Cricket / Innings Closed: Exit a flawed genius and a prince among players: David Gower's retirement marks the end of a champagne era for cricket. Martin Johnson sums up a remarkable career

The scent of next spring's first cut of grass has already lost some of its appeal, and even the crocuses may emerge wearing black armbands. First Ian Botham, then Vivian Richards, and now David Gower. It is one of cricket's nastier hat-tricks, and the passing of a champagne era is no less palatable for the modern game's cheerless vision of house plonk.

There will be no more meetings of the 'Gower for England' club, and it is the simple fact that this particular body would latterly have had more rewarding dialogue with the Speaking Clock than the England selectors that finally prompted Gower to call it a day. Well, that and a dollop of money not unadjacent to pounds 65,000 a year to report cricket for a Sunday newspaper. Let's hope they are not too stringent on deadlines.

It is as much as Gower can do to decide which pair of socks to pull on in the morning, so little wonder it took him the best part of two months to make a decision in this case. He had asked Hampshire if he could be late back for the new season in order to fulfil his winter commitments in the West Indies with Sky television, and Hampshire quite properly declined to make him a special case.

Had they done so, Gower might possibly have gone on for another season on the off chance of touring Australia next winter, but he must have realised that there was more likelihood of him colliding with a pig on his next Tiger Moth flight. Also, the birth of his first child, Alexandra, in September, would also have had a bearing on his switch to the press box. He can now spend the winter criticising people for airy-fairy wafts outside the off stump, and turn up to net practice with a deckchair and knotted handkerchief.

However, it is unarguably sad that we will never again see him bat in a serious game of cricket. His first ball in Test cricket was pulled majestically for four, and his last - against a seriously faster Pakistani bowler in Waqar Younis - rearranged his stumps. In between times there were strokes that made you despair, and strokes that were the stuff of poetry.

He was easily the best loved English cricketer of his generation, and possibly the best loved ever. Why this should be the case, not even he can tell you, but it may not be unconnected to the Englishman's innate suspicion of perfection (if Boycott had been a bit more frivolous, they might have loved him as well) plus his almost total lack of ego.

If Boycott chiselled out a six-hour hundred, it would not even occur to him that someone might have stopped purring and dropped off to sleep instead, whereas if Gower creamed one in three hours (probably having been dropped in the gully a couple of times), he would invariably register a nice line in self-effacement.

Above all, Gower played his cricket for enjoyment, and he had long since lost all motivation for those three-sweater days at Derby when there was no prospect of a Test match or two some time during the summer. As such, if he has a favourite memory, it is likely to be something other than a Test century, or leading England to the Ashes.

More probably a bizarre Sunday afternoon at Cheltenham, when both Leicestershire and Gloucestershire were so utterly convinced that a deluge had removed any prospect of play that the players spent a convivial afternoon in the sponsor's tent.

However, when the umpires popped their heads around the flap to announce (amid much horrified gurgling in mid- Pimm's) a 10-over slog, Gower's immediate task as captain was to appoint someone who was sober enough to recognise a head from a tail to conduct the toss.

After much playing and missing, flying divots, and one memorable moment when Gower dived totally the wrong way in the covers, Leicestershire walked off - or, to be more accurate, staggered off - victorious.

The laid-back side of his character (although he has the occasional volcanic burst of temper) is well enough known, and for some years he was known on the circuit as 'Fender'. This was around the time of the appalling Australian TV production of Bodyline (when Larwood kept getting people out stumped) and Percy Fender was portrayed as a gin- swigging, ukulele-playing, monocled buffoon.

Gower was a good bit more serious than that, but in all truth, he was, at best, an ordinary Test captain, and in almost every area a poor county captain, who was not passionate enough about the game at domestic level either to harmonise or inspire a dressing- room. When Leicestershire appointed him for a second term it was as potty a decision as they have made, and probably had more to do with a vain attempt to keep him at Grace Road - for his charismatic, sponsorship-selling properties as much as his runs.

Gower was liked by everyone in cricket, although the closer his friends got to him in business terms, the harder some of them found it to tolerate his apparent excess of ennui. This applied latterly to Mark Nicholas, the Hampshire captain, and in a more costly way with Graham Gooch as captain of England.

No one admired Gower more as a player than Gooch, but he had already formed a none too complimentary view about his commitment when, from the non-striker's end in the 1991 Adelaide Test, he watched Gower fall into a trap so telegrammed that the ball was almost delivered by registered post. After that Gooch never wavered from his view that Gower was a luxury item on tour, not conducive to team discipline, which is why he did not pick him for India after Gower's class performances in two of the final three Tests of that summer.

Gower's response to that, well documented in his autobiography, was along the lines of the England team being run like a schoolgirl crocodile, and to some extent this is a view that finds some sympathy with the new captain, Michael Atherton. However, England are now down the road of younger blood, and sadly, there is no place for Gower any longer.

Rarely did Gower not do things in style. When his Leicestershire captain, Ray Illingworth, gave him a bollocking over his appearance, Gower turned up for breakfast in the team hotel wearing a dinner suit. He has spent his winters on the Cresta run, on big game reserves, and reporting his hire car lost at the bottom of a Swiss lake. He has also taken his holidays during cricket matches, when, quite apart from buzzing the ground in a Tiger Moth, he had to be talked out of dropping water bombs on Lamb and Smith from the cockpit.

When he started his career, he was a shy lad who liked an occasional glass of cheap wine. When he finished, he was an extrovert imbiber of vintage champagne. However, the reason he will always be loved, as well as admired, is because (8,500 Test runs notwithstanding) he has as few airs and graces now as he did then.

----------------------------------------------------------------- GOWER FACT FILE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Born: Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1 April 1957. Championship debut: (1975 for Leicester shire v Lancashire at Blackpool). Maiden century: 1976 (102 not out v Mid dlesex at Lord's). Test debut: 1978 (v Pakistan at Edgbaston - hit first ball for four). Maiden Test century: 1978 (111 v New Zea land at The Oval). FIRST-CLASS RECORD Matches played: 448. Centuries: 53 (highest score 228 for Leices tershire v Glamorgan at Leicester, 1989). Runs: 26,339. Average: 40.08. TEST RECORD Matches played: 117 (32 as captain). Centuries: 18 (highest score 215 v Australia at Birmingham, 1985). Runs: 8,231. Average: 44.25. ONE-DAY INTERNATIONALS Matches played: 114. Centuries: 7 (highest score 158 v New Zea land at Brisbane, 1983). Runs: 3,170. Average: 30.77. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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