End of the road? September 5, 2006

Going, going ... Gough

Gough's departure from the stage has been protracted and painful, but it shouldn't be allowed to take the shine off a memorable career, writes Tim de Lisle

Darren Gough: a bit of an old ham © Getty Images

Darren Gough's international career is all but over. In his eyes, there is still a faint hope of making the squad for the Champions Trophy, to be announced on Thursday, but it's hard for anyone else to see a way back from the shin injury which has ruled him out of the last three one-dayers against Pakistan. Cricket's leading huffer and puffer has finally run into the buffers.

His dreams of a final fling in the World Cup have been dealt a double blow. It's not just the injury, it's the fact that, in the last two games, he was toothless. He claimed to have been unlucky, and it's true that a fine first over in the Twenty20 game last week yielded a regulation nick, which passed untouched between Chris Read and Marcus Trescothick. But the game is up. As Scyld Berry put it, the pace has gone and the bounce was never there. Gough is a bit of an old ham, and like an old ham, he has finally gone off.

His going has been protracted and painful, but it shouldn't be allowed to take the shine off a memorable career. He is a character, of the kind cricket's old guard are always bemoaning the lack of - smiling, boisterous, red-faced and bright-eyed, like a boy on the cover of an old book. But he has had just as much appeal to younger fans. There was a moment, in the long desert between Botham and Flintoff, when he was the only oasis in sight. In his first Ashes series, he ripped through Australia's batting with 6 for 49 at Sydney, then hit a swashbuckling fifty. The fans loved him, and at the next Test, in Adelaide, the Barmy Army was born.

Gough made things happen. He has the second best strike-rate among England's top 10 Test wicket-takers, and the worst economy-rate in the top 60. In the one-day game, he stands supreme, with as many wickets as Ian Botham and Bob Willis put together: the only lasting master bowler ever to have pulled on an England pyjama. Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson may yet join him on his pedestal, but they will need even more help from the doctors than Gough had.

He did it his way, puffing out his chest and steaming in like something out of Thomas The Tank Engine. He was an instant hit, smashing 65 in in his first Test innings and grabbing 37 wickets in his first seven Tests. The honeymoon came to a predictable end, and his place in the fans' affections passed swiftly to Dominic Cork. But he battled back to become England's premier bowler from 1997 to 2001.

He proved that a fast bowler could be short, even stout. He was the not-that-poor man's Malcolm Marshall, offering pace and swing at a low trajectory. He also had heart and craft, mastering the yorker and the slower ball better than any other Englishman has ever done. Unlike many players brought up in the regimented ranks of 20th-century county cricket, he was a good learner; by adding offcutters to his repertoire, he even succeeded in the paceman's graveyard of Pakistan.

Dancing his way into the public imagination © Getty Images

He made a perfect foil for the beanpoles who dominate modern fast bowling. He shared the new ball with Angus Fraser in his first international, Stuart Broad in his last, and his one top-class partnership was with Andy Caddick. The two of them made an odd couple, and not just physically. They had an edgy relationship that verged on the unhealthy side of competitive. But it worked. The minute Duncan Fletcher arrived as coach, they were installed as the new-ball pair, and they played 25 consecutive Tests over the two years from September 1999. Gough took 103 wickets in that time at 26, Caddick 87 at 29. Nobody else managed 30, so these two were carrying the bowling. More than that, they gave Nasser Hussain enough horsepower to turn the team round. The England renaissance would not have happened without them.

Gough played only two Tests after that, and if he could have his career over again, he would surely not have elected to miss the tour of India in 2001-02. Not that he is likely to admit it. He is the type of Yorkshireman who is never wrong. A modern man in some ways (the earring, the dancing, the pad in Milton Keynes), he could be as cussedly self-exculpating as Ray Illingworth.

After retiring from Tests in 2003, a touch hastily, he fought back again, from a knee injury this time, and had a couple more years in the one-day side. He never lost his expertise as a death bowler, but gradually ceased to offer a cutting edge with the new ball. He was now the poor man's James Kirtley.

The last hurrah came a year ago, in the first Ashes Twenty20. Biffed around at first, Gough started bowling bouncers, and had Adam Gilchrist caught pulling. Next ball, Matthew Hayden went the same way. Australia collapsed, fabulously, from 23 for none to 31 for 7. But in his last few one-dayers, his death skills were little use: England were so bad, they were usually dead and buried before the death arrived. You wonder if he could have done more to share his know-how round the dressing-room. When he secured his final recall, it wasn't because he had been bowling especially well: it was because those picked ahead of him had been serving up filth.

His promise with the bat went unfulfilled. In Tests, he never bettered that 65 on debut and once went through the mother of all bad patches, failing to reach 20 for five years. But he did bring a second dimension to the team: until Flintoff found his feet, which took several years, he was England's beating heart. They will miss his guts and bubble, but above all his guile. A great stack of experience goes with him. Gough has 550 wickets in one-day games; Graham Onions, the man who replaces him, has 18. England need him already - as a one-day bowling coach.

Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden and now edits www.timdelisle.com