Gower savours life in the last chance saloon
The twilight years of David Gower's international career were as much about what happened off the pitch as on it. From walkouts after press conferences to low-flying Tiger Moths, to losing a car through the ice on a lake, to public campaigns to have him reinstated to the England side, Gower was rarely out of the news. He also had detractors who believed that his carefree style was at odds with the modern game's mantra of professionalism and an indefatigable work ethic.
At The Oval in August 1990, Gower's international future was in the balance. Not only was his place for that winter's Ashes series in doubt, many believed if he failed to get a place in the team then it would be his last Test for England.
After the calamitous 1989 Ashes series Gower was sacked as captain and dropped for that winter's Caribbean tour. The set-up within the England camp was changing and Graham Gooch, the new skipper, and manager Micky Stewart wanted players who bought into their work ethic and focused approach. Some believed Gower was the gifted antithesis to that philosophy.
Gower started the summer in indifferent form but made 97 against the New Zealanders at Lord's in a one-day match for MCC in May. Calls for his recall followed, but Ray Illingworth said it would not happen. "I don't think Stewart wants [him] as part of the scene again… after three years he has at last achieved the set-up he wants, with players who work at their game and have the right attitude."
But Gower was brought back for the one-day internationals against New Zealand in May where he was asked to open the innings with Gooch. The experiment failed. He made 1 and 4 in the two games and was again dropped, with the selectors saying he needed to score runs in the county game before he could be recalled.
Over the next seven weeks he hardly set the world alight, with one fifty for Hampshire and a Championship average of 34, but with impeccable timing he made 126 not out and 44 not out against the Indians at Southampton.
The selectors duly brought him back for the two-match one-day series and the Test that followed. "We took the unusual step of announcing that David was in for the Lord's Test as well as the Texaco matches to prevent speculation and, to a degree, take pressure of him," Stewart said, not overly convincingly. "He wants to re-establish himself now. If you had been through what he's been through in the last year you'd know he's had a great test."
Batting in his more usual No. 3 slot, he made 50 and 25 in the ODIs and was retained for the Lord's Test, a game best remembered for Gooch's monumental 333. Gower made respectable scores of 40 and 32 not out, and in the high-scoring second Test, 38 and 16. But the pressure was back on.
On the eve of the third and final Test, Gooch gave an interview to the Daily Express in which he said he would like Gower to tour that winter but "he needs to prove his form". He continued: "I'm not saying it's a simple matter of him having to go out and get a big score in this game. That would be unfair. He is already under a lot of pressure and I feel sorry for him in that he has been getting in, knocking up forties but missing the big scores.
"He knows that it is a very competitive situation and it is up to him to make his case, like everyone who wants to go to Australia."
If the timing of Gooch's blunt talking was far from ideal, so was the release of an advertisement the same day flogging a £6000 trip to fans, hosted by Gower, for the Ashes series. Covering all bases, the small print recognised he may be in Australia "as a player, journalist or spectator".
The Test and County Cricket Board showed a corporate lack of appreciation , warning Gower he would be unable to honour many of the commitments promised if picked for the tour. The underlying exasperation was clear for all to see.
The chances of Gower touring receded further when he was dismissed for 8 in the first innings and England were forced to follow-on. "Gower cannot now, surely, be taken," Illingworth told the Daily Express. "He has had, and wasted his opportunity." In an amusing aside, given what Gower and John Morris got up to in Australia, Illingworth added that Morris "might too miss the plane".
England ground through the fourth day, Gooch and Michael Atherton putting on 176 for the first wicket, Gooch's dismissal in the late afternoon bringing Gower to the middle in the warm sunshine. He had been dozing in the dressing room. "I heard the crowd respond to the fall of the wicket and got myself up," he said. "I had no idea what had been happening… how Gooch had got out, who was bowling. By the time I'd put on my gloves and looked out at the light, I was completely switched on."
Most at a packed Oval seemed to recognise this was his last chance, and the reception he got spoke volumes. Batsmen like Gooch might have been accumulators, but most preferred to watch a carefree strokemaker like Gower.
In the three-quarters of an hour before the close Gower produced one of his best cameos, his 32 not out punctuated with flowing drives and wristy cuts. "He did not bat like a man with one foot on the gallows trap-door," wrote Colin Bateman. "But then he never does."
The Tuesday newspapers all agreed. If Gower could go on in the same vein, he would tour; if he failed to add many, he was history. Although the pitch was full of runs, it was wearing and the rough area outside Gower's off stump was offering help to legspinner Narendra Hirwani.
That Gower was taking the challenge seriously was evident when he strode out on the final morning wearing grey socks rather than the multicoloured ones he was associated with. It was almost a message that he too could be a team player.
As expected, Hirwani was the danger man, so much so that he bowled an incredible 59 overs on the trot from the Vauxhall End, a spell that started shortly after 3pm on the fourth afternoon and ended at 4.30pm the next day. He finished with 1 for 137.
Although the new ball was due in the morning, it was ignored for much of the day as Hirwani toiled away. India's captain Mohammad Azharuddin was off the field with a sore heel and Ravi Shastri was standing in. Alan Lee wrote: "Perhaps they had forgotten to tell him."
Gower started the day unusually subdued, playing and missing often and making 39 in the morning session. But as the game was made safe and his innings went on, his confidence grew. Equally, he was aware anything less than a hundred with the pitch dead and the ball doing little would hand his detractors more ammunition.
Although Atherton fell for 86 with England still in arrears, Morris and then Allan Lamb provided support for Gower as the match slumbered to a draw. Midway through the afternoon Gower leg glanced Atul Wassan for his 16th boundary to bring up his 16th Test hundred. The 6000 spectators inside the ground stood to cheer a grinning Gower.
Even under such pressure, Gower admitted he had to "fight boredom by injecting an artificial interest… I did take guard about a foot outside leg stump in response to Wassan bowling deliberately at or wide of my leg stump… I did consider how much of a pillock I might then look if I could not reach a straight one".
Gower finished with 157 not out made in six hours and seven minutes. As he headed off he knew where he was going that winter.
"It's far more fun to get runs," he said. "I've been at a different party to the rest of them this summer. Now I'm having fun, too. I decided it was me or them, and for once it worked. When I went out to bat it wasn't a question of thinking about the Ashes. I cleared my brain and concentrated on hitting the ball." Gooch was more succinct: "Gower played bloody well."
Simon Barnes in the Times concluded: "Gower will go down as one of the finest cricketers of his generation, no question about that. Had he possessed someone else's nature, he could, perhaps, have been the finest batsman ever to walk the surface of the earth. But a person's talents spring from his own nature. Gower promises an equal amount of exasperation and delight this winter. As ever."
What happened next?
- Shortly after passing his hundred, Gower passed Colin Cowdrey's aggregate of 7624 Test runs, putting him second among Englishmen after Geoffrey Boycott. Cowdrey scored his runs from one fewer innings than Gower and with an almost identical average
- The draw gave England their first summer without a Test defeat since 1979
- Gower scored back-to-back hundreds in Australia but the tour, for him, was overshadowed by a deteriorating relationship with Gooch. He played his last Test in 1992. "He was out of tune with Graham Gooch's tote-that-barge regime that followed and county cricket bored him, so he retired prematurely," Wisden noted
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa