Alf Gover

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Alfred Richard Gover, cricketer: born Epsom, Surrey 29 February 1908; MBE 1998; married 1932 Marjorie Brooke (deceased; two sons, one daughter); died 7 October 2001.

Today's cricket fraternity might more readily remember Alf Gover as the best known of coaches rather than as a spectacular fast bowler for Surrey and England. The Gover Cricket School in Wandsworth, south London, was set up by his future father-in-law, Bill Brooke, in 1928, with the Surrey and England stalwarts Herbert Strudwick and Andy Sandham in the partnership. Gover took over Strudwick's share in 1938, and in 1954 he became sole owner, running the "academy" for a further 20 years with the support of his diminutive and business-wise wife Marjorie and their son John, and taking it to near-legendary status.

Generations of boys were led into the office by their fathers and signed up for courses of tuition. The ambience could be daunting. Heavy canvas painted white hung down the netting behind the stumps and along the sides of the lanes, and the gas-fuelled lighting sapped the oxygen during any lengthy session. Rarely, though, was a youngster not enthusiastically encouraged, pronounced "promising" and recommended for further coaching. The hallmark was orthodoxy, so woe betide boys with the slightly off-line natural gifts of a Compton or a Thomson. The tall, slim proprietor's word was persuasive and final, for it was backed by the authority of a sweater which bore the crown and three lions of England – surmounted by the stylish pre-war accessory of a white cravat.

On a loftier plane, Test players and prospects alike were often steered to Gover's either to expedite their progress or to iron out faults, among the most notable being the young West Indian tiros Viv Richards and Andy Roberts in the early 1970s. Prominent on Gover's coaching staff were Arthur Wellard, the old Somerset and England all-rounder, and John McMahon, the former Surrey and Somerset Australian, kindly men both. And after the net session there was scope for a drink at the bar, perusal of the framed photographs all around the walls, a game of pay-snooker, and the chance to buy a bat or pads or gloves. For many it became a kind of homely club.

All this, though, was merely the second instalment of a professional cricketing life that had begun for Alfred Richard Gover with an intended qualification for Essex when he was 18. When Surrey discovered his county birthright – he was born in Epsom on Leap Year Day, 1908 – they offered him a contract. He made his first-class début in 1928, and by the time he had bowled his last ball for Surrey, in 1947, he had stacked up 1,437 wickets for the county at 23.73 apiece, 15 times having taken 10 or more wickets in a match. It should have been so very many more, for he was proverbially unlucky in the matter of dropped slips catches.

With an untidy action, all flailing knees and elbows, off a longish run-up, Gover was fast and aggressive, though, by his demeanour, always cognisant of the game's traditional moral values. His hero was the kind and gentle master batsman Jack Hobbs, alongside whom he always considered it a great privilege to be playing for Surrey, and for a number of seasons Gover's brother-in-law, the reliable all-rounder Eddie Watts, was a fellow professional.

In 1935 at Worcester, Gover, who swung the ball out at a fair pace and sometimes brought it back off the seam, achieved the best figures of his career, eight for 34, a feat sealed with the rare flourish of four wickets in four balls. A year earlier he had bowled the ball of his life when he cut one back a foot at least to bowl the artistic, high-scoring Australian Alan Kippax in the touring team's match against Surrey.

Gover, who preferred to be known by the longer form of his forename, was chosen to play for England four times, after the disappointment of being named only as 12th man in two of the Tests against Australia in 1934. His début in 1936, against India at Old Trafford, was a high-scoring draw from which he came away with no wickets for 100 runs. In the following summer he played in the Tests against New Zealand at Lord's and The Oval and took seven wickets, and nine years on, in a world transformed by the Second World War, he was called in again at the age of 38 – and with a painful knee, legacy of a wartime accident – for a final fling in a time not only of English food shortage but of fast-bowling scarcity too. He had Vijay Hazare caught by Denis Compton in that Oval Test. Gover batted only once in his four Test matches, at his customary position at number 11. His batting was never of much account.

Having been triumphant to the point of 200 wickets in 1936 and 1937 (the first instances by a Surrey fast bowler since Tom Richardson in 1897 and the last by any fast bowler ever since), Gover emerged from the war, in which he served as an army physical training instructor and entertainments lecturer, to find gratefully that Surrey had granted him a joint benefit with Tom Barling. He then embarked on a side career in journalism, and worked at developing the indoor cricket school, playing on for a little longer on Saturdays only in the Birmingham League.

After 20 years as a Surrey player, he was now to serve on the club's committee for a further 34, becoming a proud president in 1980. Energetic and affable, he was an ideal ambassador as manager of a "Commonwealth" team to tour Pakistan, then an emerging cricket entity. And in due course he became a popular president of the Lord's Taverners.

The best-known story concerning Alf Gover the fast bowler is one of two. While touring India with Lord Tennyson's team in 1937-38, he was in the grip of dysentery as he began to bowl in the match at Ajmer. Nearing the end of his long run-up, he acknowledged the alarming signal from his bowels, ran past the umpire and a startled batsman, tossed the ball to one of the fieldsmen, and hurtled up to the dressing-room lavatory – narrowly losing the race against nature.

The other classic concerns his naïvety as a young fast bowler. Patsy Hendren, by then a cagey veteran, introduced himself before Surrey's match against Middlesex, and hinted that he could no longer hook with the certainty of old and would therefore be grateful if young Alf spared him the bouncer – or "bumper", as the short, fast ball used to be called. True to his calling, Gover peppered Patsy, who unleashed his trademark hook and milked four after four from the perplexed bowler, plus a six into the Mound Stand.

While never quite taking to his county captain, D.R. Jardine, Gover admired P.G.H. Fender enormously, and learned from Surrey's summary dismissal of the legendary all-rounder: he quit as a player himself before the committee came to deem him obsolete.

Gover, having written a couple of coaching books, waited until he was 83 before he committed his life story to a book. The Long Run (1991) demonstrated the fullness of his life in cricket, its pages bristling with anecdote and period humour. In the New Year's Honours of 1998, almost as if it were a reward for longevity, he was appointed MBE. And at the time of his death he was the oldest surviving former Test cricketer.

David Frith