After almost a quarter of a century, Mike Gatting is more than ready to lose the honour of being the last man to captain England to an Ashes victory in Australia, especially to a fellow man of Middlesex. And the portents are good; as a captain and coach combination, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower remind Gatting a little of himself and Micky Stewart in 1986-87. "They get on well, like we did. They're both strong-minded but they're pulling in the same direction. That's very important, to have the leadership working together."
It is a little after 8am and we are sitting in a cafe round the corner from Lord's, where Gatting works for the England and Wales Cricket Board as managing director of cricket partnerships. The last time I interviewed him, prior to the 2006-07 series, we chatted over a hearty lunch. This time, it's a full English. He's always had a stevedore's appetite to go with those stevedore forearms, and has always cheerfully played along with the jokes. Gatting is quite happy to quote Graham Gooch on the subject of that delivery from Shane Warne in 1993, that it would never have got past him had it been a cheese roll.
For the first time since 1990-91, Australia's cricketers have embarked upon a home Ashes series without the magical Warne in the squad. There's no Glenn McGrath either, no Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer or Matthew Hayden. But Gatting is quick to point out that England have lost some great cricketers too, with Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Marcus Trescothick and Simon Jones all missing from the team that so famously recaptured the Ashes in 2005. The difference, some say, is that England have replaced their key men more successfully than Australia have theirs. But Gatting simultaneously makes short work of a breakfast sausage and the notion that the Aussies are there for the taking.
"We shouldn't underestimate them. Look at their bowlers: Johnson, Bollinger, Hilfenhaus, Siddle. They're all very good cricketers, although admittedly not great cricketers. And they certainly look weaker than us in the spin department. But we can talk about individuals, what's important is how both sides play as a team. Everyone has to do their job. People say that Graeme Swann is England's key man, but for me the key people are the opening batters and bowlers. If Anderson or Broad or Finn keep getting early wickets, then Swanny will be bowling at the right people. Obviously, Test cricket is always about the better all-round team performance, but in Australia even more so."
Where Strauss's men differ from Gatting's 24 winters ago is that they looked good in the warm-up matches. Strauss and co arrived at The Gabba with a fair wind of media-generated optimism behind them. By contrast, Gatting and co pulled up at the ground with the words of Martin Johnson, cricket correspondent of the young Independent, ringing in their ears. There were only three things Gatting's team couldn't do, Johnson wrote: they couldn't bat, couldn't bowl, and couldn't field.
"It was true," says Gatting with a smile, "that David Gower couldn't get a run, Lamby [Allan Lamb] couldn't get a run. It was all a bit nervy, until we got the practice matches out of the way." Usefully, he lost the toss on that first morning in Brisbane, because he probably would have invited Australia to bat. Instead, Allan Border chose to bowl. "And as we got through that first day, our confidence built up. We were 198 for 2 at the close, which was a pretty good platform. The confidence could have been broken the following morning, when we lost two wickets in 15 minutes, but fortunately we had two blokes coming to the wicket called Botham and Gower."
The out-of-form Gower scored 51, adding to 40 by the out-of-form Lamb. Ian Botham hammered a memorable 138. Gatting himself had scored a first-day 61. In the end, England won the first Test by seven wickets, and the series 2-1, to retain the Ashes. So, can history repeat itself? And if it does, what will it mean for Ricky Ponting's reputation? As a batsman, with a Test average of 54.68, Ponting's place in the pantheon is incontestable. As a captain, can it survive a third defeat in the Ashes?
"Let's get captaincy straight," says Gatting, rather sternly. "At the end of the day you're a great captain if you win. And the only way you win is by having a good side. If you put Clive Lloyd into the West Indies side now, he wouldn't win. So it's nice to be known as a great captain, and obviously some, like Mike Brearley, have great leadership skills, but if Ponting doesn't win back the urn, it's not because he's a bad captain."
Whatever happens in this series, Gatting thinks that the balance of power could be firmly established over the next few days in Queensland. "History shows that whoever wins in Brisbane more often than not goes on to win the series," he says. But can the tone of an entire series really be set by the very first delivery? Gatting was watching on television in 2006-07, when Harmison gave his friend Flintoff some unexpected catching practice at second slip.
