Three of a Kind

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

Joe Root did something very special at the first Test between India and England at Chennai. He scored a century in his hundredth Test. In fact he scored a double century. Only nine batsmen have managed to score a century in their hundredth Test; Root is the first to make his a double, though Ricky Ponting scored one in each innings of his hundredth Test, against South Africa at Sydney in 2005-06. Only two Englishmen had done it before; each of them, like Root, was one of the outstanding cricketers of his generation.

Colin Cowdrey was the first man to play in a hundred Tests; it was the third Test of the 1968 Ashes, at Edgbaston. (It was the 639th Test match – the first was played in Melbourne in March 1877; Chennai was the 2049th.) The game had to wait 13 years before another man managed 100 Tests (Geoff Boycott, also against Australia at Lord’s in 1981) and over 20 years before another man managed a century in his hundredth Test (Javed Miandad against India at Lahore in 1989-90).

Like Root in India, Cowdrey was England’s captain in 1968.The series was a tightly-fought, severely rain-affected contest which ended with a dramatic series-levelling win for England at The Oval. Derek Underwood was the hero of the final day but the game will always be remembered because of a magnificent century by England’s South African born all-rounder Basil D’Oliveira. Of course this turned out to be not simply a match-changing but a world-changing innings because of the subsequent non-selection of D’Oliveira – who was only playing at The Oval because of a last-minute injury to Roger Prideaux – for the tour of South Africa, followed by MCC’s rapid volte face and the subsequent cancellation of the tour by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Australia had won the first Test at Old Trafford by 159 runs, thanks to a good all-round performance including Doug Walters’ best game in England (81 and 86). D’Oliveira made England’s top score in the match, 87 not out in the second innings, but was dropped. The second Test at Lord’s was a rain-affected draw, though Australia, bowled out for 78, were forced to follow on.

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The Edgbaston game was another rain-fashioned stalemate dominated by England thanks to their first innings 409. There was no play on the first day at all, and England’s openers, Boycott and John Edrich started very cautiously. Cowdrey replaced Boycott with the score on 80, made in 154 minutes, being applauded all the way to the wicket by the 18,000 spectators. He was in superb touch from the start. As he always did when he was at his best he drove sumptuously through the covers and also placed the ball brilliantly on the leg side. He went lame with a damaged leg muscle just before reaching 50 and demonstrated an intriguing appetite for risk by having Boycott as his runner. He put on 108 with Edrich (88), and 93 with Tom Graveney (96); the two elegant right-handers put on 67 in the last 70 minutes of play on the second day. Cowdrey reached his hundred (he was out for 104) on the third morning, his 21st in all and his fifth against Australia (his first against them in England). In the course of the innings he also became the second batsman after Wally Hammond to pass 7,000 runs in Test cricket.

Australia were all out for 222, having been 213 for four. In the end they were set 330 to win – and their captain, Bill Lawry, was also injured, but rain washed out most of the final day.

Cowdrey had the mark of greatness on him almost from the start. Chosen as a 21-year old for Len Hutton’s tour of Australia in 1954-55 he found himself going in to bat on the first morning of the crucial third Test at the MCG with the score on 21 for two, and it was soon 41 for four. Keith Miller took three for five in nine overs before lunch. But Cowdrey stood firm, finishing with 102 out of 191. Frank Tyson and Brian Statham blasted England to victory by 128 runs and ultimately to a famous series win despite having lost the first Test at Brisbane by an innings and 154 runs.

“Such an innings”, wrote Alan Ross in his book on the tour, Australia ’55, “set the mind searching for comparisons. But in fact it belonged only to Cowdrey, a blend of leisurely driving and secure back play, of power and propriety. The crowd cheered long and movingly. Cowdrey smiled with pure pleasure, a smile of disbelief.”

