'I don't coach batting, I coach run-making'
"If Goochie's not around, I'm buggered." These were the words of Alastair Cook in an interview with AOC almost two years ago. It was an off-the-cuff remark, and no doubt overly modest, but it was telling nonetheless and indicative of the influence the old grandmaster continues to have today.
It's no exaggeration to describe Graham Gooch as the most influential English cricketer of the post-war era. In a career spanning four decades he scored more runs than anyone in the history of the game, and in retirement he's continued to churn them out vicariously: as first Essex and now England's batting coach. He is an essential link in the chain from the great Ken Barrington (who schooled Gooch in the art of batsmanship in the late1970s), to Geoffrey Boycott (a profound influence in both his early and late career), right through to the present day as Cook, Pietersen and Bell continue to benefit from his wealth of knowledge while setting about rewriting the English record books.
The techniques have changed, the bats are bigger and the strike-rates have rocketed, but the principles of batsmanship, as taught to Gooch by Barrington, still hold true. "Ken Barrington was a great father figure and mentor," Gooch tells AOC. "Not only did he give technical advice, he also gave you 'the knowledge', and that's something I try and impart on the players now - 'the knowledge' of how to score runs. I don't coach batting, I coach run-making. It's about how you think about yourself, how you glean information about different conditions, how you concentrate for long periods."
The most priceless piece of advice hammered home to Gooch is one that he continually drums into the current crop of England's batsmen. "Kenny impressed upon me the importance of not being satisfied with reaching a milestone, to go on and on and get a big hundred. You never know what's going to happen next innings; you might get a good delivery, you might get a poor decision, you might get a ball that shoots along the deck. If you get a hundred, get a big one. A big hundred for me is over 150 - that's what we term a 'daddy hundred'."
It's a well-worn cliché but it's one that appears to breed results. In the four years since Gooch returned to the national fold as batting coach, England's batsmen have converted 34% of their centuries into "daddies", compared to 21% in the four years previous.
So when Gooch was walking back to the pavilion having made, say, 105 in a Test match, he was disappointed in himself for not "kicking on"?
"Absolutely. Yes. As Kenny used to tell me, the first 50 is the most difficult; you've got to get through that vulnerable period, you've got to get into your rhythm, you've got to get the pace of the wicket. The second 50 you should be 'in your game': moving well, seeing it nicely, and just keeping your game going. From then on it should just get easier and generally the only one that gets you out at that stage is yourself."
Gooch lost a friend and tutor when Barrington died suddenly of a heart attack during the 1981 tour of West Indies, but his opening partner at the time offered another great source of inspiration.
"I batted with Boycott for pretty much four years from '78 to '82. He was a fantastic technician and had brilliant knowledge of concentration and how to go about getting big hundreds. I had one of the best seats in the house 22 yards away from him. A smart player tries to take things from people's games. Not everything, but you might be able to take one or two things to introduce to your game to make you a better player.
"Ten years later Geoffrey helped me again when I had some technical problems in 1989, highlighted by Terry Alderman, but generally over that period of time my game was not as I would have liked it. Geoffrey helped me find slight alterations to my technique to get it back to where it was 10 years earlier and then I had the most profitable part of my Test career, from about 1990 until I retired in 1995." With his remodelled technique Gooch averaged 51.55 in his last five years of Test cricket, compared to 42.58 overall.
When Gooch's protégé Cook experienced similar technical difficulties in 2009-10 and needed to re-jig his back-lift and simplify his trigger movements to avoid planting his front foot and nicking off, the words of Boycott were no doubt still ringing in his ears as he gave counsel.
Cook underwent three hour-and-a-half sessions each week with Gooch in Chelmsford during the off-season and, just as Boycott's expertise helped spark an Indian summer for Gooch, armed with a sturdier technique the Essex southpaw took his game to heights which few had thought possible. "He's almost worked as hard as me at changing my technique," said Cook at the time. "He saw slightly different trigger moments and a slightly different back-lift and it takes a while to fix." But fix it he did, and as Cook went on to rack up the most runs by an Englishman in an Ashes series since Wally Hammond in 1928-29, the lineage of English batsmanship was clearly traceable.
Batting is Gooch's life's work. He lives and breathes it. While a cult of personality has developed around his former opening partner that exists outside of his feats with the bat - the Panama hat, the stick of rhubarb quips, the parody Twitter account - when you think of Graham Gooch, you think of batting, you think of run-scoring, you think of "daddy hundreds". Not much material for a parody to work with.
Gooch's fanatical work ethic and unflinching drive for self-improvement didn't always sit too well with his team-mates during his playing career and he famously clashed with David Gower, among others, for not sharing his relentless dedication. Gooch would often be seen pounding the streets of Chelmsford after a county match, "warming down" by running home. At times his sergeant-major approach became a source of angst and ridicule but in many ways the game has caught up with Gooch.