"I think that can make a difference, yeah. You could see whatever confidence Harmison still had drain out of him at that moment, and when your main strike bowler has lost confidence, it affects the whole team. It can certainly all happen in the first few overs. On my last tour in 1994, Daffy [Phillip DeFreitas] bowled the first over to Michael Slater, and Slater could have been out three times in that over, but at the end of it the scoreboard showed 16 for 0. After three overs, they were 30 for 0. And that gave them a momentum that stayed with them."
It was also in that 1994-95 series that Gatting perceived a change in the way Ashes cricket, indeed cricket in general, was going. "We had a youngish side, Athers [Mike Atherton] was captain, with me and Goochie as the two old stagers, and I remember we had a one-day warm-up match in Perth. Dennis Lillee was there, Rodney Marsh, Ian and Greg Chappell, and afterwards I said to the boys, 'come and have a drink with some Australian legends'. They said 'no, we're getting on the coach'. I said 'you're joking. Come and meet these blokes. It's not like you'll be playing against them'. They said 'no'. So I said 'OK, I'm staying, I'll get a cab back to the hotel'. And me and Goochie stayed, but none of the others did. That was around the time that the science and medicine people came in. Now, it's all totally different. We used to have a drink with the Aussies in the dressing room after a Test match. Now, they won't have a drink together until the end of the series. But I think it's good to have a drink together. It doesn't mean you try any less hard on the pitch."
On the contrary, neither England nor Australia are ever likely to produce more ferocious competitors than Gatting and Gooch, Border and Merv Hughes. Which brings us to sledging, another dimension of the Ashes contest Gatting used to enjoy, although he was rarely targeted.
"AB [Border] had a go once or twice. He called me a little fat twat, and I said 'that's rich coming from you'. But it was almost to say good morning, sort of thing. It's only worth doing if it has an effect, like with Warne and [his favourite victim, the South African, Daryll] Cullinan, otherwise you might as well save your breath. I remember Merv Hughes in '93. They lost [Craig] McDermott on the first morning, and Merv had to bowl most of the day as the main strike bowler. He got five-for, but Goochie got 120-odd, and in the press conference afterwards the Aussie press were saying 'what have you learnt about yourself today, Merv? Have you learnt about your stamina, about your big heart?' And he said 'no mate, I've learnt that the more you sledge Graham Gooch, the better he fucking plays'. It was the same with Viv [Richards]. You'd never say anything to Viv. Why antagonise Viv?"
Gatting chuckles, and orders another mug of strong tea. "I think some of the best sledges are probably made up, but some others never get heard again because nobody writes them down. The crowd can be quite good as well, especially in Australia. Like their comment to [Phil] Tufnell. 'Can we borrow your brain?', 'Why?', 'Because we're building an idiot.'"
In the end, of course, the best way for Englishmen to silence Australians is by beating them in the sporting arena. "Because that's the way Australians promote Australia," says Gatting, "by winning at sport. It's how they announce themselves to the world." For some of them, I venture, the baggy green cap is like Harry Potter's wand, empowering them. "Yeah, they use it as their totem, and why not? You know the old joke, what's the difference between Australia and a yoghurt? Answer, a yoghurt's got live culture. What they've got is sport, and they're very strong-minded about it."
Next week, Gatting is heading to Australia for a conveniently-timed MCC world cricket committee meeting in Perth. He intends to catch the last couple of days of the second Test in Adelaide, and the beginning of the third Test in Perth. By which time, conceivably, the contest could be as good as over. But first things first. What would England's Gabba debutants have experienced on day one of the Ashes?
"The heat and humidity, but they'll be used to that by now. They won't have been used to the ferocity of the crowd, the expectation, the buzz, the 'oooh' that goes up when the coin is tossed. The place has changed a bit. We had to walk across a dog track, which was quite quaint, but that's gone now. It's just a big concrete stadium. But it's the most important Test match. In the three series I played after 1986-87 we'd effectively lost the Ashes by the time we were halfway through that first Test match. I don't think that's going to happen this time. We've got a settled side, a great team ethic, and everyone trusts everyone else to do their jobs."
And with that, this engaging, personable former England captain pumps my hand and barrels out of the caff towards Lord's, his name still synonymous with doughty batting and potent captaincy. That he won only two Test matches out of 23 as skipper is but a footnote in his record. What has always mattered more is that those two were in Brisbane and Melbourne.