The Best Cricketer Never to Play For Ireland.
by Edward Liddle
Bob Fowler who, one July afternoon 97 years ago, set his name imperishably in cricket history, must be a front runner for this title. Right handed, tall, slim and dark haired, he was, fittingly for the British Army Rackets Champion, quick footed and wristy, excelling with cover drives and cuts. He bowled off spin, with clever changes of pace and the ability to extract turn, from an even slightly helpful wicket.
Born ROBERT ST LEGER FOWLER at his family home, Rahinstown, Enfield, Co Meath on 7 April 1891, he came from a cricket background. His father Robert Henry Fowler (21 June 1857 - 11 May 1957 ) is not only Ireland's longest lived International cricketer having played two matches in 1888,, but having played one match for Cambridge University in 1876, is also one of the top ten oldest first class cricketers of all time. With a brother some years younger, Bob spent a rather solitary childhood, sometimes enlivened by visits from the young Tom Jameson later to play for Phoenix, Hampshire and Ireland, bowling, or hitting a ball against a white mark on a wall. Unlike the youthful Don Bradman, similarly solitary in practice, Bob had a footman to retrieve the ball for him.
Sent to Eton, he was three years in the XI from 1908, under the brilliant but bad tempered master i/c (in charge) CM Wells. By 1910, Bob was captain and seen as the only hope against a Harrow side that included Jameson and soon to be Surrey and Somerset paceman GF Earle, to say nothing of a future UK Cabinet Minister and Irish born Field Marshal. This annual match was one of the highlights of the London social calendar. Fashionably dressed partisan crowds of 10,000 attended Lord's over the two days of the annual match.
Despite Bob top scoring with 21 and 64 and taking a first innings 4/90, Eton, who had to follow on could set Harrow only 55 to win. Then it rained! Turning his off breaks more than a foot Bob bowled 10 -2 – 23- 8 to snatch a 9 run victory. One Harrow observer decided the match was lost from Bob's first ball. ! “It looked to break more than a yard and came off the pitch like a rattlesnake." When the last wicket fell former Conservative Prime Minister AJ Balfour threw his "topper" in the air in delight. Would a sporting victory for St Aidan's CBS, Kirkcaldy High School or Ballymena Model today attract such a display? Bob became the toast of London. A telegram to "Fowler's Mother London" reached her and "Fowler's Match" passed into history, only to be knocked from its pedestal by Botham and Willis in 1981, but it took two of them.
That summer Bob was selected to play for Ireland v Scotland at College Park. Unfortunately Eton refused him permission to play, a pity as RH Lambert, a very similar bowler, took 7/14 on a soft wicket. Fowler did play for Woodbrook v Warwickshire that summer holidays, top scoring in the second innings against fast left armer FR Foster, eighteen months away from his Ashes winning triumph "Down Under."
Making the British Army his career, Bob was again refused leave to play v Scotland in1911, instead he scored 137* and took 7/9 in an Army match for
Sandhurst v Woolwich. In 1913 he made his first class debut in two matches for MCC scoring 40 v Cambridge in his second outing. Then War engulfed his way of life. He emerged unscathed, a captain with a Military Cross won during the defence of Amiens against the last German offensive of 1918. In 1920, he was again selected v Scotland with predictable results! He did, however, make a Senior League appearance for Phoenix, taking 5/15 v Trinity in College Park. His main cricket was for the Army, then first class in composition and status. Against MCC that season he made 92* his highest first class score. Batting at 9, he put on a, then, Lord's record 237 for the 8th wicket with WVD Dickenson. His most memorable performance, however was against the all powerful 1921 Australians, who swatted England aside in the Tests. Playing for Combined Services, Bob made 65 and 36, the former the top score of the match for the Services. In 1922 he was selected for that winter's MCC tour of New Zealand under veteran England captain AC MacLaren. The reader will guess the reaction of His Majesty's Forces!
Surprisingly he was allowed to make two minor tours of North America. In 1920, he toured USA with the wandering side Incogniti. He was the outstanding player, hitting a brilliant 142 v Philadelphia and averaging 10.74 with the ball. However the highest score on tour was, typically, made by the side's youngest member, Douglas Jardine. In September 1923, Bob toured Canada with Free Foresters. He was much too good for the opposition. Against a McGill XI at Toronto, he hit a superb 146, and took 12/48 in the match. His tour bowling average was 7.41.
Bob's philosophy of cricket can best be seen from a match he played at Eton in 1920. He had returned there to play for an XI raised by Wells to oppose the College side. Wells had been reluctantly persuaded to hand over charge of cricket there to a new face, RA Young, whom he disliked. He wanted to win this match. With Bob bowling, Wells, keeping wicket, appealed for a stumping. On being refused, he pulled up all three stumps in succession, still appealing to no avail. Meanwhile, Bob was doubled up with laughter, because he, and the batsman knew that the latter was really out caught behind, having got a faint edge.
In 1924, Bob played three matches for Hampshire, hitting a half century at his happy hunting ground, Lord's, and also appeared for Gentlemen v Players, though this was at Blackpool not Lord's. He was seen as a possible England captain of the future and, as preparation was appointed captain of MCC for their tour of West Indies that winter. Wonderful to relate the War Office raised no objection. At the last moment the tour was postponed. When it did take place a year later, FG Gough- Calthorpe of Warwickshire, who did indeed go on to captain England, was skipper because Bob, alas, was dead. Poor health had seen him granted leave from the Army to return to Enfield early in 1925.There leukaemia was diagnosed. On 13 June, at the height of the cricket season, he died. War, his Army career, and tragically early death, had robbed him of almost certain cricketing greatness. His old friend Tom Jameson, also probably robbed of Test appearances by military duties, recalled him thus many years later, "Bob Fowler what pleasant memories his name will always bring to those who had the good fortune to play cricket with or against him.....A modest and sporting cricketer whose death was mourned by all lovers of the game."
Copyright: Cover Point