Cricket: Bowlers' butcher whose bat is his mouthpiece: Simon Hughes reveals the match-winning make-up of England's belligerent veteran Mike Gatting

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THE venue was Bath Recreation Ground in July 1985 and Middlesex were looking lacklustre. Accustomed to winning trophies, the team seemed to be allowing this particular season to slip away with the prospect of nothing.

'Look,' Mike Gatting said, addressing everyone just before the start in a cramped dressing-room: 'We've got to actually create success - it won't just happen.' He looked quite flustered - presumably the committee was getting on his back. Half-an-hour later he strode in at 15 for 2 and made 258. Although he is not in charge here, England's batsmen need this type of belligerence from Gatting to lead them out of their apathy.

As the British public know, to their sometimes rather cruel satisfaction, the 35-year-old Gatting is not a man of words but of deeds. His bat is his mouthpiece. It is just as well because, orally, he cannot respond to criticism. He tends to make excuses after failures, rarely admitting mistakes. It is his weakness and his strength - only the best players share this level of blinkered self-belief, a permanent condition that never remotely countenances failure.

And he is England's best player. Yes, Gooch has achieved more for England, without ever quite eradicating a fallibility to outswing, Robin Smith is more dependable in a crisis, but for sheer mastery of stroke and relentless butchery of first-class attacks, Gatting is king.

His assets are mighty forearms and hands, an eagle eye - his reactions are equally sharp on squash court, snooker table or cricket field - and of course that much-maligned 5ft 10in, 15st frame of grit and gut. A low centre of gravity (38in waist, 29in inside leg) is a great advantage in most sports, aiding balance.

Gatting has a good reason to stay at the wicket for long periods. He hates watching, perhaps agitated by being obliged to observe inferior players scratching around. He is helpful to strugglers, though, and warm with congratulations if they return triumphant. But often, if the game is meandering, he will be immersed in an old western or cartoon, or be playing cards at which he is just as competitive.

On Friday, in the Kotla stadium, Delhi, he could have been obliged to pass the time standing in the summer-house viewing area surrounded by armed security guards and fawning minor administrators. Instead he took the chance for a long and instructive talk with the turbanned and portly Bishen Bedi.

Despite occasional diversions like promoting Australian railway- signalling systems, cricket is Gatting's life. Mostly he turns up early at grounds, any time after 9am. Not an avid practiser, he likes to sit for a while on the balcony with tea and biscuits, doing the Telegraph crossword. It is about the only part of the day he is quiet.

He even managed to sustain his familiar habit in Delhi on Friday. Rudely adjudged leg before by an umpire who must have been blind as well as deaf (the thick inside edge was visible and audible from the stand), Gatting smiled ruefully, trudged off without hesitation, then filched Thursday's paper from an English tourist who had just arrived, before finishing a half-eaten pizza.

But before you start reciting the old jokes - Mike Gatting OBE: Order of the Branston Empire, etc - it is important to point out he is not quite as fat and round and bouncy as the old chants implied. The ox's neck and chunky body have been enhanced by hours of swimming in his indoor pool at home. The South African trip paid for that, and it might just prolong his England career awhile, which is good.

Contrary to rumour he is something of a faddy eater, preferring omelettes and salad to large steaks, and he pulls the crusts off the sandwiches at tea. By evening he would rather devour a bottle of wine than a gallon of beer. People used to say that the only reason he banned players from wearing jeans in hotels was because he could not find any to fit himself. Now he owns a pair.

Occasionally, Gatting is a bit like a schoolmaster and pupil rolled into one. Constantly casting round the field for a prospective whipping-boy, yet practising fielding with schoolboy-like enthusiasm, or admiring a new bat as if it were a gift from Santa Claus. As a subscriber to the New School, he most admires players who give 100 per cent. Gatting abhors loafers and has had regular shouting matches with Philip Tufnell when the spinner is in a strop. (That was no challenge in fact, with Phil Edmonds having been Tufnell's predecessor.)

He is sensitive, too, and lucid with advice - he has already supplied his two-penn'orth on this tour, which, with so many new to the subcontinent, has been gratefully received.

You sense that Gatting would prefer to be captain, that mere player status is uncomfortable, but there is a pecking order now and he may have to endure batting No 5 in the one-dayers - a horrible waste.

Maybe there are things in Gatting's career he should not have done, but you have to like the man, admire him. He is so wholehearted. His batting puts pressure on opponents, takes it off colleagues. 'He's our real match-winner,' Tufnell said. And the beard has grown back, too, thank goodness.

(Photograph omitted)