most unselfish batsman.
In my view, in terms of pure batting talent, he was in the Walter Hammond class. At his best, Cowdrey could construct strokes of his very own, or manoeuvre the ball at his own free will. If he had done justice to his talent Cowdrey could have averaged close to 55. In term of raw ability I would place Cowdrey, just a touch below that of Viv Richards Brian Lara or Rohan Kanhai, possibly amongst the 15 best talented of all.
For technical correctness, I would rank Cowdrey, in the Greg Chappell class and arguably amongst the dozen best ever batsmen, technically. Late Doug Wright and Fred Titmus felt had he done justice to his talent Cowdrey would have scored 200 first class centuries, while Fred Titmus estimated 150.Mike Smith stated “He made batting easier than anyone I have ever seen.”Late FR Browne rated Cowdrey the most complete batsmen he saw in his lifetime. Ray Illingworth evaluated Colin to be technically the closest to Len Hutton.
John Woodcock ranked Cowdrey at 47th place, amongst his best 100 cricketers of all time, while Christopher Martin Jenkins placed him at 78th place. Generally cricket experts rated Peter May, Ted Dexter and Ken Barrington, ahead. 6 cricketers chose Cowdrey in their all-time world XI, namely Polly Umrigar, Colin Bland, Neil Adcock, Bhagawat Chandrashekar, Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Appleyard .
Personally, I would place Cowdrey in the category of David Gower, Martin Crowe and Neil Harvey, and a notch above the likes of Zaheer Abbas and Gundappa Vishwanath. In my book,Cowdrey is possibly the best post-war English middle order batsman and would have made the World XI of his day.Almost impossible to separate him from Peter May and Ted Dexter. In my opinion, Sir Gary Sobers, underrated Cowdrey. Facing pure pace, Cowdrey was almost as effective as the greats like Viv Richards or Sunil Gavaskar.
As a captain, Cowdrey was unable to unite or knit England into a cohesive, world-beating unit, lacking the ruthlessness of his contemporary rival skippers. He could often appear defensive or lack adaisical. I recommend all fans to read the chapter on Colin Cowdrey in ‘The Centurions’ by Patrick Murphy, which most accurately summarizes his qualities and class. Quoting Murphy”Cowdrey’s batting was like the man, charming and prone to self doubt, civilised and human. We have been privileged to watch him unravel his complexities of the game that fascinated him. He was rare value when the jigsaw fitted.”

After Retirement

As an administrator as President of the MCC, Cowdrey did his utmost to save cricket’s Gentlemanly tradition or grace, and prevent it from being vitiated by crass commercialism. His annual lectures inspired cricketing folk like an acrobat pulling crowds in a circus, being a role model for public speaking.
He curtailed the domination or monopoly of England and Australia, in the ICC, to manipulate rules in their favour .As Chairman of the International Cricket council, he nullified the domination of England and Australia, to give the organisation genuine autonomy or rights .Cowdrey supervised referees and ‘independent’ umpires, and also carved a code of conduct for players.
Colin was responsible for the return of South Africa to the International Cricketing arena. Ironically, in 1968, it was Cowdrey who through the Basil D’Oliviera incident who paved way for South Africa’s expulsion from International Cricket. Cowdrey expired in 2000 on December 6th.His funeral at Westminster Abbey had a most tumultuous reception. Fittingly he left as Lord Cowdrey, of Tonbridge. I loved Cowdrey’s assessment when asked to name his perfect batsmen. He gave equal rating to Jack Hobbs, Walter Hammond, Peter May, Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards and Frank Worrell.He described them as “None were too professional in their approach. They were all masters, but cheerful, able to smile, and radiate pleasure while accumulating their runs.” To me this was perfect description of Cowdrey, himself.



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