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Henry Cowen

The Definitive: Jonathan Agnew

by Henry Cowen

For 25 years Jonathan Agnew has described the British summer, but he could play a bit, too. He reminisced about the biggest moments of his career with Henry Cowen.

THE BEGINNING

A trial at Surrey CCC | 1976

The first definitive moment of my career was my dad taking me to Alf Gover’s Cricket School for my 16th birthday present. It was a huge adventure, Dad was a farmer from Lincolnshire and we hardly ever went to London. I had three or four days’ training from Alf, who of course had contacts at Surrey. I remember him drawing me to one side and saying that he thought I had a chance at making it so I should go to the Oval for a trial. I ended up being signed by Arthur McIntrye, who was a formidable old secretary, so in 1976 and 1977 I’d go down to Surrey in the school holidays. I stayed with a Mr and Mrs Bushell in a B&B just off Morden tube station – I remember Elvis died when I was there.

THE SHOT

37 wickets at 8 | Uppingham School, 1978

Former Leicestershire player Maurice Hallam was the coach at Uppingham and he had been telling Mike Turner at Leicestershire that he had to come and see me. Whenever Mike came it rained so he never saw me bowl but signed me because Maurice told him to. I was just quicker than most people around and I tended to scare them out. There were some silly figures around – I remember taking 8-2 – and the season included being shot in the face with an air rifle and missing a couple of games, which was all a bit strange. A guy called Hutton, whose nickname was Len, shot me, straight in my nose. I’m not sure how he got the gun but he was as blind as a bat so I’m sure he didn’t shoot me on purpose.

THE FIRST-CLASS DEBUT

1-19 & 1-30 | Leicestershire v Lancashire, County Championship, Grace Road, 1978

Young and fiery

Young and fiery

The first ball was a huge no-ball! David Constant was umpiring, I ran in down the hill and David said, ‘Woah, steady on, what’s going on there?’ I said sorry, and then fourth ball I bowled a full, inswinging yorker and it bowled David Lloyd. Twenty-five years later I got a call, there was a familiar voice at the other end, it was Bumble: ‘What were you doing 25 years ago today? You were getting me out, you b***ard!’ With that, he put the phone down!

THE TOUR

The Whitbread Brewery Award | Essendon CC, 1978

At the end of that year I won the Whitbread Brewery Award and I went out to Australia. I went to play for Essendon, had a really good time and ended up bowling at the England Test side. There was a bit of a tricky moment where I hit captain Mike Brearley in the nets. It had rained and the nets hadn’t been covered, Mike decided he wanted to have a hit, nobody else did, and I literally bowled off about four paces, it came up off a length and hit him in the eye. There was one journalist in the ground, a man called Rod Nicholson, who saw it and then all of this stuff started about Mike maybe not being fit for the Boxing Day Test. Thankfully he was fit, but I was a bit terrified at the time. It was an amazing experience out there, I loved it; those first few months for me were like a dream.

THE TEST

0-46 & 2-51 | England v West Indies, Fifth Test, The Oval, 1984

Snaring Viv and Greenidge on debut

Snaring Viv and Greenidge on debut

It was on the morning of the game that I was told I was playing, so I was able to finally break into the brown package that had my cap and sweater in. It was there, tied up with string, but you weren’t allowed to touch it. It was special. I remember the clanking and the noise and the din coming from the spectators, I felt like I was sort of floating. It was like a noise, it was surreal, and I didn’t really feel like I was there. After the match I went back and watched the highlights and I didn’t know what was happening next, I didn’t remember the game. I got Gordon Greenidge out with a good ball actually, it bounced, followed him a bit. We had a plan for Viv, we were just going to bowl short, and after three or four overs of non-stop throat stuff I pitched one up and he was right back on his stumps. I suspect he might have reviewed it these days!

THE NINE-FER

9-70 & 2-48 | Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 1985

This was a really strange one because it was a rain-affected match and I had a bit of a niggle so I was off the field a lot. It just happened that when I was off the field being treated, and earning my time back, we didn’t get any wickets and then suddenly I just started going through them. I got nine and out came Kevin Jarvis, easily the worst batsman on the planet, who shouldered arms to a couple of balls. The next over Paddy Clift bowled the entire over wide to Neil Taylor, who’d carried his bat, I then had a couple of balls at Jarvis but he managed to get off strike so Paddy knocked him over. It was fine, he’d given me an extra go.

THE CHANGE

6-85 | Leicestershire v Somerset, County Championship, Grace Road, 1987

I changed from bowling pace in 1987 and I became a better bowler. We were playing Somerset at Grace Road and I had a bit of a niggle in my ribs. Peter Willey said I had to play, I told him I couldn’t bowl flat-out and he said that was fine. It was one of those days where the ball just swung. I bowled medium-pace and I got six-fer. Peter kept laughing in the gully and then after the game he suggested that I keep bowling like that.

THE 100-WICKET SEASON

101 wickets at 24.26 | Leicestershire, County Championship, 1987

I bowled a lot of overs, I was fit and I did a lot of donkey work. I was often pretty good to tailenders, I would often get them out but was quite expensive. I tended to bowl quite attackingly at them, I’d look to pitch the ball up and try and bowl them out, so that helped. I’d get a couple with the new ball, take one mid-innings, then knock over the tail. I think I took 40-something five-fers in first-class cricket which is more than you’d expect. That year I took quite a lot, the ball swung and it went quite well. I think Mark Benson was the 100th, in the last game of the season against Kent. I was searching, searching, searching! I got Wisden Cricketer of the Year, which was very nice.

THE SWITCH

Retiring and moving to radio | 1991

It wasn’t difficult, really. I was young but I was really disappointed by England. I loved the radio, cricket was changing and Today newspaper offered me a job. I thought that if I wanted to be a journalist I had to take it, so I did. I went away that winter, 1991, to do the Ashes tour as a tabloid journalist. I wouldn’t be doing this job now if I hadn’t had that experience. And then I joined the BBC. CMJ left to go to the Telegraph so the opening appeared [to be the BBC’s cricket correspondent], and after a lot of thought and some persuading from Peter Baxter – because I wasn’t going to do it at first – I decided to do it. This is my 25th summer, it’s been a special time, it’s gone far too fast, as always! I think my happiest moment was when we won the Ashes in Melbourne in 2010/11. We were, for the first time, broadcasting live from the pitch and on the table in the commentary box was a spare pass. My wife was there and I stuck it around her neck and took her out with me – to show her the reason I did the job. She was part of it and it was very special, I’ll never forget that. It was nice that after all the months, the years, the Christmases, the birthdays, the crises, she could be there for that.

THE COMEBACK

1-31 | Leicestershire v Essex, NatWest Trophy Semi-Final, Grace Road, 1992

A journo and a player!

A journo and a player!

Nigel Briers was captain and two days before the match he phoned me up and told me he really wanted me to play. I agreed to give it a go. Nasser batted hideously, he just did not want to get out to me. He just blocked and blocked and blocked and blocked. I managed to get Jon Lewis out and we got to the final. In the end I nearly had to play in the final – because David Milnes had broken down – but I said I wouldn’t play. Unfortunately, we got thrashed by Northants, but I’d had my moment in the sun.

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