A revered cricket gentleman, who outstandingly led Singapore cricket for quarter-century, passed on in Perth Wednesday morning. John Cecil Cooke was 91 – just nine short of a blessed century.
He was hailed as the “father of modern day cricket here…he lifted cricket from relative obscurity to creating and sustaining an ecosystem in which it thrived and Singapore excelled on and off the field”, praises Past SCA (Singapore Cricket Association) President Imran Hamid, 64, the current ICC (International Cricket Council) Deputy President.
Exceptional. Extraordinary. Exemplary. Excellent. Estimable.
The class of compliments was unending as almost everyone who crossed his path, on and off the cricket field, had awesome words for him as he steered Singapore Cricket Association, set up in 1949, to regional heights by successfully organising inter-club tournaments, tours, inter-state and representative fixtures. And, to his distinguished credit, he made every effort to encourage the younger generation.
The late Cooke, who died of heart and kidney failure, leaves behind wife Jackie and sons Eric, Terence, John and daughter Gwen. The private parlour-ceremony is scheduled to be held at St Martin in the Fields Anglican Church, in Noranda, Western Australia.
Gwen, who used to be a Singapore hockey international, says her dad was “admitted to hospital two weeks ago…he went downhill rather fast. I spoke to him Tuesday and he was conscious. We’re very sad he’s gone but he’s going to a better place and the family is very happy for him”.
John, also a hockey international who played in the Junior World Cup 1982 in Kuala Lumpur, said the Cooke family “enjoyed the special values of sports and developed genuine friendship through our wonderful father”.
He says: “The sporting spirit just fired away because we had an oustanding role-model. He was weak in the final days but not unwell and went off peacefully. Thankfully, he had a great life to 91 years.”
Cooke was one of the longest-serving SCA Hon Secretary & President and played a pivitol role when Singapore became an associate member of the ICC in 1974. Three years later, Singapore won the Saudara Cup for the first time. In 1978, Singapore played India at home, the match ending in a draw. Singapore took part in the first ICC Trophy in England in 1979 but could only finish fourth in their first round group after only beating Argentina.
DINNER IN PERTH
I remember visiting the Cooke family, who migrated to Perth in 1987, many, many moons ago (two decades to be precise!) at their residence at “Elsnore”, Peerless Place in Noranda. We had a nice Jackie-served Australian dinner with wonderful wines in tow. Cooke later showed me, rather uniquely, his personal cricket museum, with a mind-blowing comprehensive display of cricket memorabilia from a lifetime collection of bats, balls, gloves, wickets, ties, scarves, sports-suits and umpteen autographed framed photos with world-famous personalities.
I vividly remember Cooke, a honorary life member of MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club), the only South-East Asian to be bestowed this honour, telling me: “Cricket is great game and one should play with passion and follow the rules of human values. Play hard but play fair. How you manage your game is more important on and off the field. You will have to be more focus on culture you develop in your early days of cricket.”
He recounted how he rubbed shoulders with the biggest global names of cricket at the historic Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. John’s Wood, wherein, with typical Cooke-styled humility, he put little-known Singapore, in the 1970s and 80s, on the world cricket map.
A significant feather-in-the-cap for Cooke came in 1978 when he was appointed Chef-de-Mission to the Asian Games in Bangkok. The wonderful delight came from a 14-year-old Junie Sng who made huge waves in the swimming pool when she stormed her way to Singapore’s first-ever women’s gold at an Asian Games by winning the 400-metre freestyle. The feat, accomplished in a time that was more than four seconds faster than the old meet record, also made her the youngest female gold medalist in the entire Games’ history. One day later, Sng won the 800m freestyle, also in Asiad record time.
SCA President Mahmood Gaznavi, a Raffles Institution-educated journalist turned lawyer, says: “Cecil was a passionate cricketer both as a player and as an administrator. He was responsible for prodding numerous youngsters to pursue cricket and many of them went on to form the backbone of the national team for several years. His intense connection with cricket was exemplified by his constant appearances at cricket venues; as a player, a spectator and someone who looked to improve the younger lot of players. He will be sadly missed. He lived well after retiring in Perth, Australia, in the late 1980s, a fulsome life and I’m sure with no regrets.”
Senior lawyer Imran Hamid Khwaja, 64, the current ICC Deputy President who is the first person from a non-Test playing nation to be elected to the highest echelons of the sport’s governing body, describes Cooke as “exceptional in many ways”. He explained: “He was the father of modern day cricket in Singapore. He lifted cricket from relative obscurity to creating and sustaining an ecosystem in which it thrived and Singapore excelled on and off the field.”
