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October 9, 2001
Longevity was the key word when it comes to Alf Gover, who has died at the age of 93.
Born in 1908 on February 29th near Epsom in Surrey, he was the oldest Test cricketer. He worked for most of his life, had a long and distinguished career with Surrey and only a short Test career, but his four matches were spread over a period of 10 years, interrupted by the Second World War.
Gover became the world's oldest surviving Test cricketer when R.E.S. Wyatt, who was born only a few miles away from him in Surrey, died in April 1995. The mantle now passes to Lindsay Weir of New Zealand, who was also born in 1908, while Norman Mitchell-Innes, born in 1914, is now the oldest English Test cricketer.
Gover's first-class career lasted all of 20 years. He made his debut in 1928 and in the subsequent 362 matches this tall man for the time (6 foot 2½ inches) with an enthusiastic action would charge in, often on totally unresponsive Oval pitches.
These conditions did not stop him taking 1,555 wickets during his career at a cost of only 23.63 apiece, and on eight occasions he took 100 wickets in a season. In 1936 he became the first fast bowler since Tom Richardson in 1897 to take 200 wickets in a season, and he repeated the achievement the following year.
Gover's performance in 1936 failed to gain him selection for the tour to Australia the following winter, even though he had made his Test debut that summer. He went wicketless at Old Trafford against India, despite the fact that two catches were dropped in the slips off his bowling in the first session of play. He did, however, strike seven times the following summer in his two Tests against New Zealand at Lord's and The Oval.
With another 200 wickets to his credit that summer, he did make the touring party to India in 1937-38. It was on that tour, at Indore, that Alf Gover became the focus of one of the classical humorous stories in which cricket delights.
Dysentery was rife in the area and the tourists were not immune. As Gover began his characteristic run up to the wicket at the start of an over, he continued past the umpire, through the crease, accelerated past a somewhat bemused batsman waiting to take strike, through the slip cordon who turned as one to see the bowler disappear into the pavilion in desperate search for a lavatory.
Unfortunately, in his predicament, he had forgotten to leave the ball on the field of play and fine leg was despatched to retrieve it. It is reported that fine leg then emerged from the pavilion clutching his prize, suggesting that it would be judicious to secure the services of a substitute fielder without delay.
While Gover recovered from that discomfort, his knee let him down and he appeared in none of the Tests on that tour. After the war, however, he returned to England colours in 1946 at the Oval for what turned out to be his final Test.
He continued to play effectively for Surrey until the age of 40, when he retired from first-class cricket. He moved into journalism and, more significantly, into coaching. In unglamorous surroundings at the back of a garage in Wandsworth in south London, he ran an indoor cricket school at a time when such establishments were rare.
He was still coaching in whites well into his seventies. It was at his indoor school that I had the pleasure of meeting him in person for the only time. As a promising fast bowler in club cricket, I was sent there to refine my technique.
I remember a kind, venerable figure in an England sweater, ramrod straight in stature. I remember the tatty net area and the overpowering smell of rubber from the matting on the floor and behind the stumps. I regret that I remember nothing of what the great man had to tell me. Perhaps he thought I was a lost cause and decided not to waste his precious knowledge on a hopeless case. I doubt that and suspect that the fault was all mine.
Many more deserving cases benefitted from his tutelage, and a veritable Who's Who of world cricket passed through those unprepossessing doors to emerge as better cricketers. And to show that it was not only bowlers he could improve, both Viv Richards and Andy Roberts were sent to Wandsworth on their arrival in England as budding overseas professionals.
It was where the great Surrey side of the fifties learned their cricket, including Tony Lock, the left-arm spinner who was thought to have developed his unlawful action by trying to keep the ball below the top netting in the Gover indoor school.
It was not until 1998 that Gover received recognition for his services to cricket in the form of an MBE. No doubt that great Surrey supporter and former prime minister, John Major, felt that the time was then right for someone as renowned for his longevity as Alf Gover to be rewarded for a lifetime of contributions to the game.
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