On one fine afternoon at The Oval in 1990, David Gower treated the crowd to his stylish strokeplay, just like he’d done so many times before. Phil Walker was hooked.
First published in 2007
I first fell for David Gower in late summer, 1990. I was ten. He was 33.
It all happened so fast. That summer the simple highs I’d touched from playing cricket had morphed into full-blown infatuations with the whole shebang. Overnight, cricket ceased to exist solely for eight-a-side knockabouts at my dad’s local club, where my mum always refused to make the teas, and had swelled into other worlds, worlds where great heroes do great deeds on ancient fields, fighting for their lives, scrapping day after day, as protectors of this sacred thing called The Test Match. And at the centre of my new universe, leaning on his bat in his blue socks, was the man who would be king.
This was the summer of the bat, when Graham Gooch made his triple century, and all the rest. India were touring, and one of their number was a boy called Tendulkar, just seven years older than me, and already making hundreds. On the morning of the final day of the Test summer, my dad woke me early. We were going to The Oval. I’d never been to a Test match. Gower was a few not out overnight and England were looking to bat out the day to draw the match and win the series. Dad was suitably tense – this was a trip to London, after all – but it was more than that. He’d spent a lifetime being faintly frustrated by cricket’s whims, and had felt that pang of melancholy that frames the dismissal of a favourite player too many times for comfort. He was petrified that Gower would be gone before I’d caught a glimpse of that cover drive.
I’ve since learnt all about those emotions, but on this blessed day there was no waft outside off stump, no indecipherable nick to the keeper, no casual flick into the hands of square leg. There was no rain, no bad light, and no dodgy lbw decision. What I saw that day, transfixed at straight mid-wicket with my old man (behind a cliché in a Panama hat who, in between quaffs, would spy the pigeons on the outfield and bellow stuff like: “Lots of pigeons for you today, Gower!”, and “Pigeon pie for you today, David…”), what I saw was 157 undefeated runs from the man who had become, in one afternoon, the man I wanted to be.
It became a bit of an obsession. I’d scour old scorecards for sight of his name. I’d cut out articles from cricket books. I read up on the 1985 series, the hooked four from his first ball in Test cricket, the captaincy affairs, and of course, the style. I’d work out when Hampshire, his county, were playing at Essex, and I’d make sure I was there. I’d place a mirror opposite the TV when he was batting, and, after turning him into a more accessible right-hander, I’d try and copy his technique. I conscientiously practised the Gower ‘cover drive on the move’ shot, when the feet move in tune with the hands, and the bat comes down in a grand sinuous arc towards the ball. I worked on my post-dismissal wry grin, and focused furiously on my laidback façade.
Dave and me grew together. He went to Australia, and I went to county trials. He made back-to-back Ashes hundreds, and I made my first half-century (74 vs South Woodham CC, since you’re asking). He got fined £1,000 by the England management for a playful half-hour spin in a Tiger Moth plane during a tour match, and I got put in detention for taking a leak on the school field (I was desperate).
But if my punishment was probably fair, his was outrageous. After being hauled up in front of Herr Gooch and team manager Mickey Stewart, he never made another run on that tour. To an 11-year-old, flicking through life like it was a crumpled comic book, this was my first exposure to the jackboot of what my dad termed The Establishment. They wanted machines, not great cricketers. Gower was cast out, and next summer he didn’t feature at all. It was the same the following winter.
Then, in the summer of 1992, the calls got so loud to bring him back that Gooch could resist no longer. Gower returned at Trent Bridge for the third Test, made 73, and then recorded two not outs in a win at Headingley against Wasim and Waqar. Everyone agreed it was a triumphant return.
But Gooch had one last humiliation in store. Gower was missing when the India squad for the winter was announced. I was outraged. I remember sitting on my bed listening to the radio reports, unable to believe this could have happened. There was my boy Gower, fresh from a glorious Test return, and with a glittering record against India, replaced in the squad to tour the sub-continent by one of Essex man Gooch’s trained lackeys! And all because Gower liked a glass of Chablis and read the odd book! It mattered less how many runs he made, than how many laps of the outfield he could notch up in the lunch break. And I might have been a one-eyed kid, but I wasn’t the only one up in arms – the non-selection prompted the MCC to issue an extraordinary vote of no confidence in the selectors. But this was all to no avail. Gower was not going to India, and that was that.
He never played again for England, and fell out of professional cricket at the end of 1993. I saw part of his last ever match. It was at Chelmsford, cold and damp, a nothing match at the fag end of a county season. There was me, and a smattering of duffers in a freezing stand. I recall one swivel pull that went over the pavilion. Gower made a hundred. What a sad way to go for a great England loyalist, and a man who, incidentally, was sometimes accused of not caring enough about playing for England, but who twice refused the filthy cash of South African rebel tours in order to earn less money playing for his country. By the way, Gooch captained the first of those tours.
As for me, my cricketing character was made. I would play the game as homage to the Gower philosophy. An Essex boy, I made it in to the county age group sides through my teenage years, where my coach-in-chief was Alan Lilley, Gooch’s best mate in cricket. We never saw eye-to-eye. I was probably a bit unconventional, and I never played beyond under 19s. I like to think that maybe Lilley never took to me because I fought the good fight, honouring the spirit of the gifted maverick in a world of automaton cricketers, and that I was just too damned dangerous to mess with! Maybe.
But maybe he just didn’t like the way I kept getting caught in the gully for a pretty 41.
First published in 2007