St Joseph’s Institution-educated Imran, who is also Chairman of the 95 ICC Associate Members and also Vice President of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC), added: “He was a great believer that cricket genuinely mould character and for him, it was the perfect sport to groom gentlemen and selfless citizens. On the field. I remember him as a fierce competitor but very humble in victory and gracious in defeat.”
The Past SCA (Singapore Cricket Association) President for a decade from 2005, Imran salutes: “In a nutshell, Cecil Cooke was a gentleman’s gentleman whose legacy will shine for many years to come.”
Former Singapore cricket skipper-national coach Stacey Murthi, who in the 1970s was named the youngest national skipper at 24 years, says: “Cooke’s simply terrific in leadership and sportsmanship. He worked his butts out to promote cricket locally and internationally and what I admired about him was his big-hearted long-term grooming of younger players, much at the rude expense of some senior players. He’s always for youth development.” Murthi, now 67, went to play for Singapore for 32 years from 1969 to 2001.
Few know of Cooke’s personal friendship with Australian sporting legend, Sir Donald Bradman, nicknamed “The Don”, widely acknowledged as the greatest global batsman of all time. Bradman’s career Test batting average of 99.94 has been cited as the greatest achievement by any sportsman in any major sport.
Cooke’s son Eric says that Sir Bradman, who was also an ardent admirer of the late (founding father of Singapore) Lee Kuan Yew, played a key role in convincing his dad to migrate Down Under. The Cookes never regretted it and the entire family has been in Australia for 33 years.
Commercial pilot and Singapore’s opening batsman Abhijit Dass was initially emotional and lost for words. But like the ultra-fast batting recovery he does on the field, he says: “John Cecil Cooke was a ‘parka’ gentleman. On and off the field, he set the highest of standards in behaviour, functionality and performance. Many a time, I was on the receiving end of his sharp wit and tongue as he diligently pushed me to higher levels on the field of play. No compromises.
“He was the secretary of the SCA from the time I was the Captain of the Singapore Under 15 team, till I played in the full National side. A period of approximately 20 years. An absolute stickler for detail, and scrupulously honest, he ran the association brilliantly. Thank you Mr. Cooke for the memories, the laughter and most of all, for just being you. Close to impossible to match. RIP.”
Past SCA Vice President Mohanavelu Neethianathan, who is now Chairman (Games) at Singapore Indian Association (SIA), took his hat out to a “marvellous administrator who distinguished as SCA Hon Secretary and SCA President during difficult periods after the British exit from Singapore”.
He says: “He was Singapore’s globe-trotting cricket ambassador. A very fine gentleman and cricketer. As our representative at ICC Meetings at Lord’s, he excelled in speaking up for the Associate Members in obtaining the necessary funds to develop the sport.
“He was pivotal in laying the foundation for the Mini World Cup Cricket allowing for the two top teams then in the World Cup. At local levels, he fired up cricket interest during the critical periods in the 1970s and 80s when it was lacking in support both at schools and clubs, which favoured the more niche sports like football, basketball or hockey. To this end , Cooke formulated a plan for a wider inter-schools tournament, both at primary and secondary levels, and also the formation of a SCA Colts Team for aspiring talented schoolboys in the Junior League.”
Former 1973 SEAP (South-East Asia Peninsular) Games gold-medal-winning hockey-striker stalwart T. Nantha Kumar, now based in Mooroolbark, Melbourne, ranks Cooke as a “great cricket brain”. He says: “I had the privilege of playing cricket under his captaincy for the Armed Forces. He was always fair and firm with a rather dry wicked sense of humour! He converted me to a wicket keeper and batsman. What an unique gentleman.”
James Connor, a former Josephian, now in Perth, WA, praises Cooke as a “very good off-spin bowler in his day. He starred for Police and Singapore under the late Reggie da Silva (Singapore captain) who was a top batsman himself. Another of Cecil’s mates from those days Osbert Rozario, lives in Perth, aged 96. He still drives and walks without any aids. The old timers are slowly dwindling in numbers.”
THREE SPORTS STALWARTS
Three of Cooke’s teenage kids in the 1980s, Terry, John and Gwen, starred for Singapore at hockey, recalls former national coach V. K. Chelvan. He said: “Cecil Cooke was an immaculate gentleman, very well respected in cricket circles. Three of his children, Terry, John and daughter Gwen contributed immensely to our national hockey teams. Cooke encouraged them to excel in the sport they loved and they did very well.”
