Australian cricket, in its current state of flux, does not offer the continuity required for relaxed contemplation. Owing to this, I felt it necessary to write something about “Ed Cowan, test batsman” whilst I can still be sure I am doing so contemporaneously.
Over the last few weeks, as I have been packing away the remnants of my bachelorhood in preparation for co-habitation with my girlfriend I have become acutely aware of the rapid passing of time. For Ed Cowan, the prospect of a brutal Indian tour on the back of barely a day’s cricket in the last 7 weeks looms large. This could reasonably be considered a step into the unknown for both of us.
It may sound pretentious to be weaving my own life story into that of Cowan’s career but he, like no other Australian Test cricketer of the last 20 years, feels like someone I can identify with. His hurdles and shortcomings are plain for all to see. It is also worth noting that I genuinely feel as though Ed Cowan is part of the narrative of my relationship with my girlfriend. Many has been the time she’s left the room whilst he is batting in order to “leave you two alone.” I’m not completely certain, but I wouldn’t bet against the fact that I brought him up in conversation during our first date. This was before Cowan had been picked in the Test team so if anything, he’s become “the other woman” to an even greater extent over the last 12 months. This raises questions about my priorities, no doubt.
This love triangle reached its apex on my birthday last year when my girlfriend, not entirely discouraging the situation, gave me Ed’s first book, ‘In the Firing Line’, a diary of the 2010/11 domestic cricket season. Even typing that sentence I’m thinking, “geez, you've really gotta put a ring on it, dude.” Well, I’m making a solid step, anyway. The kicker to this gift was that she had contacted Cowan HQ to have it signed, but given Ed was away on playing duties, instead received in the post a Tassie cricket cap signed by his Cowan-ness. Shane Watson might reasonably think he can usurp Cowan at the top of the order this winter, but I’m damn sure he can’t offer that kind of customer service.
That’s the thing at the moment, no-one is sure of Cowan’s safety in the Australian XI beyond the first test in India. He’ll probably play in Chennai. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Will he have anyone to blame other than himself if it doesn't turn out for the best? I’m sure we’d all prefer that the answer to that question didn't involve the Brut poster-boy and his ceaseless white-anting campaign. If the Cowan era does come to a premature end, Watto won’t be the only one wanting to blast a hole through the wall of the change-rooms, I can at least say that.
Depending on who you listen to, Ed Cowan is either a no-talent Toff who has cobbled together some gritty test innings that have failed to raise the national heartbeat (save to shout insults at his running between the wickets), or a tough, wily and old-fashioned cricketer who has prospered in spite of this reputation as an over-thinking plodder.
Public and critical opinion of Cowan seems to oscillate between two philosophical poles. At one end, you can feel the almost barracking enthusiasm of a kind of intellectual, traditionalist coterie of cricket writers and fans, whilst at the other, all that can be heard are the exasperated howls from those with the image of Matthew Hayden too fresh in their minds; the kind of cricket follower who requires the maximum density of boundaries and dominance per minute of cricket watched. To this end, watching Cowan bat in tandem with David Warner has probably heightened the respective convictions of these two groups. In between them, I’d like to think there are many more that are just enjoying Cowan’s unlikely ride at the pinnacle of his sport. Some others again wouldn’t even be happy if Bradman himself rose from the grave to partner Warner.
What has most interested me about Cowan’s time in the spotlight has been the way the cricket media has so obviously positioned him as the ‘thinking person’s’ cricketer. Where I’ve just tended to see him as a refreshing everyman, often he has been characterized as this kind of lone intellectual in the orbit of assorted blockheads and jocks. This is not entirely accurate and also presents Cowan with something of a poisoned chalice.
Cricket, like any other sport these days of course, tends to favour the biff, the bash and the highlight reel. Cowan’s measured but idiosyncratic approach to cricket and life could not be more out of step with this prevailing mood. In a way, you can’t begrudge journalists willing to give Cowan a leg-up. Many of them clearly consider him a kindred spirit and a sort of peer, rather than a PR-infected cyborg doling out rote lines. Who of them, faced with the alternative prospect of interviewing Watson or Warner, wouldn’t want to speak to Cowan?
