Cricket: Confessions of an unrepentant patriot

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: This season Mike Gatting will lead his county as well as choose players for his country. Richard Edmondson meets the former England captain with a voracious appetite
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Lord MacLaurin's declaration that he wanted English Test cricket to be populated by people willing to lay down their lives for their country may have appeared a lofty appeal to anyone who saw our boys in Zimbabwe this winter. The body language - which did at least improve along with the team's fortunes during the subsequent tour of New Zealand - suggested the nation's standard-bearers were dying for nothing more glorious than a pee.

However, the aspirations of the good Lord, the chairman of the new England and Wales Cricket Board, have been realised in the composition of the Test selectors' panel. In terms of stocky patriotic symbols, the sport's answer to Winston Churchill remains Mike Gatting (though he would rather a frankfurter was positioned where the Havana should be). The man born, appropriately enough, on D-day's anniversary in 1957, now joins the Chairman, David Graveney, and Graham Gooch on a panel whose first, behemoth, challenge will be to pick troops to repel the Australians.

It is a post Gatting has been given without the sort of campaigning that will be witnessed elsewhere in the country over the next five weeks or so. "It wasn't something I was chasing after as I'm still captain of Middlesex, but I've been asked to do it and my attitude has always been that, if I can help England, I will," he said.

As a playing selector, Gatting's options are limited, though he believes his continued activity will give him the opportunity to judge people in pressure situations while he is carrying an implement. Whether at the crease in a run chase or around a pavilion dining table when a single potato remains on the communal platter, Gatt wants to see who has the neck to go for it. "I've always been a great believer in umpires being consulted a bit more because they're out there in the middle all the time and they can see how people play the game, what's in their eyes," he said. "When you're 70 or 80 yards away you can obviously still recognise who is a good player, but if you're right on top of these people and see how they react close up it tells you more."

Gatting is pleasantly free of the substance you find in the nervous underdog's dressing-room before he goes out to fight the matador, and is particularly forthright on England's tour of Zimbabwe this winter.

"Our guys were under-prepared when they reached Zimbabwe, especially as rain then curtailed a couple of net sessions," he said. "Some of them perhaps hadn't done enough for the Test series because they'd put bats down and they hadn't practised for two months. Their skills weren't honed sufficiently even for a trip to what people were classing as a minor Test nation."

One of the more alarming themes of Zimbabwe was the insularity of the players. Functions were missed, an opportunity to meet the hosts' premier, Robert Mugabe, was greeted as if the grim reaper was knocking on the door, and, in general, the squad spent as much time outside their accommodation as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

"It's becoming ingrained that we're an introverted side," Gatting said. "Even on my last tour with England, quite a few of the boys were not happy about going to the opposition dressing-room and having a drink with them. I don't know whether it's a question of being scared to look them in the eye, but you should go and have a chat about the game. It worries me that they don't. It's quite disturbing.

"All you can do is learn about the people you're playing against, what does drive and motivate them."

Unlike others, Gatting is unwilling to keelhaul the skipper of the present crew. "Captaincy is a very difficult job because you have to think for five days, some of it for six hours a day out in the field," he said. "And if you're losing you have to make a lot more decisions because you're out in the field longer.

"Atherton has taken over a new side. At the end of the 1980s a lot of the old brigade were going: myself, Goochie, Botham, Lamb and Gower, and he has inherited the next generation. Unfortunately he hasn't got too many extroverts in that new generation, whereas we had a lot of people who were outward-going.

"You do need someone with a Union Jack on their chest, charging around. That was my style, but it wouldn't be Mike Brearley's. He had other people charging around for him. He encouraged it because he saw it was necessary.

"You need that sense of presence so the opposition know they're playing against somebody. Alec Stewart or Jack Russell are about as near as we get at the moment."

Nobody has been able to ignore Michael William Gatting, the aircraft fitter's son from north London, since he made his county debut aged 18. With great boisterousness, he has now amassed 34,000 runs and reached 1,000 runs in a season 18 times. Gatting played 79 Tests for his country (the first comprehensive-educated boy to lead his nation), 23 of them as captain, averaging just over 35.

