Graham Cowdrey, a stalwart of Kent cricket for more than a decade in the 1980s and 90s, has died after a short illness at the age of 56. Matthew Fleming, his former county captain, nicely summed up the feelings of those who played with or against him: “I am numb with shock and sadness that the brilliant, generous, funny and complex friend who lit up so many cricket grounds, on and off the pitch, has slipped away.
“We will remember his deep love of cricket and Kent, his commitment as a teammate, his integrity and his wicked sense of humour, his loyalty as a friend and the twinkle in his eye that shaped almost everything he did with the greatest possible affection.”
Cowdrey’s passage into first-class cricket was unusual. Not many enter the county circuit with their father an England captain and one of the greatest batsmen of his generation, plus an older brother who was about to become captain of his county before going on to lead England (for one Test only).
No doubt there may have been benefits for Graham from these mighty connections with father Colin and brother Chris, but there were also burdens, too. In such circumstances it was hard to advance anonymously.
Yet Graham, self-deprecating though he always was about his own ability (which was something of a family trait), soon justified his presence in the Kent team, regardless of his provenance. He was not a beautiful batsman (how the Cowdrey boys must have tired of that observation when being compared to their father) but he was a powerful one and like a lot of big men he also surprised with the delicacy of his touch. He could cause havoc at the crease, which explains how he became a major force in one-day cricket in the second half of his career. In his younger, thinner days he was also a brilliant fieldsman.
His record is very respectable. Despite his lofty background he was a bit of a trouper. He played 179 first-class matches for Kent, averaging more than 34 with the bat, and 261 one-day games. Until Sean Dickson and Joe Denly combined in 2017 his partnership of 368 with Aravinda de Silva against Derbyshire at Maidstone in 1995 was a club record. But I don’t think he was too bothered with stats. He just liked playing the game.
After his retirement from professional cricket in 1998, Cowdrey stayed connected with the sporting world. For a while he worked for Sporting Index, a spread betting company, and more recently – and surprisingly – he appeared as one of the ECB’s cricket liaison officers/match referees, a move which hinted that he had never quite settled outside of the game and which confirmed his abiding love of it.
I toured with him once on an unusual cricketing expedition to India in the 80s led by the director of Christians in Sport at the time and a former chaplain to the England cricket team, Andrew Wingfield Digby. Graham was just starting his career as a professional cricketer and he was a wonderful, generous tourist, as well as being an endearingly sensitive, emotional character.
He was often a hilarious companion, though there were times when we wondered whether he was being funny unwittingly (I doubt it). It was no surprise that he should go on to be such a selfless, successful county cricketer, reluctant to trade on his name. However, it is quite hard to imagine Graham delivering a stern dressing down to some errant young cricketer in his role as a match referee.
He was already a little unusual back then. His passion for the music of Van Morrison was extraordinary. He would travel miles to listen to him and it is reckoned he saw him perform well over 250 times. Hence the nickname “Van”. Rory Bremner picks up the Van Morrison theme in a heartfelt tweet: “So sad to lose my best friend (and best man). He made me laugh more than anyone else. So funny, kind and generous. Great batsman, too. Joins Dad in the Pavilion all too soon. Play a Van song for him today”.