Book Review: Gentleman and Player – Andrew Murtagh’s Engaging Biography of Colin...

Book Review: Gentleman and Player – Andrew Murtagh’s Engaging Biography of Colin Cowdrey, an Enigmatic Giant of the Game

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Of all the cricketers whose career and life might justify a biography, Colin Cowdrey must be near the top of the list. From the time he became the youngest person ever to play at Lord’s, at age 13, until his death 54 years later, he had a prominent role in the game first as a player and later as an administrator.

Cowdrey scored 22 Test hundreds in 114 Tests. He captained Oxford University, Kent and England. He toured Australia as a player six times. After his retirement from playing he was, at difficult times for the game, President of the MCC and Chairman of the International Cricket Council.

Cowdrey received a CBE and then a knighthood before being made a life peer, all for services to the game. He became only the fourth sportsman (after Sir Frank Worrell, Lord Constantine and Bobby Moore) to have a memorial service in Westminster Abbey.

The annual MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture was inaugurated in his memory. The epitaph on his headstone reads “…some journey, some life, some coverdrive, some friend.”

A biography justified? I think so!

Author Andrew Murtagh played first class cricket against both Colin and his son Chris. The backgrounds of subject and author overlapped in at least one other way. Both had strong loyalties to the English public school system. Colin developed a great love for his public school, Tonbridge, hence his choice to become Baron Cowdrey of Tonbridge. Murtagh spent many years, after retirement from cricket, teaching English at Malvern College.

Whilst Murtagh’s book is not quite an authorised biography, he makes it clear that he had the approval of Cowdrey’s family.

The family approval and the similarities of experience and background have significant advantages for the book. There is also a downside, however, which we will touch on later.

Murtagh gained access to the great man’s notes and diaries. He is able to harvest the recollections of Colin’s children. He can also explain, from the inside, the intricacies and peculiarities of the English public school culture.

In addition, his friendship or acquaintance with those who knew Cowdrey well results in many insightful quotes. Of the thirty or so people that Murtagh names as having shared their memories with him, most were Cowdrey’s colleagues on the field and/or in the committee rooms.

With all that help, Murtagh is successful in painting clear pictures of Cowdrey the child, the man, the cricketer and the cricket administrator.

He describes in some detail Cowdrey’s unusual childhood.

Cowdrey was raised as an only child in India, with no friends of his own age. At age six, he was shipped to England. His cricket-mad father had already given him some intense coaching. In order to discourage hits to leg, Colin was placed alongside the wire netting of the tennis court so that any leg-side slogs would risk a nasty bounce-back.

In England, his prep school head was another harsh taskmaster. And in his second autumn term, young master Cowdrey was surprised that his grandmother rather than his parents met him at the school gates. He was told that they had gone to work – not unusual, except that work was in India. With the outbreak of war, Cowdrey did not see his parents for another seven years. In school holidays, he was passed around various relatives in different parts of the country.

Maybe it’s not surprising that Cowdrey’s son Jeremy says “Dad never really spoke about his parents.” And if Cowdrey had a few personality quirks, many another child, faced with such a dysfunctional upbringing, might have grown up with more hang-ups than a coat-rack.

In fact, as a man, Cowdrey comes across as kind, sophisticated and charming, with a high level of interpersonal skills. Murtagh quotes playwright and ex-playing colleague James Graham Brown: “He made you feel you were the most important person in the room and that it was a privilege for him to be speaking to you.”

Cowdrey was an inveterate and skilled networker.

There is no doubt that he sometimes used this to his own advantage. After all, his first wife was his boss’s daughter and his second was the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, the premier peer of the realm.

But there are plenty of examples of his skill and delight in fixing things for others. Australian cricketer and schoolmaster John Inverarity, for example, describes how Colin arranged a contact that led to him gaining a post at Tonbridge School.

Murtagh wrestles successfully with the enigmas of Cowdrey the batsman and Cowdrey the captain.

Possessed of sublime batting skills, including the gift of perfect timing best displayed in his incomparable cover drive, Cowdrey could also become totally becalmed at the wicket.

The truth is that his well-grooved technique was both a blessing and a curse. In many ways, he had been taught well. He had a rare stillness at the crease – as he said, “a clear photograph needs a still head.” Given pace on the ball, he could bring a wide range of shots into play.

But if the wicket was slow and the bowler was simply putting it on the spot, it could be a different story. “Pawky” is the word used by veteran cricket writer John Woodcock to describe Cowdrey at his worst.

As for the kind of improvisations that are second nature to present-day batsmen, Cowdrey simply couldn’t do it. The man himself lamented the contrast between himself and Peter May, with whom he shared a record partnership of 411 against West Indies in 1957. May would, as the moderns do, take his front foot away from the line of the ball and hit over mid-off or cover. “It felt odd and alien to me,” said Cowdrey. He was hide-bound by the technique drilled into him in childhood.

Murtagh tackles a similar conundrum in assessing Cowdrey the captain.

Many who played under him spoke highly of his leadership skills. Derek Ufton says: “He was no tactical genius, though he knew the game inside out. His strength as a leader was his personality.”

Graham Johnson confirms: “I knew none better. He made young players like me feel very important.”

And Kent overseas star Asif Iqbal adds a key point: “He could absorb pressure like a sponge, never allowing it to go down to his players.”

What about Cowdrey the Test captain?

Murtagh points out that he was ill-treated by the selectors, often only getting the job by default when others failed in one way or another. As a result, his self-doubts, never far from the surface, could make him appear indecisive.

