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The quiet stylist


"Like most of the European households we were not short of servants. There were half a dozen of them to look after the three of us and the duties of one of them, a lively teenager named Krishnan, virtually amounted to playing sport with me. If it was tedious for him to play cricket, soccer and golf with a five-year-old, he never showed it, and the friendship we forged then has survived the Raj, Independence and Partition. Thirty years later, he was still writing to me letters that began "Dear Little Master ..." It was a great disappointment to me to miss meeting him again when MCC played in Bangalore in 1964, for I was flown out only for the later matches of the tour."

These are lines from the autobiography of one of English cricket's all-time greats - Michael Colin Cowdrey, who died on December 5, 2000, after a distinguished career as one of Test cricket's all time greats, and in cricket administration.

Cowdrey played 114 Tests. One of England's best post-war batsmen, he scored 7,624 Test runs at an average of 44.06, including 22 centuries. He was also a very good slip fielder taking 120 catches.

Michael Colin Cowdrey was the baby of the English team when in the Melbourne Test in 1954-1955, the third of his Test career, he made a brave, match-winning century. The 22-year-old had received news of his father's death at the start of the tour, but soldiered on, thanks to the advice and encouragement from his young teammate Peter May and father figure and captain Len Hutton.

A boy prodigy who made a pile of runs in school cricket, Cowdrey made a rapid ascent into Test cricket via university cricket along with Peter May, his senior at every level of cricket.

Born in Putumala, Ooty, in December 1932, Cowdrey had a close connection with Tamil Nadu, and Chennai in particular. He was christened Michael Colin Cowdrey by a cricket-loving father who wanted him to have the initials of the apex cricket body of the day - but Ernest A Cowdrey also played for the other MCC, the Madras Cricket Club, once scoring 32 for the Indians vs. the Europeans. He later made one appearance in the Bombay Pentangular.

Cowdrey's early childhood was spent in India, before his parents sent him to relatives in England. There, he played under-11 cricket when barely seven for Homefield school in Surrey under the watchful eye of its strict disciplinarian principal Charles Walford, and scored what would have been his first hundred. He threw his wicket away in a magnanimous gesture, only to find that the scorer had erred and he had in fact made only 93.

Cowdrey eventually made his way to Tonbridge, in Kent and became an ornament of school's cricket. Born in India as he was, he did not qualify by birth for any county, and it was his tenure at Tonbridge that made him eligible for Kent. A courageous player of fast bowling, Cowdrey was also a master of spin bowling who perfected the art of pad play. The latter quality was much in evidence on the 1964 tour of India, when flown in as a replacement, he scored a match saving century in the Kanpur Test immediately on arrival. In the next Test at Delhi, he scored another century.

His bravery against fast bowling was responsible for his being recalled at age 42 to face the fury of the terrible twins Lillee and Thomson on the disastrous Australian tour of 1974-1975. Several years earlier, in 1968, he had marched out to bat against the West Indies fast bowlers with a broken left arm in plaster in the Edgbaston Test.

Edgbaston had been the venue of another memorable Cowdrey act of heroism in 1957, when he made 154 in a world record partnership of 411 with Peter May (285 not out), his captain. With expert use of the pads he demolished the hitherto invincible mystery spinner Sonny Ramadhin. It was a cruel end to a great bowling career, as Ramadhin never recovered from sending down 98 overs in that innings.

Another remarkable innings by Cowdrey came in a run chase at Barbados when England under his captaincy took advantage of a sporting declaration by Gary Sobers and achieved an improbable Test victory. He made 71 as England made 215 in 165 minutes of batting. Cowdrey led England to a series win on that tour. A memorable win under Cowdrey was over Australia at the Oval in 1968, a match also remembered for the historic 158 by D'Oliveira which brought him into the England tour party to South Africa as a last minute replacement for the injured Tom Cartwright and led eventually to the isolation of South Africa. Needing 354 to win the Test at 54 an hour, Australia were 86 for 5 when play was stopped by a thunderstorm.

Cowdrey, the captain, appealed for volunteers to help the four- man ground staff in their mopping up operations. "Within minutes, pin-striped executives, truant school boys and amused students were wielding pitchforks and blankets."

When play resumed, Cowdrey masterminded the dismissal of the remaining batsmen with a close-in cordon for left arm spinner Derek Underwood, which at one stage consisted of all the English fielders. Underwood took 7 for 50, and England won by 227 runs.

Despite these successes, Cowdrey was captain in only 27 of the 114 Tests he played. He was the captain-elect of England for the 1968 South Africa tour that was abandoned.

Knighted in 1992, Cowdrey entered the House of Lords as Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge. President of MCC in 1986-1987, he was chairman of the International Cricket Conference from 1989 to 1993, when neutral umpires, referees and the ICC code of conduct were introduced. Two sons Graham and Chris played for Kent - his home county - and England, Chris captaining both county and country just like his father.

For many of us who grew up listening to cricket on BBC and Radio Australia, that first century by young Colin Cowdrey made an enormous impact. The portly stylist of cherubic countenance who stood up to the fastest of bowlers and pouched catches with ease in the slips was an inextricable part of the romance of cricket. He was one of the game's gentlemen who said: "The quiet way has always seemed to me to be the right way to carry one's talents."

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