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Couch Talk

'The definition of being positive has changed'

Former England captain Mike Gatting on changes in attacking cricket, the long wait for his first Test hundred, captaining England to an Ashes win, and the 1987 World Cup

Subash Jayaraman: When I announced on social media that you were going to be on the show, a lot of people sent in questions about Shane Warne's ball of the century and the reverse sweep in the 1987 World Cup. Do you feel sick and tired [of these questions], or do you feel that you are a part of cricket history?
Mike Gatting: Look, cricket is history. Every match we play becomes history. It is there, it is done, and there are no qualms about that. It is nice that people remember that, I suppose. I like to remember some other things as well. It wasn't just all about the Shane Warne ball and the reverse sweep in the final! It was one of those things. I am happy it happened to me. So when people ask you about it, at least they remember.
SJ: You always come across as a happy-go-lucky guy. What was your outlook when you were a player and a captain?
MG: I took the game very seriously. It was a privilege to be able to play sport for a living. There are a lot of people who couldn't do that while being passionate about the game. I tried to work hard at my game. I liked to win if I could. If suddenly somebody played better, you have to say, "Well done! You played better than we did." I was always working hard at the game. I wasn't quite as good a player as the [David] Gowers, the Sachin Tendulkars of the world, but I know they too had to work hard to be as good as they were.
"I like to remember some other things as well. It wasn't just all about the Shane Warne ball and the reverse sweep in the final"
SJ: You had a 17-year England career and played 79 Tests and your average is about 35. Strictly looking at the numbers you would say it was a middling career. But, as you mentioned, you were bracketed alongside Graham Gooch and Gower as one of the best England batsmen of the time. When you look back, do you say, "Boy, I should have done more"?
MG: Yeah, it would have been nice to have started a bit better than I did. It was one of those things that happen that wasn't very pleasing for me. After a few matches I managed to get to where I should be. I was part of a great team. We had great fun and we played some good cricket. I would have liked to have got a few more runs for England. That is life. It took me a bit more time to realise that I could and should. After that it was a little bit easier.
SJ: It took up to your 54th Test innings when you scored your first Test hundred - 136 against India in Bombay. Was there a phase in your career before that where you wondered whether it was going to happen?
MG: Yeah, I suppose it wasn't about getting a hundred. I was getting hundreds in county cricket. I knew what to do. It was probably a question about where you need a little bit of luck to get you through to where you need to get to. After that, it is a bit like county cricket - once you get past that little barrier, that's it, it is gone. The gremlin on your shoulder is knocked off the perch. At last you can believe and now you can do it when you know how to do it. That was what it was to a degree.
Just playing in a team with Gower, for example, was very influential in the fact that he was the captain. Probably a lot of people didn't want me to go on that tour to India. But he said that he wanted me out there and he probably gave me that little bit of confidence that I couldn't quite produce myself. He said, "You are going to play in all five Test matches and you are going to bat at No. 3. If it doesn't work out, I will bat at No. 3 and you can bat at No. 5 in the other two Tests." That stability helped. I suspect that the way they do in England, it does give people a lot more stability.
SJ: Going back to that innings in Bombay. England lost the Test. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan took six-fors in both innings. It is said that when you were walking away after being dismissed, the press box stood up and applauded. How did you see your innings?
MG: We were trying to save a Test match. I was trying to get on in the Test actually, and we had a huge disruption because Indira Gandhi and the British deputy high commissioner Percy Norris got assassinated. We went off to Sri Lanka and bombs were going off while we were at practice. In many ways it might have helped me because the focus wasn't really on cricket.
I was comfortable playing spin, so it wasn't a problem. It was a very good pitch with a bit of turn. It was something that I had gotten my head around by that time. I needed to repay some debts of gratitude to people.
SJ: How did you come to be good at playing spin?
MG: When I first started playing as a young lad, I had a coach who bowled legspin at me. It was a bouncy pitch at my club. Because I was quite small, rather than bowling seam, he would bowl these leggies and flippers and googlies at me. I was quite good just watching the hands. But I couldn't play offspinners. So I had to spend a lot of time in the nets with people like John Emburey and Philippe Edmonds and Fred Titmus and just work out a way of playing them. That was where I thought I should try and use my feet a bit - the sweep was a shot that I played okay - and try to get the pads out of the way so I can go after the ball.
In those days we had a 6-3 field with six on the leg side, which you can't these days. There were only three over there on the off. In the end, I always stayed to the leg side of the ball because there were fielders that side.
"Gower said in India, 'You are going to play in all five Test matches and you are going to bat at No. 3. If it doesn't work out, I will bat at No. 3 and you can bat at No. 5'"
SJ: In the fourth Test match, in Madras, you and Graeme Fowler had a huge partnership. That was one of my traumatising childhood memories. You went on to win the Test series, then the Ashes at home in 1985 and captained England to victory in Australia as well. What memories do you have of those three Test series wins?
MG: The one in India, having been 1-0 down was a fond memory. We did play well as a team and it was very interesting to see what was going on. It was really great to play in front of a great crowd in India. They like their cricket, they are very knowledgeable, and it was great to see. Sadly those days have gone. You walk down the street, they knew who you were. They know you, they know your records. For me, that was it. Just the whole passion in the country for the game.
It was interesting because when we were talking about trying to win a Test match, we said at Madras it could be one of the wickets where we could have a chance. But we didn't expect to bowl India out before the close of play on day one. They did play some interesting shots. So we said, "Right, we just have to bat for two days." It was a good wicket. The last bit was in Kanpur, a very strange place. Trying to be 2-1 up in the series, knowing you have to save the day was another interesting experience.