The forensic analysis to batting technique, the role of sport psychology, the advancements in fitness and nutrition; as the majority of his peers took a more laissez-faire attitude, all these factors were essential to Gooch's understanding of the overall package that makes a top-class cricketer and these are now essential components of modern coaching. Gooch is in his element in his current role as England's batting coach and his determination to leave no stone unturned is perhaps his greatest quality. His attitude is certainly mirrored in his charges, and in Cook in particular.
Personal coaches are commonplace these days but Gooch was one of the very first players to take one on. Alan Lilley, a team-mate at Essex, would travel to England matches with Gooch and when team practice was over Lilley would step in to continue the training as everyone else went home.
"He helped me a lot in that period towards the end of my England career," says Gooch. "It's not for everyone but I'm telling you now, if I was still playing I'd have one. I'm not saying the help players get isn't good enough but each individual has to make their own decisions and the one thing that you need to do in professional sport is be absolutely confident that when you walk over that white line you've done everything you possibly can to be ready to do your job."
It's a mantra that served Gooch well. In a 20-year Test career he racked up 8,900 runs - the highest tally by an Englishman - and scored 20 centuries against some of the finest bowling attacks ever to grace the game, including five centuries against the great West Indian quicks. In 1990, against India, he became the fifth Englishman to score a Test triple-century, before scoring a ton in the second innings to break the record for the most runs scored in a Test match.
Talking about personal achievements and individual innings isn't really Gooch's bag, though, and it's hard work getting him to open up on his own career highlights. "Look, it's difficult to say. One thing I would say is, it's nice to be remembered as someone worth watching; I'd like to think I entertained people on the way. You don't bat particularly for personal milestones - what's important is your performance and your contribution to winning matches. That's the thing you should remember as a sportsman, not the personal gratification. So my big scores at Lord's, the 300, and the 154 at Headingley [against West Indies] are personally satisfying because they helped us win matches."
Gooch is much more comfortable talking about the achievements of his charges than his own feats and he springs back into life when discussing the "fantastically talented players" he's working with. Statistics support his assessment. Alastair Cook has already surpassed the record number of Test centuries scored by an Englishman and is on target to pass Gooch's run tally within two years.
Kevin Pietersen, on 23 Test tons, has overtaken Hammond, Boycott and Cowdrey, two ahead of the recently retired Andrew Strauss and two ahead of Ian Bell. Jonathan Trott boasts a Test average superior to every English batsman since Barrington. With seven Test tons and an average in the mid-40s, Matt Prior's record eclipses that of any English stumper before him. And then you have Joe Root, who at the age of 22 already has several hundred Test runs to his name.
So are we looking at a golden age of English batting? "It's hard to say, we've got some wonderful players with different skill sets, different types of players, and they make a very, very formidable challenge for the bowling side. Generally in cricket you want variety, you want contrasting players that present different challenges: if possible you want a left-hand, right-hand combination at the top of the order and you want grafting and grinding players mixed in with some expansive stroke-makers.
"It's a bit like having a swing bowler, a tall fast bowler who hits the deck, a left-armer and an offspinner in your bowling attack. You don't always get that, it depends on the personnel, but ideally you do, and I think England possess that at the moment. If you look at Pietersen, Prior, Bell, Bairstow, they're gifted stroke-makers. Then you've got Trott and Cook, who are talented players in their own way, but they get their runs slightly differently. That's not saying that one way is better than the other, because you need both, and that's what we've got at the moment."
And what of Cook? Can he take his game to even greater heights? "Well, he can get more runs! Look, every player is evolving until the day he hangs up his gloves and bat. He's a fantastic talent, he has a very strong mind and he has a very strong will to succeed in terms of how he works on his game. He has a formula for scoring runs in Test cricket. Can he get better? Yeah, sure he can. He can enhance his game.
"You only have to look at what he did over the winter in India… Did you see the second over of the last Test in Nagpur? The field they set for him? [Pragyan] Ojha had a long on, a deep midwicket, a deep square leg and two men on the perch of midwicket, like short midwicket. Remember this is the seventh ball of a Test match! It was an unbelievable field placing, they had no idea how to get him out. The only thing they could do was to stop him scoring, to bore him basically. You know Alastair's not a Kevin Pietersen who's going to take an attack apart but through his sheer weight of runs and skill in his planning, they didn't have any idea. That's a testament to his hard work. So yes, he can get better. The best period for most Test batsmen is 25 to 35 and he's right in the middle of that period."
Gooch finishes up by voicing his concerns that the art of batsmanship, as taught to him by Barrington, might be lost over time; that the growth of Twenty20 could impact upon Test cricket to the point that clearing the ropes comes at the cost of technique and the patience required to build "daddy hundreds" deserts modern-day batsmen.
"I have no problem with Twenty20 as a format but it does impact on the other cricket," he says. "Twenty20 will breed multi-purpose cricketers who do a bit of both and that could definitely see skills eroded. Whether it will pan out that way, we don't know. But it's a real concern."
It's a sobering thought and one that clearly plays on his mind. But for the time being at least, there appears to be no danger of the principles of English batsmanship being lost, with Gooch keeping watch and his protégé only too willing to take up the baton.