John Cowie was born in Mount Roskill, Auckland, on 30 March 1912, the son of Scottish parents Elizabeth Cromb Reoch and her husband, Andrew Cowie, a grocer. At Devonport School he took up cricket. He initially bowled slow leg-spin, but finding he could achieve more success by running in fast, he became a fast-medium bowler. Jack Cowie was immensely strong and sturdily built, earning the nickname 'The Bull'. He attended Mount Albert Grammar School and Takapuna Grammar School, and represented Auckland in the Brabin Cup competition for players under 21; he was then only 14. After leaving school Cowie entered the insurance industry.
He first played for Auckland in the Plunket Shield in 1932–33, but did not become a regular member of the side until 1934–35. His ability to beat and dismiss top-order batsmen was noted by the national selectors and that season he played for the North Island. In the following season Cowie played for New Zealand against Errol Holmes's MCC side. He was the outstanding bowler of the Plunket Shield competition in 1936–37, claiming 19 wickets in three games. This ensured his selection for the New Zealand side to tour England in 1937.
Success followed success in England. Cowie captured 114 first-class wickets, and in the three test matches 19 batsmen fell to him. Wisden Cricketers' Almanac described him as a 'player with an enormous capacity for work, who seemed impervious to fatigue and was accurate in length and direction, he often bowled a vicious off-break and, as he could also make the ball "lift" and swing away, he was a bowler to be feared. Had he been an Australian he might have been termed a wonder of the age.'
New Zealand played three matches in Australia on their way home and Cowie succeeded in dismissing the world's greatest batsman, Don Bradman, for 11 runs in Adelaide. Australia's other great batsman of the day, Stan McCabe, had a worse experience for New South Wales, being bowled by Cowie in both innings for 12 and 0. Cricket was interrupted by the Second World War, but Cowie retained his ability, capturing 6 wickets for 40 runs when New Zealand were routed by a strong Australian side in 1946. In the test match the following season against England he again excelled, claiming 6 for 83.
New Zealand's tour of England in 1949 remains one of the pinnacles in its cricket history; the team lost only one of its 32 first-class games. Now aged 37, Cowie found bowling hard work on wickets that had been baked to batting perfection by a brilliantly fine summer. Added to this was a succession of niggling injuries, which meant that Cowie played in only 18 games. He reduced his pace but nevertheless captured a further 14 test victims; five of these were in the first innings of the first test, all of them genuine batsmen.
When the team returned to New Zealand, Cowie was transferred by his company, the Australasian Temperance and General Mutual Life Assurance Society (known as T. & G.) to Wellington. He retired from test cricket in 1950, having played nine tests and captured 45 wickets at an average of 21.53. At a time when New Zealand generally struggled to compete against the might of England and Australia, Cowie had been an outstanding bowler. He continued his involvement in cricket as an umpire and controlled three test matches between 1956 and 1959. He thus became one of the few people to have both played and umpired international cricket.
Cowie also excelled in football, representing Auckland as a goalkeeper in 1933, 1938 and 1939. He became involved in the administration of the game, being elected to the council of the New Zealand Football Association in 1950 and serving variously as treasurer, chairman, vice president and president until 1976. He was a delegate to the international football federation, FIFA, and managed several overseas touring teams. He was made a life member of the NZFA in 1976, and was awarded the OBE for his services to sport in 1972.
Jack Cowie spent 47 years working in insurance and was an executive of the T. & G. from 1967 to 1974. He married Nyrie Wallen in Auckland on 12 September 1936. He died at Lower Hutt on 3 June 1994, survived by his wife and two daughters.