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When a press conference got all too much for the England captain
January 17, 2009
In this day and age press conferences have taken on a largely predictable format, with the same questions patted back by media-trained players and officials who can say nothing while using plenty of words to do so. It was not always so, and at Lord's in 1989, David Gower, the England captain, famously found it all too much.
Gower was appointed at the start of the summer in preference to the incumbent, Graham Gooch. It was a far from unanimous choice. While Ted Dexter, the chairman, made no secret of his support for Gower, whose first spell had ended in 1986, others wanted Mike Gatting, the man who had replaced Gower then but whose own tenure had ended with a tabloid exposé a year earlier.
Confidence was high after England's success in Australia in 1986-87, but Gower's side was brought crashing down to earth by defeat in the first Test at Headingley. Any hopes that was a one-off soon evaporated at Lord's.
For a while the game was even. England were bowled out for 286 and Australia slid to 276 for 6 by the close of the second day. Before the start of the third, Gower's captaincy style was already under fire, Matthew Engel in the Guardian describing it as coming near to "the cruellest of caricatures… a languid wave here, a shrug there". Presciently, he concluded that Saturday's pre-lunch session "could be one of the most decisive of the series".
It was, and it belonged completely to Australia. Steve Waugh made an unbeaten 152 to go with his 177 not out at Leeds, and the last four Australian wickets added 263. The tail more than played its part, none more so than No. 10 Geoff Lawson, who made 74 in a ninth-wicket stand of 130. After five hours being given the runaround on the hottest of days, England lost three quick wickets before the close.
Mike Selvey, in the Observer, summed up the mood of the media. "The performance of the England captain on the field was as unhappy an exhibition of captaincy as those watching - and there were many who had seen an awful lot of Test cricket - could remember," adding that at times Gower "cut a lonely and pathetic figure".
While his calm exterior often led to accusations Gower did not take things seriously or didn't care enough, the reality, as he admitted, was the opposite, and he said that his "fuse was in danger of blowing".
As Gower walked into the press conference he was tired - it had been a long day that had run past the scheduled finish - and knew what was in store. "His eyes blazed as his cheeks were taut," David Frith in Wisden Cricket Monthly noted of Gower's arrival, and the questions flew thick and fast.
The opening shot was to the point. "David, what would you say to everyone who had bought tickets for Monday?" Gower by his own admission handled it badly. "We'll be trying our bollocks off," he replied. "If that's what you want me to say, I'll say it."
The gloves were off and former team-mate Phil Edmonds waded in. "Tell me David," he asked, "why did you bowl everyone from the wrong end?" The media warmed to the theme and Gower's responses were hardly designed to appease. "It didn't matter who'd been bowling," Gower later said, "they had all been doing it from the wrong end".
Asked about the state of the game, Gower suggested that the journalists consulted their notebooks from the same stage of the Headingley Test. It was an attempt to lighten the mood, but some took offence, with the spluttering Daily Telegraph correspondent accusing him of flippancy.
"At that point the growing air of hostility got to me and the brain fused," Gower recalled. As Micky Stewart, the England manager, tried to change the line of the attacks, Gower stood up, announced that he had tickets for the theatre and the taxi was waiting, and walked out "with as much dignity as I could muster".
If the responses to the questions had been a good story, the media had been handed an even better one on a plate. Gower was unaware of the extent of the brewing storm, although he was conscious things had not gone to plan, and had an enjoyable evening at the Prince Edward Theatre watching Anything Goes.
A call early the following morning - the rest day - from Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors, alerted Gower to the seriousness of it all. Dexter sympathised but said that a peace offering was needed. That afternoon Gower went to watch tennis at the Hurlingham Club and, tracked down by the media, did a series of placatory interviews.
On the Monday, Gower, 15 not out when play resumed, was given a warm welcome by the large crowd and an even better reception when he completed his hundred later in the day. It wasn't enough to save the Test but he was back in favour, at least for a short time. The series continued to go downhill and by the end of the summer he was gone.
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Gower by David Gower (Collins Willow 1992)
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