Cricket: Cricket's rare vintage of '57

Forty years ago as England were beating Worrell's West Indies, the birth columns bore names soon to become familiar; Simon O'Hagan finds himself in good company to celebrate a very good year
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It was the year that Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister, the Common Market was created, and the space age began with the launch of Sputnik. The Bridge on the River Kwai was awarded seven Oscars, Elvis Presley was No 1 in the charts with "All Shook Up", and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth motor racing world championship, Althea Gibson became Wimbledon's first black champion, and a 17-year-old footballer called Jimmy Greaves made his debut for Chelsea.

English cricket, meanwhile, was enjoying one of its golden ages. The West Indies, including the three Ws, came to play a five-Test series, lost three by an innings, and could only draw the other two. England could put out a side that included Peter May, Tom Graveney, Colin Cowdrey, Godfrey Evans behind the stumps, and one of their finest bowling attacks ever in Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Trevor Bailey, Jim Laker and Tony Lock. Surrey won the county championship for the sixth year running, with one more still to go.

The atmosphere was blithe, and somehow it must have found its way into the genes, because 1957 was a vintage year for cricket in another way. There are notable cricketers born every year, of course, but in those 12 months (between the death of Humphrey Bogart and the Queen's first Christmas broadcast on television) the births columns sparkled with names that would become the stars of a later era.

Two in particular stand out - David Gower (born 1 April) and Mike Gatting (6 June). But the supporting cast is also impressive: Bill Athey (27 September), Chris Broad (29 September), Chris Cowdrey (20 October), Paul Downton (4 April) and Graeme Fowler (20 April). Three England captains and a total of 301 Test caps. It was obviously no coincidence that 1957 was when Buddy Holly and the Crickets burst on to the pop scene.

The generation that turns 40 this year can bring to mind some powerful images of the cricket we first became aware of. We were in awe of the run-ups of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. I can still see Colin Bland uprooting one stump after another with direct hits in a fielding demonstration he gave during South Africa's tour in 1965. And by 1968 some of us were actually helping clear the water off the outfield at the Oval before Derek Underwood routed the Australians in that incredible fifth Test. We remember the young Geoff Boycott because he wore glasses.

But the most blissful sporting moment of our childhoods had to be the 1966 World Cup. It was the year of our ninth birthdays. We could not have been at a more impressionable age. Certainly it prompted instant recall in the soon-to-be-40 cricketers I spoke to, none with such bitter-sweetness as Graeme Fowler. "I watched all of it apart from the final," he said. "We had to take our two weeks' holiday, and I remember sitting on a bloody beach in Wales listening to it on a little red transistor radio. I couldn't believe it." Fowler must have been an alert child because he remembers seeing Accrington Stanley's last match in the Football League, at the end of the 1961-62 season. "My school was only 600 yards from the ground. I remember my Dad saying, 'Well, you might as well go now because you'll never see them again'."

Just under a year later an English family arrived at Southampton on a ship from what was then Tanganyika. As the country gained its independence, it was time for the Gowers to come home. What David remembered was that they docked the day before his sixth birthday. "That and crossing the equator."

Gower's memories from when he was young shed light on his cricket. Living locally, he saw a lot of Garry Sobers when the West Indies captain played for Nottinghamshire, and noted his back-foot drive square of the wicket. But there was a left-hander who meant even more to him.

"The original cricket memory I have is of going to Trent Bridge in 1965 and seeing Graeme Pollock score a hundred," Gower said. "If I'm honest I wouldn't have seen it all, because there were long periods when I would have been behind the stand hitting a tennis ball. There was a bit more space then. But at that age Pollock was always the name that stood out."

Chris Cowdrey was in a slightly different position. He had a cricketing giant for a father. There was never a time when the professional game wasn't an intimate part of family life. Bill Athey, on the other hand, doesn't remember much about the Yorkshire team or England when he was growing up in Middlesbrough. "I was too wrapped up in my own game." For Downton, a Kent boy, Alan Knott was the inevitable hero.

The first time this group of players came together was in the late summer of 1976, when an England under-19 team toured West Indies. It included Cowdrey (captain), Downton (vice-captain), Gower, Gatting, Athey and two other 1957 men who went on to have successful first-class careers - Ian Gould, the Sussex wicketkeeper (born 19 August), and Richard Williams of Northamptonshire (10 August). Paul Allott (September 1956) opened the bowling, and Fowler was a reserve.

The one unofficial Test was won by England, thanks in no small part to a burst of wickets by Gatting on the last day. "He was quite a useful little bowler then," said Cowdrey. Gatting made an impression on Downton, too. "He was very much the senior pro," he recalled. "Highly involved. Obviously a fierce competitor."

Gower, with whom Downton had toured in South Africa the previous winter in a Kent public schools team that also included Cowdrey, was "someone who made batting look ridiculously easy". Gatting and Gower were the first to make their first-class debuts, in 1975, and in 1977-78 Gatting became the first of his year to play for England. Gower followed in 1978, Athey in 1980, Downton in 1981, Fowler in 1982, Chris Broad in 1984, and Cowdrey in 1984-85 when all of these except Athey and Broad were part of the England team that won 2-1 in India. "It was not so much that we were going round saying, 'Hey, who'd have thought it'," Gower said of the tour. "More a case of there being a comfortable atmosphere because so many of us were the same vintage and knew each other pretty well."

They are hardly any less in touch today. Cowdrey was best man to Gower and Downton, as Gower was to Cowdrey.

Retirement has now come to all but Gatting and Athey, and for Downton, at any rate, that had much more of an effect on him than he thinks turning 40 will have. "When you stop playing, you lose your identity," he said. "Not in terms of being recognised by other people, but in terms of who you are in yourself. That's the biggest problem sportsmen have to face, and for a while it was extremely difficult." Six years on, Downton is a contented stockbroker.

Fowler, who now runs Durham's cricket academy, says he is much happier than he was when he was 20 or 30. "When I was younger I was so competitive that I had to win at anything. It just drove me mad. It took me over. As I get older I can switch it on or off." Gower said he felt "fine"about the birthday that looms; so too Cowdrey. Athey's wry view was: "I'd rather be getting there than not."

In the meantime, the various celebrations are being planned. Gower is going to have a joint bash in the summer with his wife Thorunn, who is also 40 this year. Perhaps the class of '57 should all get together. It would make a nice photograph. Many happy returns.

This article appears in the April edition of 'Wisden Cricket Monthly'