St George's Park History
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Personalities St George's Park - Gavin Cowley
Gavin Cowley
Keith Sutton
The Spirit of Gavin Cowley

Gavin Selwyn Cowley, the alert and cheerful Eastern Province captain, gave The Spirit of Cricket his careful consideration. The effort imposed an immediate solemnity.

Cowley leads the young EP XI on the field today in the start of its vital three day Currie Cup match against Transvaal, ‘’probably one of the best provincial units in the world.

“I have always viewed beating Transvaal in a three-day match as a bonus, specially for an unfashionable province like EP”

For Cowley, though, it would be a really special bonus. It would mean the coming together of his plan and, like Hannibal Smith, captain of the A Team, he says:“ I just love it when a plan comes together.’’

But to the solemn matter of The Spirit of Cricket.

“There’s no doubt that a lot of things have changed in the decade-and-a-half since I started playing first-class cricket. We used to mix freely off the field after the game and it was very pleasant. There is little fraternisation today. I think it is very sad. Something has gone out of the game.

“No. I don’t think it is the result of a policy or a decision to impose what older men would regard as bad manners. It has just developed as the money factor has taken more of a grip on the game.

“Money has become the most important motive in first-class cricket and I do not believe money has been good for cricket or for sport generally. Sport would be far richer, in my view, if we did not play for money. Out of pocket expenses, yes, but not large sums.

“‘The behaviour of individuals has changed. Sportsmanship as you knew it has gone for a loop. I can remember for instance, a batsman walking after a delivery and being recalled to the crease by the opposing captain because there had not been an appeal. Wouldn’t happen today.

“Yet I believe that on the field you have to take what is handed out to you. I try to instil this into my chaps. I personally do not believe in unfair tactics. I believe in testing my skill against my opponent’s skill and doing it fair and square. I believe that you must hate losing, but that you must not  be a bad loser. There’s a difference.

Undoubtedly, tactics used today are sometimes unfair but it’s like sanity and madness, the dividing line between what’s fair and unfair is a thin one and the sole judge of what is fact and what is fair is the umpire.

“Some players have complained about the standard of umpiring. There have been squeals about bad decisions. Some players have the philosophy that it is naive to just walk, and that a bad decision might save them if they stay. They believe that the good decisions cancel out the bad ones but I do not believe that two wrongs make a right.

“In theory we have a lot of good umpires. They know the laws of the game but, in practice, they do make mistakes. There’s no doubt about that. Some wilt under pressure and there are many ways in which a team can impose unnecessary strain on umpires and interfere with their concentration. Even verbal abuse is fairly common.

“I believe umpires must be firmer. They are the sole judges of fact and fair play. They must stamp their authority on the game. A firm, authoritative umpire is far less likely to experience intimidation.

“The UK umpire, Barry Meyer, stood in a few matches here. On one occasion we were fielding and the game was fairly evenly poised. I had made a lot of bowling changes when Meyer called me over and said: “You are slowing the game down; I’d like you to speed it up.”

“Now, I realised that the bowling changes had slowed the game down. They had not been made deliberately for that reason, but I thought he had a point and respected him for making it.

“I believe there is often a greater strain on umpires in first-class cricket than on players themselves. A very high degree of concentration is required and their rewards are nowhere near
those of the players. We must realise that umpires are doing us a service. No umpires, no cricket.

“It has also been said that umpires are not fit enough. I agree. Umpires should be as fit as possible.

“I would like to put one suggestion forward regarding umpiring. Three umpires are selected for important matches. Usually the third does not go on to the field. It seems to me that the three should be rotated throughout the match to spread the strain a little thinner.”

If EP gets its bonus by beating Transvaal, the Cowley plan will be a stride nearer fulfillment.

“What is the plan?”

“In my time at any rate, EP has never really been a force to be reckoned with. There seems to be a syndrome in EP sport of not knowing how to win. In cricket we lost Pollock and other players and they left a void. We were left with some promising, fairly young players and a sprinkling of more seasoned men. But there was no plan.

“I believe in having a planned and forceful programme and, when I was appointed captain three seasons ago, I had such a programme which, I believed, would take us by the third season to the finals of at least two of the three competitions. We had a lot of young players and I thought it would take at least two seasons to give them the experience and confidence to make a winning side of them.