If you were to sticky-tape the press articles referencing ‘Cowan the intellectual’ and ‘Cowan the writer’ together they would stretch from one end of Bellerive Oval to the other. This is ironic when contrasted with the advice of his early cricketing mentor, Peter Roebuck, who instilled in him the belief that runs were all that people really cared about. Clearly, Roebuck never passed that information on to his editors, fellow journalists or other players, for they have made a habit of mentioning Cowan’s education and intellectual bona fides at every opportunity.
To this end I’m certain his assured 136 against South Africa In Brisbane this home summer past astounded many not just because they’d seen so little of his batting to that point, but because they half-expected to see him fending off Dale Steyn with a Proust hardcover rather than a piece of willow. The Sydney Morning Herald once gushed that Cowan “immerses himself in novels”, the sort of awkward press clipping that rival fast bowlers and bat-pad fieldsmen must have laminated on their locker doors.
This also tends to neglect one of the great appeals of Cowan; that he seems like a bloke you played club cricket with. To witness a player with such a limited range of strokes take it to the best gives a kind of bracing perspective to what’s going on out there. Test runs aren’t easy to make, see? Look at him struggling away.
The obsession with Cowan’s intellect has, in my mind anyway, become a little overblown and I’m certain Cowan himself is not too keen on it becoming the hook that he hangs his hat on. He’s spoken before of his belief that the cricket world often thought he was “soft as butter.” Australians, historically speaking, have a general aversion to ‘intellectuals’, whether it be on sporting fields, in workplaces, or in offices of higher power. Rightly or wrongly, Cowan’s brains and education can’t help but have informed many an opinion of Cowan the cricketer. Cowan is a thinker, there is no doubt, but for now he’d probably prefer to be thought of as a ‘doer’ as well. Allan Border was a doer. Steve Waugh was a doer. Ricky Ponting was a doer.
Maybe the best comparison made for Cowan is the now-retired Englishman Ed Smith. The son of a novelist, Smith read history at Cambridge before rising to the heights of English Test cricketer in 2003 and was Cowan’s partial inspiration for writing ‘In the Firing Line’. Where Cowan experienced his career highlight thus far against South Africa, Smith scored 64 on debut against the Springboks, who then proceeded to dismantle his game and finish his Test career in the one humbling series; 3 tests and an average of 17. Done. If Smith’s story formerly served as an inspiration to Cowan, he must surely now have ambitions for his own to become a weightier volume.
And anyway, isn’t it a bit depressing that a “thinking” cricketer should be considered such a novelty? Alan Davidson once said that the dour, bespectacled Dirk Wellham was “always a thinker in the positive sense,” an assessment rather pregnant with the implication that it was a condition that also had the potential to be damaging. Along with Cowan, the steady and growing success of George Bailey shows what can be achieved when players of inner depth are afforded extended trust and opportunities, even in the face of a public not willing to look far beyond their last performance.
There is no doubt that Cowan needs runs in India to book himself an Ashes tour. How sad it would be if his career as a gritty, determined grinder was merely a footnote. Thoughtful and interesting as he may be, it would ill suit him to be rendered a kind of oddball novelty in the annals of Australian cricket, ‘The Nerd who Played Cricket’. To me it would be more accurate to say, ‘he seemed like one of us, and we selfishly loved him for that.’
So many of the career obituaries for Mike Hussey bemoaned the lack of candidates to succeed him as Australian cricket’s voice of reason. The cool head and the calm hand was gone. This, they said, was equal to the challenge of finding the next Warne or Ponting. Would it be presumptious to say that in Cowan, we already have an heir of sorts in our current Test XI? I hope so. But I also fear not.
Either way, I’ll be sitting there watching, squirming in my seat at every defensive prod and scrambled run. If he prospers and finds himself an Ashes tourist, I can already see the scene; girlfriend in bed, fast asleep, me on the couch with Ed, hoping for the best.