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Meet David Gower, a batting genius

Phil Walker by Phil Walker 12 minute read

Back in 2015, Phil Walker met David Gower, his childhood hero and one of England’s greatest-ever batsmen.

Published in 2015

In a dimly lit wine store just off London’s Borough Market, David Gower huddles in his moleskin overcoat around half a dozen bottles and as many tasting glasses. He’s been collaborating with Laithwaite’s, handpicking wines from around the cricketing world in tune with the World Cup, and these are his favourites. “Oh, I make them all myself,” he says, with the conspiratorial wink of the seasoned anchor. “Personally. Couple of weeks here, couple of weeks there…”

Naturally, he’s a Burgundy man.

“When I was first a county pro on £25 a week, there was lots of beer, but I’m not very good on beer so I needed to find someone to drink wine with. Expenses were about 3p a night so the only thing we could drink was Arc De Triomphe, the irony being it was undrinkable. The great thing is trying different wines – that’s my great joy. It’s not so much going, oh I like that, I’m going to drink several thousand bottles of that and then die, but actually trying new stuff.”

We begin with the Indian red, the Mumbai-produced Sula Nasika Zinfandel. I’d like to report that its boisterous overtones and spicy aftertaste let off fireworks of dancing girls in this fusty old English palate, but I know less about wine than I do the IPL. I do, however, know quite a lot about David Gower.

Discounting a spiky redhead called Elizabeth Carpenter, David Gower was my first love. I was 10, he was 33. We first met at The Oval, 1990, the final day of England-India. I’d never seen a Test match before and my dad roused me early that morning to get to London to see Gower bat, for we must be quick or we’ll miss him; he’d evidently staked many a day on Gower’s cover-drive-on-the-move and lost more than he cared to recall. He wasn’t going to let his boy miss this one, all 20 minutes of it.

In the event, the old flirt batted all day for 157, in his blue socks, mostly helmetless in the autumn balm. There we sat in the Laker Stand, two rows back from a famous classical guitarist lounging across three seats, and along from a parody in a Panama, invoking “David” to disturb the pigeons on the outfield to make us “pigeon pie for tea”.

Gower had this pull over grown men as well as little boys. The innings secured his place on that winter’s Australia tour, his fifth. There, he would make two sublime hundreds, with the second and last of his nine Ashes centuries an unforgivably beautiful 123 at Sydney. “It was a good hundred,” he recalls of that Sydney knock, “and it was defiant; the irony being, it was largely defiant in the face of my own captain.”

Ever since that day in south London, I’d felt a powerful connection with my man. I worked on my Gower saunter, practised those airborne flicks, adopted the lean-on-the-bat repose at the non-striker’s end, and got busy cultivating an industrious nonchalance. I even bought some blue socks.

Why, though? Why him? Because his face told stories. Because his bat, as Ian Healy once remarked, made a different sound to everyone else’s. Because, as the great sportswriter Frank Keating saw it, he never denied his nature to himself. And because he evinced in every sinew and sentiment that elusive human thing that cancels out most other claims to pre-eminence: class.

“I remember the word ‘languid’ being used about me,” he recalls. “I didn’t mind that. The art of it, in sport, is to still be able to achieve something. It takes someone like Federer to achieve great things and make it look good. If someone says to you that you make it look easy while understanding that it isn’t – that is the highest compliment.”

***

For all you poor orphans out there who never saw him bat, imagine a slightly taller, significantly posher Moeen Ali, sans beard and arm-guard and more relaxed for not being dragged through cricket’s modern media carnival, and you’re somewhere vaguely near. I ask if he himself can see many similarities with Moeen, but immediately it feels reductive, as if somehow it’s possible to trap the ethereal in a test tube.

“This thing about people having time to play…” says Gower, glass in hand, “it’s still an illusion of sorts. The great players do have time, but it’s an ability to be in the right place at the right time more often than not. If you create the impression of having time then it’s normally a very, very good sign, which he [Moeen] does. That sort of languid flow, the twirl of the wrists… it’s that trick of seeing a ball go places in a hurry after apparently not much has happened.

