Tag Archives: Colin Cowdrey

Is anyone still playing cricket this weekend?

In the 1820’s William Cobbett  farmer, pamphleteer and radical anti-Corn Law campaigner set out on horseback across Southeast England to see the state of agriculture for himself, and to “enforce by actual observation of rural conditions” the arguments he had put to the Parliamentary Agricultural Committee against those of the landlord class.

On his Rural Rides he identified the southern slopes of Arreton Down (above) in the Isle of Wight as the place that produced the earliest crop of wheat in the country. 

Had Cobbett waited for the harvest and then looked down from those heights he may have seen, far below, the villagers playing at cricket, or even a caterpillar or two grazing on the toughened sea kale that grew on these salt sprayed heights.

One hundred and fifty years later Arreton had another claim to fame in the English calendar.  It was the venue for what was for many years listed in the Cricketer magazine as the last properly scheduled match of the English season.

As Maxwell Gray wrote in "Reproach of Annes" (1889), "Bwoys is made a purpose to tarment mankind, zame as mallishags and vleys." A Mallishag is not this beautiful, even to another Mallishag.

For more than twenty years on the final Sunday in October, Arreton Cricket Club played hosts to The Mallishags – an old Island word for a caterpillar which is particularly slow in the field.

The day before, Arreton’s neighbours, Havenstreet, played the Rest of the Whirled.  The two matches were devised, arranged, managed and publicised by Mac Richards an eccentric owner of a second hand book shop in the Island’s unofficial capital, Newport.  Mac had a facility with those imaginary numbers which Third Man has been banging on about.

Both Arreton and Havenstreet boasted that wonderful cricketing surface, concrete and coconut matting; still to Third Man’s way of thinking the best strip for the encouragement of pace, spin with bounce and batting that can cope with steeply rising pace and spin, and ideal for cricket in October.

(It should be remembered that two hundred years before, in the glory days, Hambledon and their opponents thought nothing of playing in October on grass.) 

With the assistance of his able lieutenants, George Wickens and Keith Newbery, Mac Richards selected his side for their instinctive expression of what was celebrated before, during and after the match as the Mallishag Spirit (which, although never exactly codified, preceded the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket by over a quarter of a century.)

A representation of the 'Mallishag Spirit' or how a caterpillar sees itself or what it's all about for the cricketing dreamer.

The Mallishag’s archivist recently informed an inquiring Third Man that “Oddly enough, I can only recall one match being played in the pouring rain. It was usually bright but bloody cold (and we all got proper shrammed nipper).”

However, he would not be drawn on the substance of the Mallishag Spirit.  Plainly, as Colin Cowdrey might have said, “If you have to ask, you don’t have it.”

The match began before most people woke on a Sunday morning.  It was a difficult decision whether to field first before the hoar frost had thawed or second when the sou’-westerly gale had got up and pierced the many layers of clothing sported by Mallishags and Arretonians. 

The pavilion at Arreton seen through the lens of Norman Foster

A huge prefabricated glass and plywood building (surely a later influence on the work of Norman Foster) sheltered the players from the infernal blasts coming in off the Channel. 

It had plenty of old sofas and armchairs into which players sunk.  Here they inhaled tobacco smoke, read the sporting pages of the Sundays, garnered the thin rays of sunlight penetrating the plate windows and glanced now and then at the departures and arrivals board.

Play stopped for lunch at 11.45.  This gave the players and officials fifteen minutes to scramble their cars through the narrow gate of the field and get to The White Lion so as not to miss a single one of the 120 minutes available to them under the old licensing laws from the 12 noon opening time.

During lunch, taken in an old and unrenovated stable block, Mac Richards presented his awards for the season.  When Third Man played in this fixture he was awarded a very chipped and old chamber pot.  He cannot remember what the award was for, but it was pretty clear that every award was carefully selected to deflate any possible sense of self importance in the recipient.

Had the Captain of Hampshire accepted his standing invitation to play for the Mallishags he would very likely have found himself later than night aboard the last steamer back to Southampton lugging an inscribed old lavatory seat.

Play was resumed in time for a few more overs and a few more slogs before darkness officially brought a close to the English season at around 5 o’clock when a frozen umpire at the bowlers end finally declared “Time”.

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Feast Your Eyes – Form to Fluidity

Even in Arcadia May and Cowdrey exist

Classical batting at its height in May and Cowdrey with their cerebral approach, their clarity of expression, the nobility of their design (disegno) that recalled the craftsmanship and idealised forms of Poussin.

From the Temple – Gower 1980:

And Gower at the height of his powers, the primacy of imagination and intuition – the solution of complex problems with obvious ease like a painting by El Greco.

Molton batting – Gower if he were playing today: the expression of inner necessity.

How Gower Would Bat Today by Wassily Kandinsky

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In which Everyman encounters the Ram again and then deals with Mr Inconsiderate

Picking up from where we left off yesterday, Doug Insole, three times dropped after a single unsuccessful Test appearance has been recalled again and has enjoyed a successful winter as Vice Captain of the MCC team touring South Africa where he has scored more runs than any of the other players playing in the Test side.

The reward for this winter form is a place in the side for the first Test against the Windies in 1957.

Those who have followed the story so far (Thanks, TM) will realise that this means another encounter with ‘the Ram’.

Sonny Ramadhin with the flicker's grip and an interesting and all-too familiar elbow position

This time he meets the West Indian off-spinner-with-carom-ball while batting in partnership with the England captain Peter May.  After a few balls May helpfully suggests that it might be a good idea to ‘have a go at him’ to knock Ramadhin off his length.  You first?