Destiny, and privilege, had given him a helping hand. He was born in Bangalore, and his father, himself a cricket tragic, did not choose his son’s forenames Michael Colin, by accident. (Tragedy did indeed strike later: Cowdrey senior passed away while the MCC party were steaming towards Fremantle in October 1954.) Educated at Tonbridge and Brasenose, Oxford, Cowdrey somehow always seemed destined for the cricketing heights. The captaincy of Kent was almost a given. And as can be seen from Melbourne ’55, there was no doubting his pedigree as a batsman. At his best he was glorious to watch, like a galleon in full sail, as John Woodcock said.

He was a “big” figure in every sense, comfortably built, as they say. That’s not to say he wasn’t fit. He was a natural athlete, a brilliant rackets player, and a fine slip fielder, bettered only by Phil Sharpe among his England contemporaries. He was very popular among spectators wherever he went. I still remember the first county game I went to, the traditional Whitsun match between Hampshire and Kent at the old County Ground in Southampton in 1962. (We had lunch in a tent; it was very exciting – I can still smell the freshly mown grass.) Cowdrey going out to bat, at his customary number four position, was recognisably an event.

By then he had already achieved a great deal. He had captained England a number of times; he was the holder of a world record partnership. And much more was to come; a hundred first-class centuries. There was finally a proper stab at the national captaincy, starting after a convenient allegation of time-wasting against the incumbent Brian Close at the end of the 1967 season and terminated cruelly by injury in 1969. There was the extraordinary recall to the colours against Lillee and Thomson in 1974-75: his sixth tour of Australia (four as vice-captain), and a final flourish a glorious hundred for Kent against the touring Australians at his beloved Canterbury. After retirement, there was the MCC Presidency, the recognition of his name in the Spirit of Cricket lectures and a life peerage.

And yet… Nobody can complain about an average of 44 in over 100 Tests in that era. There seems to be agreement, though, that Cowdrey could have achieved more. Ross put it best, in an article written long after the tour book:” At his best he was a dolphin among minnows….At his less good he seemed imprisoned by some interior gaoler, feet chained arms pinioned, shuffling away a long sentence.” A certain diffidence could affect his batting and his captaincy.

There are other issues. He was a leading amateur in the days when the English game was divided between amateurs and professionals. The universal popularity referred to above may not have been so evident then. When Ray Illingworth took the MCC tourists to Australia in 1970-71, Cowdrey was vice- captain and a former Kent (amateur) captain, David Clark, was manager. That arrangement doesn’t seem to have worked very well. But it didn’t stop Illingworth winning The Ashes.

Then there was the D’Oliveira Affair. This was an issue, like the whole question of sporting links with South Africa, that rent cricket asunder and ended lifelong friendships. Cowdrey, as England captain and Establishment man par excellence, seems to have played a less than glorious role.

The time is long overdue for a full, objective biography of this immensely important figure in English cricket history.

England’s home series against West Indies in 2000, although won 3-1 by the home side, had some decidedly dramatic moments, notably during the extraordinary second Test at Lord’s, which England won by Two wickets on the third evening. West Indies had won the first game at Edgbaston by an innings and 93 runs. The third Test, at Old Trafford, was unusual in that not one but two England players were playing in their hundredth Test: former captains Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart. And it was Stewart who graced the occasion by scoring 105. He went to the wicket in England’s first innings with the score on 17 for three and batted with what Wisden called monumental assurance: “the innings of a man without a smidgin of doubt about his cricket or his life”. The game was drawn.

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Stewart was an underrated cricketer. That may seem an odd thing to say about a man who played 133 Tests, more than any Englishmen apart from Sir Alastair Cook, James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Underrated may not be quite the right word. Under-appreciated? Maybe. He had a Test batting average of “only” 39. He captained England in a losing Ashes series Down Under, followed by a catastrophic World Cup at home. He always seemed to be the next best wicketkeeper available but was usually picked anyway. A handsome stroke maker off front and back foot, the image of him that many will carry in their minds – his YouTube moment – is as the victim of an unplayable Shane Warne flipper. Not many judges would pick him in their best-ever England eleven – he might squeeze into the third or fourth team – but Stewart was precisely what many a team really need; he was a survivor, playing throughout the turbulence of the 1990s as other players came and went, making his debut against the West Indies in 1989-90 at the age of 26 and finishing at his home ground at The Oval against South Africa in 2003 at 40.