“Rhythm is always a good word. Look at Alastair Cook’s troubles over the past year – it’s all about rhythm. If the rhythm is disturbed, quite often that’s when you try hardest, and then you really struggle to get the rhythm back again until suddenly it clicks, until it just happens for you.

“You see people who appear to put a lot of physical effort into their batting and you think how much of that effort is actually needed and how much is actually wasted. With someone like Moeen it is relatively small movements, which on a bad day can cause problems.

“The other thing that strikes me about Moeen is that he’s not afraid to take a risk, to be driven by his instincts. So that puts him in my sphere too. He’s got a lot of natural talent and what we all have to do at some stage, which he has done once or twice, is make it go further.”

The languid left-hander’s pull: David Gower and Moeen Ali

It’s too easily forgotten that Gower made it go far enough to compile 18 Test hundreds and 8,231 runs. He was briefly England’s greatest ever run-scorer; a crumpled anthology of sonnets wedged between the self-help hardbacks of Boycott and Gooch. And yet for all his Ashes tons, his runs in the West Indies – averaging 50 over two tours against the team he says is the greatest of all – and his captaincy triumphs at home against Australia and away in India, he was vexed (though, it should be noted, never unduly so) by that very English notion of needing to ‘go further’, to graft his way to greatness. The English distrust their geniuses, and Gower bore throughout his 15-year career as his country’s most consistent batsman the accursed gift of making it all look too easy.

England’s cricket team was glamorous, flawed and riven in the Eighties but never dull, and in Gower and his boisterous older brother Botham, fans had a couple of archetypes to salivate over: one, of colonial blood and raffish air; the other, all hair, sweat and Albion-lust. Tories both, these were men of their time, and yet there was also something atavistic about them, an attitude from a fading era that still held faithful to the essence of ‘the game’, and of games generally. Neither seemed able to fully forget that, in the end, it was all just a grand old laugh.

Furthermore, the money had started to flow, at least to those at the top. Gower has written frankly that it was the advice of his accountant rather more than his moral conscience that saw him reject two overtures to tour Apartheid-ruled South Africa in 1982 and 1989. Infamously, certain details of that second ‘Rebel’ tour were hatched in the corners of home dressing rooms midway through an Ashes series that Gower, in what would be his final series as England’s captain, was presiding over.

***

Gower’s career began and ended against Pakistan, with a pulled four off Liaqat Ali and a fatal leave-alone against Waqar Younis. From the brimful dash of youth to the fuzzy misjudgments of middle age, these bookends should serve as an irresistible metaphor for a sporting life. But there’s a kink in the image, for Gower wasn’t finished. Or rather, he shouldn’t have been.

England’s brains trust grubbily mishandled the final stages of his Test career. This was the Gooch era, of stern-faced circuits and naughty-boy nets, of narrow plans to redress the waywardness from the end of the Eighties through the reinstitution of discipline and graft. Nothing wrong with that in theory. But in Australia in 1990/91 – the scene of Gower’s “defiant” Sydney hundred, which itself had come on the back of another century at the MCG – the thinking famously collapsed, when Gower was humiliatingly fined for flying a Tiger Moth over the ground where England were playing Queensland. He didn’t score another run on tour, and didn’t feature at all the following summer.

They say all political careers end in failure. Much the same could be said for cricket careers. In the summer of 1992, with England down against Pakistan, Gower was dramatically recalled for the third Test at Old Trafford. He made 73 to move past Boycott on the all-time runmaker’s list, and followed up with two unbeaten knocks at Headingley to steer England back into the series. Only Waqar’s pace at The Oval could blunt an otherwise triumphant return.

But when England’s touring team was announced for the winter, Gower’s name wasn’t in it. I can recall lying on my bed listening to the announcement on the radio. How could they humiliate him again? And this wasn’t just adolescent fury; everywhere there was uproar. Even the Establishment were scrapping about it, with a bunch of MCC dissidents, backed by emphatic public opinion, calling a special general meeting and a vote of no confidence against the selectors.

