Action man avoids the stress

England in South Africa: Illingworth puts tourists in charge while a fast bowler hopes for quick return; George Roberts talks to Darren Gough about the benefits of his new delivery
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The Independent Online
DARREN GOUGH'S foot comes just below the soft underbelly of tennis and Paul Gascoigne's knee in the fragile anatomy of British sport. Yet the toughness of his Barnsley plates of meat - or one of them at least - could determine not just England's prospects against South Africa this winter but also Gough's entire international future. If he breaks down again, there will be concern approaching alarm over his welfare.

Gough himself, as you would expect from such an exuberant and self-confident character, will allow few such negative thoughts. He will bowl the only way he knows - flat out - and que sera sera. However, there might be a subtle yet significant change in his action, one that could cause less strain on his left foot as he pounds it down.

Peter Lever, England's bowling coach, is encouraging Gough to land his foot flatly during the delivery stride, putting more weight through his big toe and less through his smaller toes. Lever consulted Wayne Morton, Gough's physiotherapist withEngland and Yorkshire, about which bones are most vulnerable, and believes the adjustment will protect them. "The change we are urging Darren to make is medical more than technical," Lever says. "If he does not change, there is a danger his stress fracture will keep recurring."

Gough is prepared to attempt to make the switch, but not if it compromises his speed. He has given himself until the First Test to perfect his new action, and that is just three weeks away. "I've been bowling the other way for 15 years, so it's hard to change," he said. "If my action is not working smoothly by the First Test, I'll revert to my old way. I know that could mean risk of further injury, but there's always a risk being a fast bowler. I certainly don't want to spend the whole winter experimenting and going nowhere, and I don't want to lose any pace, either."

Such doubts over Gough's durability make his heroics of last winter seem a long time ago. After the Sydney Test at New Year, in which he took six for 49 and scored a rampaging half-century, Gough was heralded as the most compelling cricketer to emerge since Ian Botham. He had wonderful raw talent, smiled often and crowds adored him. Then disaster. He collapsed in an agonising heap as he attempted to bowl his first ball of a one-day international in Melbourne. A stress fracture was diagnosed and he went home on crutches.

He was fit for the first three Tests against West Indies last summer, yet performances were modest - six wickets at 42 apiece. He was also caught on the boundary hooking his first ball at Headingley, apparently urged into recklessness by the cheering of home supporters. Then he broke down once more with foot trouble, not a stress fracture this time but enough to keep him out of the final three Tests. His mantle as English cricket's latest luminary was seized by Dominic Cork and he believes he must prove himself all over again.

"I always knew this would be a tough year after the publicity I received in Australia," he says. "Perhaps I failed to play as well as I would like but after a couple of bad games and an injury people are saying I've fallen from a great height. What has kept me going is the spectators - I still get the loudest cheer when I walk out to bat. They obviously like the way I play my cricket. A few poor games won't wipe the smile off my face on the field.

"I was criticised for my dismissal at Headingley. They said I was playing to the gallery. But the crowd plays a big part in my cricket - the fans at Sydney got me going there, too. They pump me up and I'm happy they do. I went for that shot because I wanted to show the West Indies who was boss. I always try to dominate. Last year people said I was a breath of fresh air. Now I'm criticised for it."

Gough, his wife Anna and son Liam have recently moved into a new house near Wakefield he helped design. It is called The Ashes, and his career will rise or fall in the next three months. "I'm starting from behind the other players," he says, "so my first task is to get into the team. I don't want to become mediocre, but everybody must understand I'm not superman and I can't perform miracles. Someone will make the headlines this winter. I hope it's me."