According to his England teammate and contemporary Angus Fraser, Stewart’s survival skills were learned in a fractious and clique-ridden Surrey dressing room in the 1980s. It didn’t hurt that he added a second string to his bow, turning himself into a more than serviceable wicketkeeper. Indeed, the striking thing about Stewart, at the start of his career, was his determination, almost desperation not just to succeed but to make himself indispensable. Mike Selvey observed this in his profile of Stewart in the 1993 Wisden: “It was at Lord’s, midway through the morning session of the fourth one-day international last summer, that it was spotted. Alec Stewart, England captain for the day, opening batsman some days, floating middle-order batsman other days, infielder, outfielder, shake-it-all-about fielder, wicketkeeper, was standing behind the bowler’s stumps, quietly buffing the ball on his flannels as, with a wave here and a flourish there, he set the field. “Omigod,” said someone, “I think he’s going to bowl”.”

The fact that his father, Micky, was England manager when Alec got into the side did not make the son’s path an easy one. He was dropped after Graham Gooch’s disastrous Ashes tour of 1991 but recalled for the final game of the West Indies’ series that summer, as wicketkeeper, and did well. A couple of weeks later he made his first Test century, against Sri Lanka, and after that was pretty well ever present until he retired.

He was a fine and handsome batsman, busy, proactive, driving with a flourish and a particularly good puller and cutter of fast bowling. He was less assured against spin. Unlike Cowdrey and Root for whom technical mastery was and is critical, Stewart was more instinctive, which accounted for his purple patches being interspersed with periods of relative failure.

His relish for pace meant that he was at his best as an opener. His finest match was at Bridgetown in 1993-94, where England won the fourth Test by 208 runs becoming the first visiting team to win a Test in Barbados since R E S Wyatt’s England side in 1934-35. Stewart, opening the batting with Atherton scored 118 and 143. The bowlers included Curtly Ambrose (four wickets in the first innings; in the previous Test, at Port of Spain, he had bowled England out for 46, Stewart top scoring with 18), Courtney Walsh (five in the second) and the Benjamins, Winston and Kenny.

Of course he couldn’t always open because he was needed to keep wicket. The 1992 series against Pakistan was a good example. He started the series opening with Gooch, and made 190 in the first Test, and 74 and 69 not out in the second. Jack Russell kept wicket. By the fourth Test Russell had been dropped to accommodate another batsman and Stewart’s highest score in the last two Tests was 31.

As Gooch’s vice-captain Stewart seemed his likely successor but the job went to Atherton and Stewart succeeded him in 1997. Being a trusty lieutenant was probably a better role for him but there was no disgrace in losing to Australia in 1998-99. Atherton, Stewart and the next England captain, Nasser Hussain, played all their international cricket at a time of unprecedented Australian dominance. Between them they played 89 Tests against Australia and hit four centuries (two by Hussain). Australia won the 1998-99 series three-one. Stewart kept wicket in the first three Tests two of which were lost, so The Ashes were secure. England won a famous victory, by 12 runs, in the fourth, the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne. The victory was set up by a belligerent 107 on the second day – the first was rained off – by their captain and opening batsman.

Stewart was the ultimate professional, renowned, almost legendary for his immaculate appearance and preparation. One cannot help feeling that many people who know him would share the verdict of Emma John, in Following On, her wonderful book on her heroes, the beleaguered England cricketers of the 1990s: “I’ve only spent a couple of hours with him and I already want him as my ‘In Case of Emergency’ number.”

