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Couch Talk

'You play at your best when your instincts are at 100%'

Former England captain David Gower talks about the mental side of batting, dealing with critics who questioned his commitment, and handling Ian Botham

Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Would it be fair to say that cricket is a fiercely individualistic sport masquerading as a team sport?
David Gower (DG): It is certainly both, because individual performances are highlighted. The man who gets loads of wickets, five-plus wickets are feted. The man who gets thousands of runs is feted. The man who takes 800 Test wickets is feted. Nowadays, the mantra is: when someone is interviewed at the end of the day, he says, "The team is in a good position". It is the perfect blend. As an individual you are always in the spotlight.
SJ: But the system looks down upon those who are "individualistic" players, or behave like superstars.
DG: It is a game that encourages people to behave properly if they can. I think those who understand the psychology and know what it is to be at the top or close to the top know that there are times when a certain arrogance actually helps. But there is a fine line between arrogance that makes you a better player, the self-belief that you need as a batsman to take on the special bowlers, and to give the impression that you are in command. That is part of the psychology of being a good sportsman. What people don't like, of course, is when arrogance spills over off the field, out of the game, where someone appears to be above himself. There are a lot of examples of people saying that the game is more important - which it is, it will always be. But there is a very fine balance. The other thing, of course, is that the moment you get ahead of yourself, then around the corner will be two-three weeks or months when the game wins. As a batsman you can't get a run; as a bowler you can't get wickets. It really tests not your arrogance or yourself, but it tests your self-belief, your inner mettle. That is when the game becomes tough.
SJ: How did you handle that as a team-mate and as a captain? What was your philosophy in handling players' egos?
DG: Without being rude about it, the best example I can give from my era is Ian Botham. Ian has, to his credit, immense self-belief and a great ability to hide any self-doubts. I once asked him on a Q&A stage, "Have you ever had a moment of self-doubt?" and he answered, "No". Privately I know, like the rest of us, he has human qualities. There must have been moments like in the era when the great West Indians were all powerful, when you question your abilities, there must have been self-doubt. But he has that great ability to deny it. It is a strength, because he comes to play the following day with the previous day being good or bad, believing that things will go well and he can do stuff on the cricketing field that other people can't do. That had served him well through the best part of his international career. You need that sort of resilience.
As a captain, the lesser players would see the way I would react to Ian or treat him and it would be different to the others. I believe that each individual is different. You can't treat Ian Botham like someone who has just come into the Test side. If Ian Botham has played 100 Test matches his way, he knows what he is doing, and the proof is in the pudding that it worked by and large for him through his Test career. I am not going to give someone who has just come into the Test side the same leeway as Ian Botham, but I am going to respect what people need.
For instance, when I went to India in 1984-85, I didn't have Ian in the team. It was a tough tour, for all sorts of reasons, but a successful tour. [Graham] Gooch wasn't there, for political reasons. Graeme Fowler [the left-handed opener] came on the tour, got a double-hundred in Madras and was very proud of it, quite rightly so. He had a reputation of being slightly flippant and childish. After that tour, he said it was the first time that someone had treated him as an adult on tour. It allowed him to do what he wanted, in terms of preparation, and that gave him some confidence to believe in himself. If I have had one success as captain, that was one example.
Mike Gatting is another example - giving him the responsibility as vice-captain and letting him bat at No. 3. That worked well for Mike. If I had one applying principle, it was to give people responsibility for their own actions and, if need be, help them along.
SJ: As a player, you rose through the ranks. How was that handled by the others around you?
DG: Good question! I had a sad duty the other day to go to the funeral of Mike Turner, who was the secretary and boss at Leicestershire, my first club. He was extraordinarily good in my career, both personally and behind the scenes. He promoted me avidly through his career and mine too. I didn't always respect that at that time. I gave him problems now and again. But there was a nice line at that service, where Laurie Potter, who gave the eulogy said, "Mike always said that David gave him the most pleasure but also the most problems".