Past Singapore Cricket Club (SCC) General Manager Chris Phua says: “I’d sum him up as a genuine gentleman who used to be quite a regular at SRC (Singapore Recreation Club) when his wife (Jackie) played hockey for the club. Soft spoken, amicable and a gentleman. I’m afraid I don’t know much about him outside cricket. We were in contact whenever he was in Singapore as he was in a travel service business with Stacey Muruthi. RIP Cecil Cooke.”
Past hockey fullback and national coach-manager Farouk Merican remembers Cooke as a “wonderful guy to (Lam) Yin Koi (former national youth coach) and me. We were always thought of during anniversaries and get-togethers. He was unassuming and disciplined. It reflected the same on his children. I was involved in hockey with Terence, John and Gwendolyn. Eric was not in sports. Wife Jackie was a great lady by his side. He was a legendary figure in SCA, both as secretary, president and player.”
Junior World Cup 1977 (France) hockey striker Ashok Kumar, who also excels in cricket, described Cooke as a “very strict and no-nonsense captain”. He says: “I had the honour of playing cricket with him in the 1980s. A strict no nonsense captain who always gave 100 per cent on the cricket pitch. He always made it a point at the hockey pitches to support Terence, John and Gwen. Remarkably, ever a gentleman on and off the sporting fields.”
Former Singapore football defender John Fernandez from Singapore Cricket Club (SCC), in a SMS to me, says: “He is a polished sportsman who made his mark in regional cricket, perhaps one of the best off-spin bowlers who took Singapore cricket to great heights. He will be missed by the cricket fraternity. RIP Cecil.”
Former national cricketer and selector M. Rashid from the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC) says: “I was very close with him, he’s a very good person who will go out of his way to help people. He did a lot for Singapore cricket and hardly sought any personal glory. May Allah Bless his soul.”
Wong Hoe Sang, who played for Singapore from 1972 to 1978, gave the big thumbs-up: “Cricket was his passion. He lived for cricket and his contribution to the game was immense. This game should comprise of three key elements – teamwork, sportsmanship and spirit. He’s been role models in every sense of the word and setting examples for future generations to follow as to how the game should be played with the correct attitude and in the right spirit.”
Rex Martens, who at 17 years was the youngest player in April 1979 who went for the ICC World Cup qualifiers in Britain. “Very sad to see him go. He was a great administrator of cricket and made sure Singapore got to the ICC World Cup qualifiers in 1979 and 1982. He was captain of Armed Forces when I played. He was an awesome fighter on the field who played it hard and never liked losing.”
Rex’s dad, the former Singapore cricketer and hockey umpire John Martens, 88, says: “Cooke represents the very best of cricket. Ever the humble, nonchalant attitude. No show off. No Page 3 attitude. No celebrity airs. No “do you know who I am?” looks. Really a class act always.”
SEAP (South-East Asian Peninsular) Games sprint hurdling hero Osman Marican, who was in the Singapore Police Force with Cooke, says: “May the good Lord bless his soul and ever give him grace. He was the pillar of the Police cricket team. He made sure that the Police Academy had one of the best cricket fields in town. His love for cricket was extraordinary. How shall I sum him up? A true-blue gentlemen, polished and a great sportsman.”
As former SRC (Singapore Recreation Club) hockey and football stalwart Malcolm Nunis from Melbourne, Australia, salutes: “Condolences to the family of Cecil Cooke. There goes a great gentleman and special sportsman. Deepest sympathies.”
RIP John Cecil Cooke.
You personify, in my mind, why the bat-and-ball sport is reflected as a gentleman’s game. Simply because it should be played with the highest sporting decorum, which means no sledging, cheating, bodyline bowling , temper tantrums or excessive appealing.
The beauty of this sport, although I don’t play it because it takes more than half-a-day of your time (!), is that if the batsman knew he was out, he should ‘walk’ even if the umpire decided otherwise. I think only one sentence is right in that: Play it like a gentleman!
That’s perfectly what Cooke was, an immaculate gentleman. His simplicity was priceless. No matter how much fame and respect he acquired over the last nine decades, he always prefers to stay grounded, even at 91 years if he was just nine short of a lifetime century. (For the record, a century is completion of a score of 100 runs – a major milestone for a batsman),
In my parting shot, I’d say John Cecil Cooke will always be an inspiration for anyone wishing to take cricket as a career. Believe me, there ain’t many better role models than him.