2021 was always going to be a massive year for Root. Two series against global giants India, The Ashes Down Under, The T20 World Cup – England’s red ball captain still has ambitions in that regard – and there were plenty of personal issues for Root to contemplate. His record as captain in the last twelve months had been outstanding: an away series win in South Africa, followed by home wins against West Indies and Pakistan. But he had failed to make a century in 2020. His average, which had peaked at 54 in 2017, was now 47. The “Big Four” – Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, and Root – were now being routinely referred to as the Big Three.

Root himself has been quite frank about this, saying that he has been studying his great contemporaries – especially Williamson one suspects – and has made minor technical adjustments. There were two, clearly related issues – apparently inexplicable dismissals when well set, and a tiresome inconsistency in “converting” fifties into hundreds.

Well, 2021 could hardly have started better. He made 228 and 186 in the two Tests against Sri Lanka at Galle and now the magnificent double century at Chennai. Enough has been written about this wonderful innings to make comment here superfluous. His mastery of spin, in particular, was marvellous to behold. As with Cowdrey and Stewart in their respective hundredth Tests, no other batsman scored a century; after Root’s 218 the next highest score was Rishabh Pant’s 91. Root also top-scored in England’s second innings. More, much more, than that, this match was not an ultimately rather dull draw, like the games in 1968 and 2000. It was one of England’s most dramatic victories for years, certainly since their last series victory in India in 2012-13 (Root made his debut in the final Test in Nagpur, making 76 and 23). India have been virtually invincible at home since then. Yet here they were trounced by 227 runs, a rout by an England side that was unmistakably Root’s.

Despite the frustrating conversion rate, once he passes the hundred mark Root has never been shy of making what Gooch calls “daddy hundreds “. Chennai was his fifth double century, the same number as Cook; of England players only Hammond, with seven, has more: of current players, only Kohli, also with seven.

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He made a daddy hundred the first time I saw him, in the second Ashes Test of 2013, at Lord’s, when he made 180 in England’s second innings. He opened with Cook throughout the series. He became, at 22, the youngest Englishman to score an Ashes century at Lord’s. The quality was immediately apparent. As Greg Baum said in his Wisden match report, Root “is, you might say, classically trained”. His technique is fundamentally grounded. He picks up length instantaneously, like all the greatest players, and his footwork, back or forward, is decisive. He is a joy to watch because he is always busy, always proactive. He is not a powerful striker of the ball, like Ben Stokes, but his mastery of placement and timing makes him just as entertaining. At Lord’s in that long innings – he went in on the second evening and was out on the fourth morning – every milestone was marked by the now familiar adulation from the crowd: “Rooooot!”

Like Cowdrey, Root had been a schoolboy prodigy (Worksop College, Sharpe’s alma mater). Unlike Cowdrey, he did not go through the traditional path of University and county cricket; he seems hardly to have played for Yorkshire at all. Root’s university was the England “system” and the international treadmill. There haven’t been too many backward steps. He was dropped at the end of Cook’s calamitous 2013-14 Ashes tour. More recently, people have been wondering whether the captaincy was affecting his batting; well, apparently not.

Cowdrey, Stewart, Root. Three remarkable England cricketers, with so much in common, yet so different. Each is steeped – I was going to say rooted – in cricket lore. There is Cowdrey with his cricket-loving father, and his sons and grandsons who played for Kent. Stewart followed his father as an opening batsman for Surrey and England. Joining the Surrey staff at 18 – Micky was manager – “The Gaffer” is still there today, as director of cricket. Michael Vaughan knew Root’s father at his club, Sheffield Collegiate. Joe’s brother Billy is building a career for himself at Glamorgan.

Root was thirty in December. He could go on, at the top, for four or five years. Mark Nicholas, who has watched a lot of cricket in the last 40 years or so, has said that Root is the best English-born batsman he has ever seen. The cricketing world, and its cherished records, are at his feet.

But first he has 2021 to get through. Nothing is certain in our wonderful game. England could well still lose the series in India. One thing is certain, however. If everything actually works out for this transparently intelligent, considerate and engaging man, and England best India (twice), New Zealand and Australia, no one will begrudge him his moment in the sun.

Bill Ricquier

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