It is an interesting mix. I confess that there were times when I was a bit of a problem child. But I had people like Mike looking after my career; I had Ray Illingworth, a stunningly good captain, a tough man, Ashes winner in Australia in 1970, probably the finest hour for him. We were at completely different ends of the scale, as much as socially possible. I always got along well with him. We had a bit of fun together. There were also half a dozen or more seniors and professionals at Leicestershire. They all gave me good advice. Ray said his job was to basically turn me from a gifted amateur to a gifted professional. I had to learn about the professional game. The amateur game is great fun. But I had to learn very quickly. It was drummed into me by people like Ray and those hard senior pros at Leicestershire.
"If you are going to be picky about yourself, there are a lot of days in your career which could have been better"
SJ: You were enormously gifted as a batsman. How was that handled? There must have been some friction.
DG: Not much friction. Leicestershire had Ray Illingworth, and when I started for England, it was Mike Brearley. Both magnificent cricket brains. When I played my first two years of Test cricket, Mike was gently keen to make sure that as I got to fifty, maybe I could make it more, a hundred maybe. Very early he said to me, "Test cricket is for five days, and if you play well you get 40-50 or whatever it may be and you enjoy it. But the business of Test cricket is to make bigger runs." The first two years went pretty well and then we went to the West Indies and found it a bit tougher. Then I got dropped and came back. In the meantime I had made a double-hundred against India. You realise that you can do these sort of things but haven't made it a habit. You learn about maximising. I still look back at those days and think, "I could have done better on that day just by putting up more of a fight". Yes, there is a lot of pride, but if you are going to be picky about yourself, there are a lot of days in your career which could have been better.
SJ: You had said that there were days that you didn't want to be there. Was it the grind of professional cricket, or was it something else?
DG: I think it would be wrong to call it the grind, because to play cricket for a living at the highest level shouldn't be a grind. It should be a pleasure, an honour. But I have to admit to a bit of human frailty here. The thing that is hard to quantify is the desire at the start of the day. There are days when you want to play cricket. There are other days when you get out of bed and think that you don't want to do anything today. You then have to force yourself to do something, talk to yourself sternly and build yourself up.
The truth is, there are some very good professionals for whom each day at the office is a pleasure. It is their job and they do their utmost to get it right. Then there were days when it didn't work. That is a human failing. When you walk out to bat, in the 75 yards that you have to cover from the edge of the field to the stumps, you have to get yourself in the mood. There were days when if I stayed in there for 20 minutes, it would click into place. Some days it did, some days it didn't. Some days you come out of it and think, "Sorry, there is nothing I could do about that. I wasn't in the mood". Other days, you were clinging for a place, you end up getting a hundred, and you thought, "Thank heavens for that. How did that happen?" and then you have your perfect days when you wake up in the morning and say, "I want to do this today". You look at the pitch and think, "This is my pitch". You look at the bowlers and think, "These are my bowlers". You look at the bat and feel this is a really good bat, and it is wonderful.
SJ: When the Kevin Pietersen saga was unfolding, did you see any parallels between how it was handled by the England captains, management and media with how your situations were? Did you have some sympathy for him?
DG: I have some sympathy for Kevin. When I look at him, I look at him as a man with enormous talent with great capacity to entertain crowds and even enthrall other players. I suspect he has said and done things he shouldn't have. I suspect he's been badly advised.
When things were working well for him, he was a stunning player. At the start of the current summer, Andrew Strauss said, "Sorry Kevin, but you are not going to play". There were things that built up to that that made it completely logical. For instance, whatever happened in Australia, and they never seemed to find the smoking gun, there was obviously something - who knows. If we go back a little further, when Pietersen came back into the side, Alastair Cook said he wanted him in the side, he was "rehabilitated", and he got runs in India. That was fine, that worked great. That was a stunning performance both by Pietersen, with the bat, and by Cook, as a captain who thought that he was better off with Pietersen in the side. Then, by the end of the [2013-14] Australia tour, and at the start of the next summer, where were the voices from within saying, "He is a stunning player, I want him in my side"? Even Cook went quiet, suggesting that there was an issue that was insurmountable.