In the context of his sporting life that makes him something of an international underachiever, as he is one of the few batsmen at the end of a long career to be averaging over 50. He requires just 10 more hundreds to become only the third Middlesex man after Percy Fender and Dennis Compton to record a century of centuries.

Last season was hugely disappointing however, with just a single ton, and it is probably fair to say Gatting's fitness let him down in the 70s and 80s on several occasions. While the metabolism of this famously hungry figure may be slowing down, there is no sign of the fuel intake decelerating.

Gatting accepts observations on his appetite with good humour, and is a man much liked by his colleagues. He is not prone to great periods of deep analysis, but inspires with his visceral, first-man-out-of-the-trench mentality. Both sides of this character were available with his ill-judged prospector's tour of South Africa in 1989-90. It was Gatting who emerged from the foxhole to represent the boys each time the placards and demonstrators appeared.

Gatting's voyage to the land of apartheid had been prompted largely not by money (he will never have to rattle a tin around on the Tube system) but by pique at having been relieved of the England captaincy.

Gatting lit the bonfire sticks at his feet at Faisalabad in 1987, when he and Shakoor Rana swapped the sort of respectful finger-wagging normally reserved for a puppy that has soiled the lounge carpet. He now professes remorse for his reaction, though he maintains the argument was correct.

The following summer he was killed off in great Cluedo fashion by the barmaid in the bedroom with a drinks tray, during a Trent Bridge Test against the West Indies. Gatting was cleared of any misdemeanour by all except Ossie Wheatley, who exercised his veto as the Test and County Cricket Board's cricketing committee chairman. Few now dispute that Wheatley, who hardly shared the same playground as Gatting, was belatedly punishing his man for being a blighter in Pakistan. "That was down to a personality clash between two people," the player says. "It was his decision and he has to live with it."

This reporter has seen the facility with which Gatting can gather disciples. On a recent trip to a Windsor pub, he persuaded a celebrity-concussed landlord to uncork just about every bottle of red wine in the house. The visitor just took the film from each neck before passing the bottles to an ever-increasing and appreciative battalion of regulars.

Now that Gatting is to continue to play this Pied Piper at a more influential level, it is apt that he considers the whole process of forging a Test team must begin with children. "This thing about no competitive sport in schools has somehow become part of the culture," he said. "My God, the world is a competitive place everywhere you look, and we've got to be like that. No competition in schools seems ludicrous, and a slippery slope to mediocrity of the highest order."

"At 15 or 16 our players seem to be mentally less tough than the average Australian and even, to a degree, the Indians and Pakistanis, some of whom are already playing Test match cricket. At the moment I'm not sure the younger players have got the discipline and pride to play at the highest level.

"We've got to get in there and pluck out the players we really want, make it interesting for them and give them a grounding on what they can expect.

"What annoys me is that we have got the ability in this country, but we need to channel it and get the right people working with our young guys."

One talent that has been sieved out is Owais Shah, the 18-year-old Middlesex batsman who gives the impression that when in the mood some attacks could be dispensed with a strand of dental floss. In other countries, a talent such as his might be mentioned in Test dispatches, but that will not happen here. This summer, Shah is likely to be accumulating absurd amounts of runs at junior level against the likes of Easter Island Under-19s. This education means bad habits will be high on the curriculum.

Sloppy custom has been able to breed in too many bodies in English cricket, and Lord MacLaurin will need to bring all his business expertise with him to revive the near cadaver. There are plenty willing to lend a hand in the operating theatre, none more so than Gatting, who stops some way of being critical of his new boss. "Lord MacLaurin is the sort of person we need," he said. "It's brilliant to have a man of his organisational capacities and his understanding of management and how things work from the top down to the shop steward. That can only help us go forward if he gets the support he needs."

The great irony now seems to be that Mike Gatting OBE has been pressed into serving his country by administrative pressure, the same force which took away his Test captaincy a decade ago. Lord MacLaurin, who retires from Tesco this summer having made his company Britain's biggest grocer, has got his man as English cricket struggles to prove its condition is transitional and not terminal. It is appropriate that a cabinet position has gone to a man who has done as much as any other to help the good Lord clear his food shelves.