A natural competitor with a sense of mischief, Graham Cowdrey found his greatest joy in the arts
The following obituary was written by Ed Smith (WH 90-95) and appeared in The Times on 15 November
Graham Cowdrey, who died aged 56 last week, was a one-off. Forget cricket. He was a unique person — unpredictable, brilliantly funny, restless, authentic, often on the road, always searching for something.
Graham was born into cricket — his father, Colin, and brother Chris both captained England — and he was a natural competitor on the field. But in many respects his character was more fundamentally artistic.
I knew him first through his friendship with my father, who had taught him, then as a Kent fan while he was a player, then as a team-mate. We were close friends at one time. Though, as all his friends sensed, there were sides to him that none of us really knew.
At times, when his batting was in sync with his restless, creative nature, he could be an inspired match-winner. He could bat with greater destructive freedom than many conventionally superior batsmen ever experience.
But cricket, which he deeply loved and revered, didn’t easily accommodate his full personality. Endless repetition and discipline, two touchstones of modern sport, weren’t really his style. He wanted to play the game and to engage with contest — but also to keep moving, in every sense.
That’s why he loved gigs. He was always going to concerts, usually Van Morrison, but anything live that wasn’t phoney. Travel, anticipation, the sense of event, a gathering crowd, moving anonymously among strangers with a shared connection, the curtain raised, real life suspended (or transcended) — that sphere was Graham’s sanctuary. Cricket, and the whole theatre of sport, obviously intersects with the world of artistic performance. But the two aren’t quite the same thing. When Graham drove off from the ground to the concert hall, he was entering his natural domain as much as leaving it.
Graham was both highly introspective and also touched by genius in a social setting. He could take over a day or an evening in the life of a team and make it entirely his own. Impressions of team-mates, re-enactments of funny moments from the field, uncanny mimicry — when the force was with him, he was irresistibly funny. And, as is often the case, we all had that hint of gentle anxiety that his brilliant wit may turn in our direction.
His legendary ability to get away with things — missing fitness sessions, practice, meetings, tolerating boring people — owed much to the fact that his captains and coaches, quite sensibly, knew that Graham could make people laugh at will. How can you stay cross with someone who is making you laugh? He disarmed people.
Cowdrey had a match-winning ability to bat with “destructive freedom”
He had a conspiratorial gift, and we all found ourselves helping his next escape. I passed him on the dressing-room stairs at the St Lawrence ground one day during pre-season. “Could you just pop over to outfield and check the fitness trainers have left? If they’re still here, I’ll be in the loos.”
For all his mischief, he also had a sense of the right way to behave. In one of my first county matches, I was disappointed with my dismissal and dragged myself off the field far too slowly. Graham, next man in, made a point of skipping past me as fast as he could on the way to the middle. “Sorry about that,” I said to him afterwards, “you’d probably taken guard before I got off the outfield.” “Taken guard?” he replied, “I was in double figures.”
Graham poured his creativity into his mischief and sparkle. I think he possessed a kind of social perfectionism. If he couldn’t be funny, surprising or memorable, he disappeared from view. That same gift that made him so easy to love also made him so hard to help. They were two sides of the same coin.
In his twenties, when I was a cricket-loving schoolboy, Graham would often pop in at our house on the drive back from county matches. He’d bring a CD or a novel for Dad, something from the Zenith cricket bat factory for me. He always wanted to talk, seriously: was this book any good, how about that album, is this guy a genius? He had a gift for connecting with the young; no wonder his children adored him.
Graham revered — needed — the arts more than anyone I’ve ever known. He had no time for erudition or pretension. He just wanted to be moved, and then to talk with real fans about the things he loved. He was a reader and listener because he had to be, not because he wanted to give the impression of being “cultured”.
His tastes and temperament put him outside class boundaries. He had no interest in genteel polish or social aspiration. He lined up with the man queueing for a ticket to the show, or a punt at the races. He was in step with the wider world.
When I was a kid, before Sunday League games, he’d sometimes get me to bowl at him on the outfield or in the nets before play. Then I’d climb back over the boundary boards and watch the match, so often, it seemed, with Graham at the heart of the contest. Fading light, a game to be won, fully alive. After it was over we’d all get together in front of the pavilion, chat through the match, with him still in his light blue one-day kit.
His last game for Kent, a few years later, was a tour match against Sri Lanka. In the dressing room, as next man in, he picked up my bat. “I like it. Mind if I use this out there?”
He put it back in my bag after a typically entertaining innings. “Thanks for the bat. That was fun.”
Many cricketers are admired. Graham — brilliant, vulnerable, to some extent unknowable — was loved.
Ed Smith is national selector for England cricket