It came to nought, of course. Gower was never reinstated. The dissidents drifted. England went to India and Sri Lanka, lost the lot, and Gower never played again for England.

I saw his last match. Looking back, I’ve no idea why he was playing. County cricket didn’t really agree with him. It was mid-September, 1993. Gooch’s Chelmsford. Hampshire were the visitors.

I’d legged it from school to catch the evening session. In the drizzle I sat in a virtually empty stand, save for England’s manager Micky Stewart – one of the architects of Gower’s ostracisation – hunched in the corner with a row of seats to himself.

Gower had decided to make a hundred. I will never forget that final swivel-pull off the hip sailing into the pokey pavilion at square-leg.

It was always a mistake to think that the way he batted was an expression of ambivalence to the game itself. Gower cares deeply about the game. It’s in him. He may not, as he happily admits, get all riled-up about England’s fortunes like Botham and others, but he remains unbreakably invested. His second life as a Sky Sports anchor – interspersed with a bit of knockabout panel-show stuff – keeps him actively engaged, though he sometimes has to rely on the “cerebral” Atherton for nuggets of info. “If I’m not quite up to speed on something, I’d ask him and he’ll give you a well-reasoned and succinct summary of what’s going on in any particular field to do with our game.”

And so we wend our way around the modern game until, unprompted, he brings up Pietersen. I wonder if, for all the unedifying bits, he recognises something of himself, not just in Pietersen’s battles with authority but in their shared fate to be forever prodded and probed for ‘playing the way they play’.

“Well, Pietersen is an interesting modern case,” he says. “There was a guy doing extraordinary things in Test cricket. Now he is a mercenary basically, and still saying silly things from the sidelines. I’d much prefer it if he’d not been sending texts to South Africans during Test matches, or if he’d somehow worked out that even though he thinks he gets on with 90 per cent of the team, if he could have got on with the crucial 10 per cent, which includes most captains, then he could still be doing what he wants to do, which is playing international cricket and entertaining us.”

I ask him if he’s read his book. “You must be joking! Have you?” It’s the longest suicide note in history, I tell him. “Well, we’ve all had points to make over the years,” he adds. “It seems to be the rule that if you make a good point but it doesn’t gel with the management it becomes a bad point and it’s going to cost you. So protests have to be judged. How you put it is almost as important as the point. It’s the same in politics.”

It’s election year, and I’m keen to know if my man has repositioned himself over the years. Does he hold any politicians as heroes? “I’ve not normally kept politicians as heroes, it’s got to be said. One thing that bugs us all when it comes to elections is the sheer weight of hot air and bollocks. The sheer amount of bollocks you will sift through. And you think, ‘Well, on balance, who would I trust most?’ Would you trust anyone? Is that Lib Dem way in fact the best way through this crisis?”

Surely he’s not for turning? “Oh, don’t worry about that. That would be a wasted vote. But the other thing that pisses me off about politics is the way that it is apparently allowable to criticise someone for saying something 20 years ago. Let’s face it, cricket moves on, politics moves on, the country moves on, the economy goes up, down, left, right and centre. If a politician has to abide by something he said 20 years ago, that’s just unfair – it’s crass. I can’t say I’m a fan of people defecting to UKIP for no apparent reason, but in general we need to adapt to our changing world and circumstances.”

He packs a velvet punch, does Lord Gower. These days he potters about, listening to Alt-J, shouting at the ref at his daughters’ hockey matches (“They’ve got to be told…”) and getting wound up with his family for being late for things. And wine, of course. We’re over an hour into our plonk-tasting session masquerading as an interview. We shake hands. I’m absolutely ready to buy a bottle of the gorgeous South African Pinotage. It’s been yet another slightly surreal episode with my first true hero. And they say you shouldn’t meet ‘em.

Published in 2015

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