By Sam Dalling
Former Kent star Fabian Cowdrey has lifted the lid on the internal anguish that ultimately led him to walk away from the game he loved at the tender age of 24 – a move that allowed happiness to flood back into his life.
The right-hander – whose family name is etched into the brains of English cricket fans – dreamt as a child of one day following the path trodden by his father and granddad into the England dressing room.
And for a time, it looked like the family dynasty would continue.
Having come through the youth ranks at Kent, the all-rounder took the first steps towards realising his dream when signing a professional deal with the county in 2011.
The former Tonbridge School scholar went on to debut in the 2013 domestic t20 competition, forming a fruitful opening partnership with fellow academy product Daniel Bell-Drummond, and he underlined his talent with a quick-fire half-century on List A debut against Worcestershire that same year.
A maiden County Championship outing following the following year, but then followed a period of frustration.
The slow-left-armer failed to nail a regular spot over a few years, falling in and out of favour – particularly in the longer format – and being asked to bat across the order.
The lack of a sustained opportunity was what hurt the Cowdrey most, and it was his inner demons that ultimately led the youngster to call time on his professional career on the eve of the 2017 season:
“I had put in 100% since I started my career but I didn’t feel the investment, the sacrifice or the hours I was putting in were equating to anything,” he explained.
“I wasn’t enjoying it and that was reflected in the results. That frustrates be because the statistics don’t reflect that player I was or could have been.
“But I was at a low point and it was eating me up inside. I just didn’t feel the opportunity was going to come.
“I was playing a team sport but I felt low and very lonely in the dressing room. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
“I could have earned good money by staying on and I considered moving counties and trying to pave a career elsewhere but at the time I just didn’t want to be near a cricket pitch.
“Since I was six-year-old I wanted to follow dad and grandad into the England dressing room so it was difficult to let that go.
“But ultimately I put my happiness before anything else and so it was completely the right decision. I’m in a much better place now.”
Fast-forward four years and Cowdrey is enjoying success back in the game he grew up with, albeit having replaced the ball with a microphone.
By chance he began to cover Kent matches for the local BBC radio station, and within a short space of time he was jettisoned into the Five Live hot seat alongside Dimitri Mascarenas as the pair presided over Hampshire’s domestic one-day cup final triumph over Kent at Lords in 2018.
The insight that a former professional can give into the dressing room is a valuable commodity, and, while keen not get carried away, Cowdrey is dreaming big.
The former Cardiff Met student one day hopes to line-up alongside the game’s great and good on Test Match Special – the pinnacle of cricketing commentary – and has revealed that, although his old man has enjoyed a long and successful career in the industry, it was a less likely source that secured him his big break.
“When I just retired I had no intention of going into anything else cricket-related,” he admitted.
“But my mother is the one to blame – she got me into it. It was a complete fluke.
“She put me in touch with Andy Peebles who worked for TMS and in turn he put me in touch with Adam Mountford.
“He gave me a call as soon as the connection was made, and asked me to cover Kent vs Derbyshire.
“I think the listeners must have enjoyed the insight into the dressing room, the gossip and the discussion around strategies and approaches to game, as I was then asked to be lead commentator in my second game – a daunting prospect.
“Then Five Live got in touch and I covered the Kent vs Hampshire final at Lords with Dimi and Simon Mann – those sorts of experiences are incredible.
“I’m not thinking too far ahead and I am taking every day as it comes. That said, if I get the opportunity to one day join Aggers (Jonathan Agnew) then I’ll snap Adam Mountford’s hand off!”
Not content with commentary duties, and in the mould of a true all-rounder, Cowdrey added yet another string to his bow when launching Cow Corner events back in 2018.
The company brings together some of cricket’s leading lights for evenings of dressing room insight, opinions and laughter, all expertly hosted by his father Chris – himself of course a former England skipper.
The likes of Sir Garfield Sobers, Marcus Trescothick, David Gower and Graham Gooch have all taken their turn in the hot seat so far, but as, has been the case for businesses throughout the land, a dramatic strategy shift has been required in recent months.
With the global pandemic forcing event organisers to think outside the box, Zoom-based discussions with Ian Bell and Graeme Fowler have gone down a treat this week, with Simon Jones due to entertain the online crowd in a few days’ time.
And Cowdrey – who admitted calling upon a tech savvy pal has to ease his tech-based nerves – thinks the move to online content has enabled him to reach a wider audience and will turn out as a positive in the long term.
“The whole thing could be a blessing in disguise from a business point of view,” he said.
“Of course, we had to cancel evenings with the likes of Jonathan Agnew and Nigel Owens which was frustrating as we have our clients who want to spend some time with us, and course we can’t do that at the moment.
“We are doing the events on Zoom and I’m always a bit wary of technology.
“But I’ve got a tech savvy friend who is on the ball and he has been working for us.
“On the day we just have to put some faith in people’s WiFi and keep our fingers crossed it holds up on the night.
“Everyone is pretty understanding though and we’ve now got a strong live capacity.
“This is something we want to build as it allows us to share the brand with others around the world and show what we have to offer.
“We are trying to evolve and stay positive – the future seems bright.
“We hope to be able to set up a membership scheme one day but for now we don’t feel comfortable charging and so are providing it all for free for people to enjoy.
While it seems a distant memory now, it of course wasn’t all doom and gloom for the former MCC Universities man at Kent and he can look back with pride when reflecting on 70 appearances for the seven times county champions.
One man he shared a dressing room with for many of those matches is former teammate Darren Stevens – a veteran of more than 550 outings for the Canterbury outfit and a man Cowdrey has hailed as a once in a generation cricketer.
The 44-year-old has been on a rolling contract for several seasons now, and was informed he was surplus to requirements during the course of last Summer, only for a late season renaissance forced the club’s hierarchy into a dramatic U-turn.
Having been informed there would be no new deal on the table weeks earlier, it was a case of best ‘til almost last that saved the veteran all-rounder’s career.
First, Steven’s rolled back the years with a ten-wicket match haul against Nottinghamshire, notching up 88 with the bat in the same fixture.
Not content with that effort, the right-hander ramped it up a few gears against Yorkshire the following week, racking up a career best 237 from just 225 balls in a County Championship clash at Headingley, also snaring 5-20 for good measure.
The COVID-19 crisis may yet bring the curtain down on the former Leicestershire man’s career, but Cowdrey believes the medium’s pacer’s relaxed mental approach to the game has been key to his longevity.
“He has been incredible for Kent, but everyone knows he was out of contract last season before he went and scored a double-hundred and picked up ten wickets in a match.
“Then it was a case of hang on a second, we can’t let this guy go here.
“He manages his mind brilliantly – he has always been like that. He escapes well and takes time away from cricket.
“He has been incredible for Kent and the county circuit won’t see anyone like him for a long time. I can’t believe he hasn’t played for England really.
“He’s a dying breed of cricketer and will go down as one of the great county pros.”