Reminiscing with Gower and Cowdrey
Before David Gower sits down for our interview in the terrace bar of Soho Theatre, the rehearsal venue for The Holy Bail, an all-new live show with his old pal, Chris Cowdrey, he orders a bottle of white wine. The two former England captains are in fine fettle after a successful run-through, and dapperly dressed as they are, sporting fine wool scarves loosely tossed over their shoulders, they could easily pass for two theatre impresarios.
Gower calls their travelling live show a "reunion tour", and when I ask Cowdrey why now, he smiles and replies, "Why not?", adding that it's simply a delight to spend time with his "great old mate".
Cricket after-dinner speaking is an art unto itself, and I wonder which former players the two men rate as performers. "The best I ever heard were Bumble [David Lloyd] and Fred Trueman," says Gower. "Fred's one-man show was amazing. He was a born storyteller." And very successful, as Gower confirms. "Fred didn't drive his Rolls Royce on money he made playing for England."
Gower and Cowdrey are looking back on careers that ended over 20 years ago, and both have moved into broadcasting, I ask whether commentating on the game can ever compare to actually playing.
"No," Gower quickly answers. "Your playing days are far more emotional. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. Winning the Ashes as captain in 1985 is carved in stone forever."
Although nothing can compare with the experience of being in the middle for Gower, he does relish the challenge of bringing cricket to the screen. "I want to get it right. There's a pleasure in doing something well. And I have a great team at Sky, who make my job easy. Lots of great thinkers." He then pauses and chuckles. "And Botham."
Cowdrey followed the radio route into broadcasting, and admits that it took him a "year of working with Boycott to realise I didn't have to worry about it too much".
Both men have relaxed into the role of commentator, and Gower's laconic style and dry wit have drawn flattering comparisons to Richie Benaud. "Well, I don't know about that. But I'm happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as the great Richie. His silences were as famous as his words. His ability to find the right word at the right time was spectacular."
Cowdrey coos in approval, and recalls a day he spent with Richie at the Royal Ascot races. "We were looking at the horses, and I said, 'What do you reckon to this one in the 3.15?' And Richie says, 'I think it'll win. But not today.'"
Both admit they are of a vintage where young fans know them only as "the bloke off the telly", as Gower phrases it, rather than "the player who got all the runs". Gower was at The Oval a couple of years after retiring when a father introduced his eight-year-old son. "Who's he, Daddy?" he heard the boy ask. "Did he play?"
But, gladly, memories of their careers linger on. "Nostalgia and cricket go hand in hand," says Gower. "Hence the show."
Sitting with the two men one feels the glow of a real friendship. Both jockey for conversation, and love to chip in and quip at the other's expense. They first met on a rugby pitch over 40 years ago, when Cowdrey scored an apparently controversial try by rounding Gower. A few months later they were touring South Africa on the same cricket team as part of an England Schools side. "He was an exciting young player," says Cowdrey. "And you couldn't miss him with his curly blond locks."
Back then Cowdrey was Gower's captain, roles that would later be reversed, when Cowdrey played for England under Gower on the India tour in 1984-85. As both men captained from an early age, I ask whether leaders are born and not made.
"You're a born leader," Cowdrey immediately replies. "But players can turn themselves into very good captains. I felt more pressure when I wasn't captain. David was born to lead in a different way. He's a natural entertainer."
"Lots of things I did as captain were more PG Wodehouse than Peter May," jokes Gower, before saying that he wouldn't put himself up there with the great leaders. "One reason is, I wasn't necessarily good at the things that happen off the field. But I had my moments. Winning in India, '84-85, for example. If that tour was a stage play, it had everything. Two assassinations. Indira Gandhi was assassinated the morning we arrived. The first press conference involved us giving our commiserations, except the Indian press were under a news blackout and had no idea. Three weeks later, Percy Norris, deputy high commissioner to Bombay, was also killed. As captain, at the age of 27, I suddenly had these things to deal with."
"But it was a good decision to put me on to bowl," Cowdrey adds with a smile.
It was. Cowdrey, still wearing the shin pads he'd forgotten to take off, bowled Kapil Dev with his fourth ball in Test cricket.
"And you took me off after an over."
"That was a better decision."
Winning in India, and winning the Ashes the following year, were proud moments for Gower. Cowdrey, although famously England captain for a single Test, made Kent a powerhouse of the 1980s. Which of the captains they played under did they admire most?
"I was very lucky," says Gower. "I had [Ray] Illingworth at Leicestershire and [Mike] Brearley for England. You had absolute faith in both of them."
"Asif Iqbal," says Cowdrey. "Great friend, wonderful guy. Calm head in a crisis. And David doesn't get enough credit. He was fired out lbw on that India tour. He was targeted. Yet somehow he kept his chin up. To beat that Indian side with Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, that was unbelievable."
Cowdrey turns back to Gower. "How much was that worth? A £100?"
More smiles and more chuckles. Has the fun of their era, when a player could skip out of a match and buzz the ground in a Tiger Moth, been lost in the sanitised modern game?
"Players just don't have time to disappear from the tour party," Gower rues. "In India I buggered off for three days to look at some tigers. You can't do that now. I remember at Adelaide I took out glasses of champagne with the drinks."
