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Dropping the pilot ... from a great height

At the start of the 1986 season David Gower was captain of England, but he was hanging on by his fingernails

Martin Williamson

April 8, 2006

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A shattered David Gower faces the chop © The Cricketer
In this era of media saturation, the dismissal of a captain - especially one from the major nations - is almost always front-page material. It certainly tends to be accompanied by a press conference or two, detailed post-mortems from captains old and new, and a detailed explanation from the chairman of selectors. Twenty years ago, however, things were far more straightforward, but also unpalatably underhand.

At the start of the 1986 season David Gower was captain of England, but he was hanging on by his fingernails. Although he had led England the previous summer when they had regained the Ashes, and prior to that a 2-1 series win in India, he had also lost home and away series to West Indies 5-0 in 1984 and 1985-86. While that was hardly a disgrace, his laid-back leadership style during a wretched tour of the Caribbean - both on and off the field - had upset the selectors.

The media had feasted on England's woes in West Indies, and on his return to England, Peter May, the chairman of selectors, gave Gower a blunt talking-to. "What irritated me about this," Gower recalled, "was that he appeared to be doing precious little other than imitating various reports he had read in the newspapers." If May, old-school and correct, thought that Gower would respond do that kind of dressing-down, he had badly misread his captain.

England lost the Texaco one-day series to India, but worse followed when India won the opening Test at Lord's, their first win at the ground. Gower had also upset May by briefly being seen in a sponsor's tent at the Nursery End during England's second innings on the fourth day. Gower sarcastically noted he should probably have been on the dressing-room balcony "making appropriately glum faces for the benefit of the cameras". He accused the selectors of double standards. "You could barely see [them] behind a great mountain of salmon and strawberries."

May was already annoyed before the game started as Gower had 13 T-shirts printed, one with the slogan "I'm In Charge" on the front, the other 12 with "I'm Not" on them. It was a jokey response to media criticism that England were in need of strong leadership. It might have gone down well among the team, but it missed its mark elsewhere.

At the end of the match, Gower carried out the usual post-match interview for the BBC on the pavilion balcony, unaware that at that very moment May was in the England dressing-room offering the captaincy to Mike Gatting.

Gower hands over his captain's T-shirt to Mike Gatting © The Cricketer

As Gower returned, May took him to one side and told him that the selectors had decided it was time for a change. Gower took it philosophically, but as soon as he walked back into the dressing-room it was clear that he had been the last person to find out rather than the first. "I was not impressed by this at all," Gower reflected, "but the overriding feeling was more sad than bitter."

Despite this, he shook Gatting's hand and tossed him the "I'm In Charge" T-shirt. He then opened a can of beer and wished Gatting well. "I'm very sorry, friend," Gatting replied.

May compounded his aloofness by refusing to speak to the media to explain the decision. Accosted on a staircase as he left the pavilion, all he could do was mutter that it was time for a change and that "all decisions are difficult". May's behaviour was slammed in the press the following day. As it was, the Guardian reported it was left to Gatting to face the media "fingering his beard like a nervous Henry VIII at a divorce trial in Rome".

"Unfortunately, this match, we didn't do all we could have done for him [Gower]," Gatting admitted. "It's tough at the top, isn't it." Almost exactly two years later, again despite an Ashes success, Gatting found out just how tough when he was dumped as captain on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Gower suffered a further blow at the end of that summer when he was also stripped of the Leicestershire captaincy. However, he returned as England captain for six Tests against Australia in 1989, and again his relaxed approach to the job landed him in hot water when he cut short a particularly tough press conference at Lord's because he was late for the theatre. As the Guardian reported in 1986, he had "not changed a jot since the selectors appointed him" - and he didn't second time round either.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

Gower: The Autobiography - David Gower (Collins Willow 1992)
The Cricketer Various
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1987

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo.

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.
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