"There were times when I was a bit of a problem child"
Then there was the book, with excoriation of everyone he ever played with, including all his England colleagues bar none pretty much, which basically, for most people, would be acknowledged as a retirement gesture. You can't write that sort of book and think that three or four months later, when you have done your book tours and banked the money, you can play with the same people again. It doesn't work that way.
There was a lot of hype about it, and the interesting thing here is that the people who had come to watch weren't too fussed about all that. They are not involved in dressing-room politics, they don't sit in the dressing room and see what is going on; they want him to hit the ball all over the park and entertain them. A lot of people I've spoken to said, "We like him in the side because he is a really good player". I said, "Fair enough, but what about all these things that I just mentioned to you?" They said it was "potentially a problem, I can't tell you for sure because I am not in the dressing room".
At the end of it, the pressure would have been enormous had England not won the [2015] Ashes. If they'd come second by a distance, "Where was Pietersen?" would have been asked. Not saying he wouldn't have made a difference, but at least England won the Ashes, Joe Root made a lot of runs and someone - as always the case, this is what the game does - comes through. Joe Root is not a Kevin Pietersen, but he is a very, very good player. He is a mighty fine player. He is someone who I can hope will do good in the years to come.
SJ: You made batting look ridiculously easy. But then you get out and people say that you didn't work hard enough. How did you handle that?
DG: It always pains to explain to people that it is a very complicated mental process. You gear yourself to face someone like Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner, or the spinners in India, or Abdul Qadir in Pakistan, and the various challenges that the game throws up. They are all different. They all test you and they all need you to be mentally sharp. Every time you are not, of course you run the risk of failure.
When people came to me and said, "You are not trying", I said, "Honestly, I am". Ironically, during some of the worst times, when you end up trying too hard, instead of letting your natural instincts let you do well, you are trying to look at your own mechanics and forcing your body to do things. When you get to that stage, it is ugly. In fact, it is not going to work. You spend your formative years training your instincts and when you play at your best it is because your instincts are at 100%. It is working and the judgement is good when the instincts are working alongside it. Things like shot selection, patience, the whole blend is there as perfectly as it can be.
When it goes wrong, and let's face it, the difference between success and failure is the two inches between the middle of the bat and the edge of the bat... it is not far. When someone is bowling at 90mph and you have 0.4 seconds to get your decision spot on - when you analyse it that way, it is quite easy to say that mistakes are rather more likely than getting it right. So you must be a whole lot proud that you get it right so often. Those are the things you have to do.
The first man who is disappointed when you get out for none is you. The man just after that, who is equally disappointed is the bloke who has paid to come and watch. If you happen to see him after the game, he says, "I am really disappointed you didn't get any runs today". It is a tough moment because you have to respect that people do pay, they want to be entertained. If you failed, then that's it - you failed them on that day. You let yourself down, the team down, and you let [the fans] down as well.
SJ: You have been in the media for 20-plus years. Soon enough people will remember you for your commentary. How long do you think you can do this?
DG: I hope I can do it for a long, long time. It keeps me going very nicely. I love doing it. In the end, you worked as a player-broadcaster for 40-plus years. It is a long association with the game, and a friendly and happy one. I enjoy the people we work with. I enjoy the whole mechanics, the atmosphere, I enjoy being at the cricket. When you see the whole thing happening, developing, there is no way I want to stop doing this. I hope they almost have to shoot me and carry me out before it comes to a nasty end. It struck me the other day when someone asked me how long I have been doing this. Twenty-two years as a broadcaster full time and 18 years as a professional cricketer. The only thing to worry is that the time is flying by.