The story of Colin Cowdrey’s biography, Gentleman and Player
Colin Cowdrey was arguably the most widely- known and best loved of all cricketers of his generation. He was a patient man, blessed with immaculate manners, kind, generous, approachable, affable and with a priceless gift of putting people at their ease in any situation, formal or informal. He could chat as easily to a tea lady or a gatekeeper as he could to a prime minister or a duke. Yet, in my research and interviews for my biography of him, I sensed a man who was inherently shy. Not even his closest friends ever believed they truly knew him, not really, not what was in his soul. That is why he proved to be such an intriguing subject, a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma. I got the impression that all he ever wanted to do was play cricket, for which he had an almost boyish enthusiasm, but the rest of it, the fame, the adulation, the controversy, the press scrutiny, the unwonted intrusion into his personal life, all that he hated.
He discovered the unwelcome effects of national prominence when he was barely in his teens. He was, and remains, the youngest player ever to set foot on the playing surface at Lord’s in a competitive match when he represented Tonbridge School in their annual fixture against Clifton College at the tender age of 13. In Tonbridge’s first innings, Colin top-scored with 75 out of a total of 156. So accomplished was the innings that The Times correspondent wrote that it was like watching Cyril Washbrook through the wrong end of a telescope. Nor was the young Cowdrey finished; Clifton, needing 117 to win in the fourth innings, were bowled out just two short, Cowdrey taking 5-59. Of course, the press were eager to buttonhole this ‘infant prodigy’ after the match, believing they had a scoop for the following morning’s papers. Colin was horrified by their attention; he ran past them as fast as he could and escaped on the Tube. On the train journey down to Cornwall for the holidays immediately afterwards, he caught sight of a report of his exploits on the back page of the newspaper being read by a fellow passenger opposite. The die had been cast. The spotlight of publicity had turned its beam on him and would bathe him in its harsh glare for the remainder of his days. The cricket he loved; the limelight he shunned.
During his life, he fended off efforts to have his story laid bare for public consumption. After his death, his family, as keepers of the flame, resisted any attempts for the posthumous story to be written, eager to respect their father’s wish for privacy and determined to protect his good name. Yet I firmly believed that here was a fascinating and poignant human narrative and furthermore it was important to remind the cricketing public, particularly the younger generation, of Colin’s career, as one of the most important figures in the game at the time, before his memory faded and he became no more than a footnote in history. He deserved more than that.
I had to convince the family first, to reassure them that their father’s reputation was in good hands, that they could trust me to be fair and honest but also sympathetic. How could I possibly be otherwise, I argued. To attempt the task without their blessing was unthinkable – and probably impossible anyway. To their great credit and my heartfelt gratitude, they acceded to my request and gave me nothing but encouragement and support in my endeavours. I only hope that I have done their old man justice.
The launch of the book, Gentleman and Player, took place, appropriately enough as Colin was a former president of the MCC, at Lord’s on Tuesday 18th July. Alan (AC) Smith told me once that Colin Cowdrey was the master of the short, gracious, impromptu speech. If that were so then the talent runs in the genes. Jeremy, representing the Cowdrey family, spoke eloquently and frankly about their initial misgivings, which gave way to reassurance eventually begetting something approaching enthusiasm. “This is Andy’s book,” he said, “We have kept clear and not interfered, which would have been quite wrong. We’re quite sure it will be a success and have no doubt that he has been faithful to our father’s personality and integrity. We wish Andy, and his book, all good fortune.”