Like a slender white ocean liner slipping beneath the waves, the most elegant international cricketing career of this or perhaps any generation was finally scuppered at Lord’s on 7 September.
It is said, is it not, that when a butterfly flaps its wings in what is left of the Amazon rainforest, it leads to a typhoon in the China Sea or wherever. It is an exponential effect where each successive domino knocks over one that is bigger. One recent morning, well away from the international arena, in the small press box at the Sussex ground at Hove, a County match was in progress, but there was little at that point to set the juices racing. ‘I think a cup of coffee is in order,’ I said to Martin Johnson of the Independent and Alan Lee of the Times, ‘and the only place on the ground that serves a proper filtered cup of the stuff is the Hove Shop.’ Most County grounds have an establishment like this, where anything that can reasonably be sold at a profit – papers, sweets, magazines, cricket shirts, canned drinks, books – is stocked. Mrs Eaton’s shop, a Portakabin located at the back of the terracing in the forecourt to the ground, has all this and more. In one corner is her coffee machine.
We sipped our Kenco, the three of us, and nattered of the game, which mercifully at that point we couldn’t see, of our plans for the evening and the rest of the season. And of the impending publication of David Gower’s autobiography.This had been ghosted by Martin Johnson, a man who, since he began following Leicestershire for the Leicester Mercury back in 1973, two years before Gower’s first-class career began there, had known him better than most. The official publication date was 10 September, but, said Johnson, it would probably be in the bookshops before that, after Today newspaper had serialised the meatier extracts. Apparently the book contained passages which were critical of the recent English management team of Graham Gooch and Mickey Stewart, the team manager, who was shortly due to retire. But it was felt that this would not have exerted any undue influence on Gower’s selection for England’s tour of india – not least because the book had been vetted by the Test and County Cricket Board.
It was Lee who spotted it first, there on the shelf among the other cricket books: a front cover with a colour photograph of an unmistakable left-handed batsman wafting a cut away to third man, and in stacked gold capitals the word ‘Gower’. Johnson swore; I bought a copy. So did Lee. There was sport to be had. Back in the press box was Otway, a man delightful in his inability to restrain a drama to the status of just that, whose paper had the serialisation rights. We walked in and mentioned the Today serialisation: how much this exclusive was costing (something in the vicinity of £10,000 seemed to be the figure). We then showed him the book. Otway swore more profusely than Johnson, dialled his office, harangued them for ten minutes and then packed his bag and left to drive to Wapping on a mercy mission to oversee the serialisation. Today’s thunder was about to be stolen by the massed broadsheets and the tabloid Daily Mail. So the serialisation was brought forward to the very next day.
Johnson meanwhile was phoning the publisher to enquire why the book was on sale at this stage, and secretly grateful that the deal he had negotiated with Gower’s agent had, on the advice of Lee, who knows a thing or two about such things, involved a flat rate and no cut of the serialisation fees. Curiously, given that he was the ghost, his own paper, on the advice of their lawyers, declined to print extracts because of the danger of action from Today. Johnson failed to convince them that there surely was no such danger, given that the book appeared to be available to anyone with £14.99 to spare. He had a point.
To understand the apparent excitement, it is necessary to know a few things about Gower: his relationship with the cricket establishment, for example, which has twice seen him captain of his country and twice losing the job, once in disgracefully cowardly circumstances, when he was ejected by the then chairman of selectors, Peter May. It is necessary to know his approach to captaincy, which, as seen from the periphery, was the equivalent of riding a bike with your feet on the handlebars (he would argue that provided you don’t crash you would still get to the bottom of the hill this way, but it is little help when it comes to getting up the other side); his instinctive approach to batting, with its reliance on a surgeon’s touch, Olivier’s timing and 20-20 vision, and his approach to life, which involves a preference for fine wines to beer, and for skiing and tobogganing – he is a member of the Cresta Run – and for windsurfing off a Caribbean beach to a fortnight in Marbella.
More recently, Gower came in for criticism after the disastrous winter tour of Australia two years ago. His approach to the tour, it was felt by the management, was unco-operative, his batting, despite two centuries in the series, at times irresponsible. Overall, he was deemed a bad influence on a ragbag side. The whole thing came to a head one afternoon in Queensland when for a prank Gower and another player slipped away, hired a pair of Tiger Moth aircraft from a local airfield and persuaded the pilots to buzz the cricket ground. It cost Gower a £1000 fine. More than that, it seemed to have cost him his career. After the two final tests of the series he was not to play for England again for 18 months.