Then 1986-87 in Australia - it was fantastic. Ian Botham did fantastically well. We had some young bowlers. [Phil] DeFreitas, [Gladstone] Small, [Graham] Dilley was very good. We had Edmonds and Emburey. The fact was that people like that, people like Gower were in the side as well - I thought some of the criticism was a bit harsh in saying it was the worst side that left the shores. By the end of it, people look at [Chris] Broad, who got three hundreds, and Bill Athey did really well opening the innings. We won all three series because guys were enjoying it.
Obviously, I will never forget Gladstone Small catching Merv Hughes at the deep square leg boundary in Melbourne to win the Ashes. That, to me, was another huge experience. You are away, the opposite side of the world. You read what the Australian press are doing but you don't really see a lot of your own papers. What you also see is the impact you have on your own country. When we got home, we were told how much it meant to a lot of people there. But seeing what it meant to all the expats as well in Australia was amazing too.
The 1985 series was just a steamroller series, when David was captain and scored lots of runs. It was a brutal series for us against the Aussies, and David led the way in the summer.
SJ: There is a question from a listener, Kartikeya: From your time, how have the expectations of a middle-order batsman's approach changed in modern days? Especially after Kevin Pietersen, we now have middle-order batsmen who are extremely aggressive. The English middle order in your time was more conservative.
MG: I think the game has changed. People try to be more positive. In Test cricket you can play in many ways. Geoffrey Boycott played it different than Graham Gooch. You need different people to do different things.
We have seen the advent of T20. People aren't afraid these days to hit a seamer over his head. We never used to see that in Test cricket. People were a bit more conservative, probably. But then you see what happened with the Australians - trying to be too positive and not getting away with it, and actually losing a series because of a lack of technique. It is interesting that you had Steve Waugh's Australian side saying, "We need to score at four runs an over, we need more time to win the Test match."
There is still a balance in Test cricket, but I think the advent of T20, bigger bats and the way people envisage that word "positive" [has changed]. You can be positive when you leave a ball and you can be positive in your shot selection, which doesn't mean you smash the ball over the bowler's head. It means you are being positive by being watchful. Probably, had the Australians been slightly more watchful and slightly more positive in what they left, they might have still been in the [2015] Ashes series. You have to be slightly more careful about what the word "positive" means, certainly when it comes to Test cricket.
"I couldn't play offspinners. So I had to spend a lot of time in the nets with John Emburey and Philippe Edmonds and Fred Titmus. That was where I thought I should try to get the pads out of the way so I can go after the ball"
SJ: After you scored your first Test hundred you went on to score eight hundreds in 25 Test matches. What was it that changed for you as a Test batsman?
MG: You have your experiences, you have more belief, because you have done that on a regular basis and you are comfortable in having your technique in place, and know you can cope with Test cricket. You have to be an all-round player. It is not just spinners and seamers, it is concentration, getting in the right frame of mind, making sure you practise and prepare properly. It has a lot to do with belief.
SJ: You had a very good 1987 World Cup. I think your strike rate was around 95, behind only Viv Richards'. In that sense you were ahead of your time in how ODI batting was done.
MG: I suppose because I started off batting at No. 5 and went up the order to No. 3, as I did in that competition, you had a bit more time and you needed to be positive. Spinners came on earlier in that competition. But the ability to try and run the ball around was a must. For example, in the semi-final, Graham Gooch was practising all sorts of sweeps. I remember India had two good left-arm spinners who were choking the life out of all the other batsmen and were bowling very well, going at only three an over. We said that we needed to get to 250 and hit those guys for five an over. So Goochie practised in the nets for almost two days - fine sweeps, slog sweeps. And the left-armer [bowling to us in the nets] asked, "Why is Mr Gooch sweeping every ball? Are we bowling that badly?"
You watch him in the semi-final and that is exactly what he did. He got a hundred, I got 80-odd [56]. In my own way I was playing reverse sweeps and Gooch was playing proper sweeps. It was the way we did it. You had to rotate the strike, you had to learn how to get a run a ball. I was never a big hitter like Viv. Mine was just run a ball and rotate the strike.
SJ: Are there regrets about going to South Africa on the rebel tour in 1990?
MG: Yeah, there are, because I didn't play Test cricket for three years. I suppose the good thing was that when we spoke to [South Africa] President de Klerk, he said they were releasing [Nelson] Mandela, that they were trying to normalise South Africa. So we said, "Why do you need us out there?" They said it might help. In the end, I think the ANC [African National Congress] negotiated with the government and they got South African sport back into the world arena very quickly. So, yes, because I missed three years. I didn't agree with the apartheid.
SJ: A question from David Oram: What was your thought process at that time and is there still any bitterness about how you were relieved of your captaincy?
MG: No, not really. That is the choice of the people who were running the game.
SJ: Rohan asks about your brother and the 1983 FA Cup final. Given a choice, would you take the opportunity of being in an FA Cup final instead of winning an Ashes?
MG: Not at all. I don't think there is anything better than playing in an international series and winning. I was at that Cup final and the replay. I was very lucky that I was allowed to walk on the pitch before the match started. I am sure Steve will tell you there is nothing like what he has played in. But we played in front of 100,000 in Calcutta. In our own ways, we have both done what we had wanted to do.
SJ: You served cricket as a player, captain, coach, MCC president. How do you look back on your accomplishments?
MG: I have enjoyed them all enormously. By the time I have finished, I want to help put something back into the game too. There are one or two things that I would have liked to change, but if someone offered me my life before I started out, I would take it with both hands.