Gower and Cowdrey are careful not to fall too deep into rose-tinted anecdote, and agree that it's a habit for the previous generation to religiously say they had more fun. "We grew up with the Compton stories - of Denis arriving at the ground in his dinner jacket, borrowing a bat and scoring a hundred before lunch," says Gower. "The fun allegedly goes out of cricket with each generation, yet no one would play if it wasn't fun."
Was it fun when they came to cricket as youngsters? Or did the ambition of their fathers, especially Cowdrey, whose father, Colin, was a living legend, sour their enjoyment?
"I wasn't pushed at all. He encouraged me to play any sport. Then when I was 16 I started to sense media interest in me as a cricketer, and I thought, 'Do I really want to go through that?' Maybe I didn't. So I gave golf a go."
At first Colin was happy enough to indulge his son's interest in another sport, and arranged sessions for Chris with a pro coach. "Who told me I was rubbish. So we went to see a spiritualist who might divine my future. And they said, 'No, stay with cricket.' Cowdrey laughs. "And I'm sure my old man paid both of them to say that."
One of Gower's earliest memories of cricket was in 1965, when his father took him to see the South Africans at Trent Bridge. "We saw Pollock make a hundred, and then Dad said, 'Let's go and hit a ball behind the stands.'"
Perhaps Gower's dad spotted his son's early talent. "We loved to play," he says. "Dad filched a cricket net from Loughborough College and we put it up in the back garden."
From hitting a tennis ball with Dad to Test matches in the 1980s, could either of them have stepped from their own cricket era directly into a T20?
"Well, I loved fielding," says Cowdrey. "And I scored quickly. Unorthodox shots. But I wasn't a hooker. Maybe I'd have ramped it over third man for six. Not just slogging it over midwicket."
"Whatever era you're brought up in, you learn the tricks of that time. I used to do things in one-day cricket that were pretty special, until I got bored."
Gower's lack of application, a laissez-faire approach to the game that brought him into conflict not only with management but also team-mates, is almost as infamous as that trip in a biplane. When I recall netting with him at the indoor school at Grace Road, Cowdrey chuckles, "That must have been rare."
It was. Gower often played truant from training, and says he learned his craft by playing. "See ball, hit ball is fine until facing proper spinners with loop and drift, and more turn. The first time I played against Bishan Bedi, it lasted about 30 seconds. At Leicester I learned the game."
Still, what about fitness?
"And I never ran," says Gower. "I hated running. I don't understand the point of running. Put your left foot forward, your right foot forward. You've done it once or twice, what more is there to it?"
While Gower skipped nets, other players of his generation, like Graham Gooch, trained hard, and demanded the same sweat from his charges - which brought about direct conflict between the two men when the Essex drill sergeant usurped the Tunbridge Wells fop as England skipper.
"Whatever works for Goochie doesn't necessarily work for others," defends Cowdrey. "It would've finished me about seven years earlier had I done his sort of running."
Does Gower harbour any ill feeling towards Gooch, a player whose preparation was more likely to involve protein shakes than a bottle of Bollinger?
"Look, we had differences of opinion. We should have found more common ground than we did. But that's water under the bridge. I remember a few years ago, we were covering a game at Essex that was rained off, and Graham said, 'Come back to mine for a bottle.'"
Gower laughs at Cowdrey. It's hard to see how his former players could hold a grudge. "Life's too short," he shrugs.
Still, does he have any regrets. What would either of them do differently with access to a time machine?
"Adelaide, 1991," Gower automatically replies. "That Test after the Tiger Moth, my form disappeared when I walked onto the pitch. I chipped it up to Merv Hughes. That shot was a complete aberration. I'd like to redo that one."
Cowdrey, too, knows the destination for his time machine. "The NatWest final against Somerset in 1983. I was playing as well as I'd ever played. I'd made runs in knockout rounds, and a hundred in the Championship game beforehand. Then I made the mistake of reading the papers."
Over breakfast on the morning of the final at Lord's, Cowdrey read in the Sun that he was the player to watch. "I'd never experienced this before. I'd worked out how I was going to play Joel Garner, and how I was going to hit Beefy. Then Vic Marks lobbed one up, and it just drifted down leg side. I'd set off for the single before I'd hit the ball and I was stumped for nought."
And if they could use that time machine to duel a player from another generation, who would they like to challenge?
"I watched Sobers and Keith Miller at Nottingham. Sobers, obviously," Gower says. "A genius. And Keith Miller because everyone I've heard talk about him reveres him. He enjoyed the game and played it superbly well."
"Shane Warne," says Cowdrey. "I'd love to have batted against him in a pressure game. I was good player of spin."
"Excuse me," Gower interjects. "You were stumped by Vic Marks down the leg side."
"Ah," Cowdrey retorts. "But he wasn't a spinner."
Alas, we don't have a time machine, or another bottle of wine, as once the glasses are empty it feels the right moment to end the interview. But not the reminiscing.
The Holy Bail tour runs from March 2 to March 20
Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His third novel, TOKYO, is out now. @nicholas_hogg