Insole batting number 3, has found the pace attack fairly straightforward but at this point, following captain’s orders, he decides to cut Ramadhin. 

When the county championship ended on the last day of August, they used to say, never cut the off-spinner until September.  Insole ignoring this advice is bowled Ramadhin for 20.  May soon follows caught Weekes bowled Ramadhin for 30 and England are bowled out in four hours with the Ram taking seven for 49.  [Thanks Skip.]

Collie Smith, uncharacteristically for him, compiles a careful 161 and the Windies finish their innings at 474.

England are left with two hours to bat on Saturday afternoon.  Again going in at number 3, and after playing a few balls from Sobers, Insole finds himself facing the Ram.

Everyman takes up the story, ‘He promptly bowled me a ball just outside my leg stump and slightly overpitched which I tried to force through the mid-wicket area.  I failed to make contact and was bowled off my pads.  I can think of better things to do on fine Saturday afternoons than scoring ducks in Test matches …’

It is impossible not to feel for him, but TM is afraid to say that it gets worse, or better depending on the point of view.

On Monday morning at the fall of Close’s wicket Cowdrey, who was already known for playing unusually behind his front pad, joins May who has another cunning plan.  In the ensuing partnership the two ‘invent’ bat/pad play.

They remain together all day, putting on 265.  Insole believed that Cowdrey never did managed to pick Ramadan’s ‘leg spinner’ or carrom ball, but on the last day May and Cowdrey continue batting together until Cowdrey is out for 154 ending their marvellous stand of 411 runs. 

May went on to make 285 not out.  The spell is broken.  Ramadhan had been asked to bowl 98 overs in the second innings.  But it was once again too late for Insole.

Although England so nearly went on to win the match with Trueman, Laker and Lock taking seven West Indian wickets in their second innings, Insole was dropped for the fourth time and would never play for England again.

It is no common achievement to play cricket for England as a one time wonder or a nine times wonder, as was the case for Doug Insole.

But Third Man hopes that recounting Insole’s Test career has demonstrated that, in a game that yearns to immortalise the few, Insole’s very mortality and human frailty speaks to us across the years.

He is our representative on the field at the highest level of the game.

We sense in him a universal truth.  He is every one of us who has been caught playing that stupid shot of ours, off the bowler who taunts us when we walk out to bat ‘here comes my bunny’, the player who does everything for his captain and his team mates yet fails in all but dignity, humanity and fellowship – those finer qualities.

Cricket had at least one further twist of fate for Insole.  As Chairman of selectors it came to him to deal with  Boycott when in June 1967 against an Indian attack weakened by injury the Yorkshire opener ground out a selfish and futile 246.  Boycotts’ disregard for all but himself was truly ‘not cricket’.

Pilgrim's Progress continues. Everyman and Mr Inconsiderate?

Looking back on it Third Man now realises how appropriate it was that the man, who symbolised Every Man and Woman that has ever taken the field to play cricket, held the responsibility to pass cricket’s verdict on a highly gifted player who put himself before his team. How fortunate cricket was that this Everyman had the courage and wisdom to drop the player for selfish and slow cricket.  It could not have been an easy decision.

It is said that Boycott has never forgiven Insole. If this remains the case, Boycott continues to demonstrate his blindness to the true values and spirit of the game and proves that Insole was right.

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Colin Cowdrey – Or the Essence of Cricket

The batsman’s job is to score runs and the bowler’s is to take wickets. Is that cricket in a nutshell or can we get even closer to the essence of the game with the help of the masterful Colin Cowdrey?

The batsman scores runs by timing the ball.  That is, hitting the ball in the sweet-spot of the bat with a force and direction that avoids fielders and makes runs possible.

Timing can be elusive, but there is no magic to it.  Some, like Colin Cowdrey appear to be natural timers of the ball, but that’s because they have near perfect techniques deeply engrained. Perhaps knowing they have this knack gives them the confidence not to force matters but to let technique do the job.

The Lap of the Gods? A young Colin Cowdrey 'lifts' the ball to midwicket.

Watching the wonderful golfers at the Masters, Third Man still marvels at the way a very good golfer drives the ball a long distance without the appearance of great effort.

Golfers bring the club down, shift their weight through the line, increase the club head speed with the rotation of the shoulders and the hips and a late movement of the wrist all with a consistent precision that allows them to hit the ball consistently and accurately with force.  Batsmen do the same but with a moving ball sent down by the bowler.

Look how Cowdrey (below) has finished after pulling the ball effortlessly.  No great follow-through, probably no great batspeed,  just ‘helping’ the ball to the boundary with consumate balance, poise and timing.   Those on the field with him as partners, opponents or umpires spoke of his ‘melodious’ bat.

In the balance – Cowdrey pulls to the boundary

All dismissals (barring run outs and obstructing the field) are achieved when the bowler interferes with the judgement of batsmen and induces them to mis-time the ball, either missing it entirely and being bowled or given out LBW, or hitting it inaccurately in the air to a fielder or down on to their own wicket. 

Cowdrey had periods in his career when he scratched and pottered around against even mediocre county bowling.   Many, including Test selectors, were perplexed by this.  But surely the explanation is that the more a batsman’s effectiveness is dependent on timing, rather than power, the greater the impact is when bowlers disrupt that timing or when the batsman loses total command of his technique. 

Feet of Clay - a rare moment when Cowdrey is induced to miss the ball

The aim of the bowler, therefore, is to induce in batsmen wrong decisions as to elements of the speed, line, length and eventual path of the ball that cause faulty, inaccurate executions of shots. 

The batsman’s game is to time the ball.  The bowler’s is to upset the batman’s timing.

Watching Cowdrey was to glimpse the essence of the game

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