It was possible for Gower to understand if not to agree with Gooch, a determined, driven man with a mammoth work ethic, despite the fact that he himself must have worked hard in his own way at making the game look so damned easy. But he could not come to terms with Stewart, appointed in 1986 as England’s first team manager. Maybe he was a man who was in the wrong sport. He talked about work-rate, he used jargon known as Mickyspeak. He was once heard telling a former international that a young bowler in his side bowled ‘too many wicket-taking balls’. ‘How many wickets has he taken, then?’ the old boy asked, and was left scratching his head when informed that, well, actually he hadn’t taken any at all. A wicket-taking ball is one which produces a minimum of four runs, and is what used to be called a half-volley. He called everyone ‘son’ except, curiously, the only man in his side qualified for the accolade, and had he been able, he would have introduced man-to-man marking. It was the mentality of a Third Division football manager. No one doubted. Stewart’s heart, keenness, patriotism, or indeed his work-rate: but for Gower, whose preparation owed more to the crossword and a cuppa than 100 press-ups and a run round the town, this was anathema.
Gower, like the Brazilian football team, would train to the samba beat rather than the beat of the regimental drum. The management felt that if this was Gower’s attitude then they had the right to carry on without him, which for a year they did, until, stung perhaps by calculated public criticism of him by Gooch, he began to make runs for his new county, Hampshire. Here was a tangible demonstration of the commitment Gooch craved, and demanded before his talent could be restored to the team. It did the trick: he was recalled to the side for the Third Test at Old Trafford, where, in the most eloquent manner, he eased a drive to the extra-cover boundary to overtake Geoff Boycott’s aggregate number of Test runs and become the most prolific English Test batsman of all time. Things seemed rosy once more.
However, he had written his book almost a year before, when his international career, and the whole driving force behind his game, seemed gone for ever in the face of the Stewart regime, and he was at a low ebb. Such things can come back to haunt. Back in the press box, there was no time to read the book in its entirely, so the ghost was asked for guidance. And the stuff he showed us proved to be pretty robust. It would slot in nicely with any on-the-record comment from Stewart that might emanate from an official TCCB lunch held in his honour that day at the Somerset ground in Taunton. About Stewart, Gower is scathing, calling him ‘unconvincing and uninspiring’. He refers to the ‘peculiar way in which his mind works’, calls his team talks ‘basically meaningless’, with a tactical input that was ‘nothing to write home about’. He comments on the difference in their views on man-management: ‘I like to treat people as individuals, while Micky would prefer a team of Subbuteo players all programmed to do things by numbers.’ Natural talent and flair, Gower feels, have been suppressed in pursuit of robotic efficiency.
It all made for good copy and appeared the following day, as did the serialisation in Today, which, to the general amusement, retained its ‘exclusive’ tag while proceeding to relate how the book was already available in shops across the country. Johnson’s point exactly. What Today failed to pick up, though, were a couple of sentences which may once have appeared harmless, but which assumed topicality in the light of events earlier that week, when at a one-day international at Lord’s the umpires had changed the ball being used by the Pakistanis. It was alleged by the England batsman Allan Lamb in the Daily Mirror that, contrary to the laws of cricket, they had altered its aerodynamic properties by deliberately roughing one side with fingernails, in order to make it swerve. It was an issue that had been simmering beneath the surface for most of the summer, while the two wonderful Pakistan fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, were running riot. Gower’s throwaway remark of six months previously, when it had been sufficiently innocuous to have passed beneath the TCCB censor’s nose without producing comment, now came home to roost. The passage in question suggested that the Indian team had used similar tactics two years before, while Gower was compiling a century. It was too good to miss, I’m sorry to say, and next day it had assumed ‘Gower Joins Cheat Storm’ proportions, with the Indian authorities taking umbrage and demanding an apology, and both the tour and Gower’s part in it under threat. Diplomacy and common sense won the day and the tour is safe. But not Gower’s career.
It is hard to believe that there are seven better players than Gower. The dumping can’t entirely be down to attitude, since they considered him sufficiently rehabilitated to recall him this summer. The only conclusion is that, with Gooch a selector and Stewart still having an input despite his impending retirement, muddy waters have been stirred and sensitivities hurt by the publication of the book and the surrounding publicity. Gower has become an embarrassment, a player who, by speaking as he has, could encourage everyone with a grievance to follow suit. For once in his life he may have got his timing awry, saying the wrong things at the wrong time. Somewhere deep in Brazil, I butterfly must haw flapped its wings.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.