But when he was fully in control and felt that he had the confidence of the selectors, as was the case when he led a winning tour to West Indies, he was more decisive.

Murtagh quotes Tom Graveney: “I’d always believed he was too much of a good-natured sort of bloke to be a wholly convincing England captain. But on this tour he cracked the whip.”

As for Cowdrey’s off-the-field cricket career, the book makes clear his contribution at the local, national and international levels.

As a loyal man of Kent, for example, he apparently attended 164 functions during the winter of 1957/58 to drum up support for the county team. Even if we stretch the close season to, say, 30 weeks, that is more than five events a week!

Nationally, his conciliatory skills were much needed when he became president of MCC in 1987.

The Club was in conflict with the Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB), the predecessor of the ECB. Both the secretary and the treasurer resigned and the members refused to pass the annual report.

Eventually, in large part because of Cowdrey’s efforts, peace was achieved. But by the time a Special General Meeting finally accepted the annual report, Cowdrey was in hospital recovering from a triple bypass operation.

Other writers might have covered these events just with recourse to Wisden. Murtagh does quote from the good book. But here, as elsewhere, he also uses his ability to get information from key people. He is able to quote former MCC secretary Roger Knight, TCCB secretary Alan Smith, Worcestershire secretary Mike Vockins and MCC treasurer Hubert Doggart.

In 1989, Cowdrey became chairman of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

There were big issues to address here. He managed to secure the independence of the ICC from the MCC and (for the time being, at least) any of the national boards of control. He was also able to gain agreement to the use of match referees and neutral umpires in international cricket. Not only that, he was instrumental in ensuring the re-admission of South Africa to international cricket. Not a bad set of achievements.

What about those downsides that arise because of the closeness with the Cowdrey family and friends? It has to be said that Murtagh occasionally succumbs to the temptation to gloss over some of the more controversial issues that arose during Cowdrey’s career.

To be fair Murtagh does give a full airing to Cowdrey’s role, as England captain and selector, in the D’Oliveira affair and the failure to pick the Cape Coloured cricketer for a tour of South Africa where he would have been unwelcome.

With the recent death of Doug Insole, we have lost the last surviving member of the group of ten people (yes, really) who met to select the team for the South African tour that never was. And the minutes of the meeting have disappeared. So we will never know exactly who said what and whether or not political pressure was brought to bear to exclude D’Oliveira.

What does emerge is the possibility that D’Oliveira’s exclusion was prompted partly by Cowdrey’s experience of captaining him in the West Indies the previous winter.

Murtagh quotes playing colleague Jim Parks: “Everybody would buy him a drink, and Bas being Bas, he couldn’t say no. That was his trouble really.”

Murtagh also goes back to conversations he had with the late Tom Graveney, the subject of Murtagh’s previous book. “You know, before Bas came to England, he never drank. He had this weakness. He couldn’t handle it. And of course it got the better of him.”

So maybe the decision was, in part at least, for neither pure cricketing nor political reasons. It could be that the thought of D’Oliveira, by common consent a delightful man when sober, repeating his West Indies behaviour when under inevitably close scrutiny in his home country was too much for Cowdrey and his fellow selectors to contemplate.

Whatever the true reasons, it was at best naive of Cowdrey to tell D’Oliveira, after he had scored a historic hundred in the last Test against Australia a few days earlier, that he was “on the plane.”

Other areas of controversy are either sidestepped or seen from the Cowdrey perspective rather than dealt with objectively.

When Garry Sobers made a generous declaration and gave England the chance of a famous Test (and series) win on that West Indies tour, did Cowdrey, as captain, initially argue against going for the runs? That well-known dasher Geoffrey Boycott, amongst others, has alleged as much. Murtagh is silent. In any event, Cowdrey played a key innings in leading England to victory so maybe it doesn’t matter too much.

Murtagh is equivocal in discussing Cowdrey’s reputation as a walker. Often, when he edged to the wicket keeper, Cowdrey would, with some ostentation, tuck his bat under his arm and, removing his gloves, march off in advance of any umpire’s decision.

But, especially late in his career, he would sometimes edge and then look anywhere other than at the umpire, maybe hoping that the man in the white coat would think “Colin’s not walking. He must have missed it.”

Murtagh makes the point that, even in Cowdrey’s day, walking was by no means the norm. But the moral ambivalence of being an occasional walker is not fully addressed.

Of less relevance in a cricketing biography is the story of Cowdrey’s divorce from his first wife, Penny, the mother of his children, and his relationship and later marriage to Anne, Lady Herries, eldest daughter of the Duke of Norfolk.

Murtagh addresses this chapter of his subject’s life with declared reluctance. It was clearly a devastating blow for his wife Penny and their children. Murtagh touches lightly on the contrasts between Penny, a highly strung “force of nature” and Anne, described by Cowdrey’s daughter Carol as “totally unsociable.”

One thing that is clear is that Anne gave him peace as his health declined, prior to his early death aged just 67 following a stroke.

Overall, if there is some airbrushing of Cowdrey’s faults and weaknesses, it is a small price to pay for a thoroughly well-written, absorbing and engaging account of the life of such a complex man.

Those who saw Colin Cowdrey in his long prime will enjoy re-living his great days. Many younger cricket lovers can, by reading Andrew Murtagh’s book, discover why Cowdrey was such a major figure in the world of cricket in the second half of the last century.

Gentleman and Player, The Story of Colin Cowdrey, Cricket’s Most Elegant and Charming Batsman by Andrew Murtagh is published by Pitch Publishing

For more information, click here.

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