A Rescue Act Aged 41! Facing Lillee and Thomson

Simon Barnes in The Cricket Monthly, June 2016, where the title is “Call in Colin” … At 41, Cowdrey gamely took on Lillee and Thomson, because how could he not?

“Good morning, my name’s Cowdrey.” Words of Colin Cowdrey to Jeff Thomson in December 1974, spoken while Thomson was back at the top of his run “wanting to kill somebody”. It was a moment that mixed courtesy with a hint of gamesmanship in one of cricket’s more bizarre confrontations.

And a good morning to you Sir!

Cowdrey’s participation in that Ashes series was a classic example of futile heroism, and as such a thing of joy that echoes down the ages long after more elevated passages of sport have been forgotten. “We need a futile sacrifice at this stage,” said Peter Cook in a famous sketch from Beyond the Fringe. “It will raise the whole tone of the war.”

England were in Australia facing Dennis Lillee and Thomson, and after the first Test they already needed reinforcements. So they sent for Cowdrey. He was 41 and had made his first tour of Australia 20 years earlier.He had a quick net and packed his bags. The journey took 47 hours. He then stepped out to face one of the most fearsome attacks in the history of cricket, in the second Test, in Perth. He was asked to bat at three. If you’re going to make a futile gesture you might a s well do it properly.

He walked out, bat in hand, on the first morning in his MCC woolly, a jaunty figure but unquestionably a trifle stout. He wore an England cap on his head, for helmets were not yet part of cricketing life. As I watched the half-hour highlights show back in England, it was clear that he was a figure from an already vanished age.

I met him for the first time a year or two later and asked him why he went. He had a wonderful record, with 22 centuries. Why spoil it? Why damage the legend? I knew nothing about real athletes back then.

Two bats to deal with Lilian Thomson: Cowdrey at Heathrow on his way down underTwo bats to deal with Lilian Thomson: Cowdrey at Heathrow on his way down under © Getty Images

Cowdrey had clearly been asked the question many times even then, but his reply came as fresh-minted, his eyes lighting up: “The challenge! I couldn’t resist it! But that’s the thing about sport – you have to be perpetually two years old.” That’s how great athletes think. They know there will always be a last dragon, but they never recognise him when they meet. They just say good morning and carry on.

There was an air of desperate fragility about him facing up to Thommo. I hoped only that he would escape humiliation. I had reckoned without the contender, without the love of competition, the thrill of testing yourself, that lies in the heart of every successful athlete.

There were a couple of ugly and humiliating plays-and-misses early on, but after that he found his leave shot and, shuffling in from leg to off, he began to make a few runs. The embers of the great batsman were glowing red around the edges and even showing a few small tongues of flame.

“The challenge! I couldn’t resist it! But that’s the thing about sport – you have to be perpetually two years old”  He got hit once, square in the chest. Which showed if nothing else that he was getting into line. Why should we be surprised? He had shown his courage a thousand times before, and plainly, at least in his case, courage is not a wasting asset.

He looked competent and up to the challenge, finding stimulus in the joust, in the fearsome speed and vindictive accuracy. He remarked to David Lloyd, batting at the other end: “This is fun!” By doing so he achieved another miracle – leaving Bumble lost for words.

It was then, naturally, that I started wanting too much, starting to believe that the full fairy story was about to unwind before my hoping eyes. Sport can do miracles, of course, that’s one of the reasons why we watch the damn stuff, but its main business is brutal reality.

Cowdrey was out for 22, not disgraced by any means, and it felt like a kind of victory – as if a particularly pleasing form of courage had scored a moral triumph against a particularly brutal kind of excellence.

That’s not an interpretation I would make today – but then it’s not a situation that could possibly arise. Professional cricket has changed and such ad hoc, foolish and downright sentimental decisions are unthinkable.

Lillee and Thomson were cricket’s future, and they were brilliant. Their bowling was a thing of terrible beauty. Australia won the match and took the series 4-1, 33 wickets to Thomson and 25 to Lillee. Cowdrey scored 41 in the second innings of that match, his highest score of the tour. He played the rest of the series and finished with an average of 18.33. In short, he failed – but he did so heroically.

After Cowdrey’s last Ashes series, quixotry went right out of fashion in cricket and was never seen again. Perhaps it also made the arrival of the Kerry Packer circus inevitable. It was, it has to be said, a ridiculous interlude. It was also beautiful and unforgettable.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books


AUGUST 1, 2016 ·Sri Lanka at ‘War’ at Kennington Oval, London on 11th June 1975

Duleep Mendis incapacitated by Thommo, 1975

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