“The plan was organisation and hard practice. Secondly, discipline, both on and off the field. I expect players to be self-disciplined at social level off the field. Thirdly, I hoped to have one group of players to work with throughout the period.

“Of course we have had our problems, mainly with the third component of the plan. There have been injuries, moves, army service. However, we reached the finals in two competitions last season, a year early. This year we are at the top of the log in the Benson and Hedges night series and are still in the hunt for the Currie Cup.”

Gavin Cowley, of course, was an EP rugby player. Did the Lions in 1974 not say that Cowley was the best flyhalf they played against in South Africa?

“Yes, they did, but I was only 19 then and had played only three games for EP. The All Blacks said the same thing, with more justice, in 1976.”

If so, is he not aggrieved that the Springbok selectors passed him over?

“I am not as sore as a lot of other people have been on my behalf. No, I regard it as part of the rough and the smooth. The adventurous style of play was against me. I liked running with the ball, that’s what rugby is all about. I must say we always seemed to score a lot of tries.

“It was sad in a way. The Springboks had a good backline which was not used to advantage.

“I couldn’t kick as well as Gerald Bosch and some of the others. The Springbok selectors’ policy in those days was ‘kick and subdue’. Ian Kirkpatrick, our coach that season, said: ‘Gavin, if they were picking a touring side, you’d be in. But even then it is unlikely that you’d play in the internationals; just the provincial games’.”

So it came to pass that South Africa’s finest flyhalf retired from rugby without ever donning the green and gold. The immediate cause however, was tearing the medial ligament of his left leg in a match against Free State in 1981.

“I was 27 and I decided it was time to go. I missed rugby terribly, but I had cricket and other sports like squash and golf to turn to when the ligament healed.”

He also had many rugby triumphs to look back on; Craven Week as a schoolboy at Grey High, Cape Province Schools XV, Defence, Gazelles, Quaggas-Barbarians (now SA Barbarians).

Cowley, incidentally, does not believe in representative sport at primary school level. A bad thing, in fact, because a lot of enjoyment is lost. At senior school it is good because it introduces and prepares you for the next step up.

Talking of schools, he said: “My ambition always was to be a schoolmaster. In fact, it is probably my true vocation. I have no difficulty in getting through to children. After matriculating at Grey (a G for maths), and having done military service, I took a degree and teaching diploma at UPE. But, instead of teaching, I took a job in sports administration at the University.”

After two years he almost moved to a job in Cape Town, to Western Province and maybe, a berth in the Springbok XV.

“It was the EP selector, S P Ferreira, who talked me out of it. At the last moment l joined a paint company in Port Elizabeth and stayed with them in 1980 and 1981.”

A year as a sports goods agent with Simon Bezuidenhout and Martin Nefdt (Springbok cyclist) followed.

“It was not for me. I had virtually accepted a sport-related job on the Rand with a motor firm when I got a call from Ronnie Kruger in Uitenhage. I joined Volkswagen instead.

“Frankly, I was grateful for the opportunity to remain in the Eastern Cape. I have always been happy here and the people have been good to me.”

Gavin Cowley (the family is of Irish extraction) was born in Port Elizabeth on March 1, 1953. His father, Selwyn, grew up at Sandflats and works for an oil company in Cape Town.

Gavin received a big helping of sporting genes from his mother’s side of the family. Cynthia Draper was an EP tennis player. Her brothers, Ronnie and Errol Draper, played cricket for Griquas, while Ronnie played cricket for EP and South Africa as well.

“The earliest photograph of me shows me with a ball in my hand. Happily I was never over-coached or pushed by my parents. They were encouraging but never destroyed my love of games by driving me to excel.

Gavin Cowley’s son and daughter (he married Shelley-Anne Robey in 1977) may well have an extra lot of sporting genes. Their grandfather, Tren Robey, played scrumhalf for EP and played good league cricket.

Their uncle Brent plays cricket for EP ‘B’.

With his love of sport unimpaired, Gavin Cowley plans to play cricket “for as long as possible”.

Eastern Province Herald,
January 11, 1985.

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