Cricket: Glory days for the dazzler

As the World Cup beckons, Darren Gough is storming the global stage
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THESE ARE Darren Gough's great days. They have been long promised, they have been a while in coming and now they have arrived they are an unmitigated delight.

Gough has always bowled with a huge heart but on this long tour, during both the Ashes and the one-day tournament, he has delivered something extra. He has swung the ball, he has been prodigiously accurate, his length has been precisely varied, he has been penetrating, he has worked constantly on a batsman's frailties. And he has been quick, very quick. Lordly stuff.

There remains no more resplendent sight in the game than a fast bowler at the peak of his powers and it has been spine-tingling to watch Gough in this series. At Sydney against Australia he bowled his 10 overs in several bursts. In the last six of them, while Australia hunted down England's formidable 282, he yielded a mere 17 runs. He gave the batsmen no width to cut and no length to drive. Always he was at them. Two days later he was at Melbourne to play Sri Lanka and dismantled their innings in 21 balls. He ran in fiercely, his bottom sticking out, his ruddy, round face bursting with energy and effort, always ready to break into a massive, warm smile, his short hair bristling. He took 4 for 5 in those 21 balls at the top of the innings and finished with 4 for 28. It was as good as it gets in one-day cricket. He is 28 and every detail is coming together. Gough is garnering his due rewards.

Even in yesterday's drama- tic match, when Sanath Jayasuriya tucked into him, as he can against anyone, he showed both his showmanship and his competitive edge when he feigned a headbutt at Roshan Mahanama, who had - seemingly deliberately - crashed into him when going for a quick single.

He took 21 wickets in the Test series but it might have been 10 more if the catches had stuck when they ought to have done, a misfortune the Yorkshireman handled with extraordinary equanimity. Sure, he would kick the ground in annoyance sometimes or stand for a moment with his hands on his hips but he would not be averse to either a grin or a shrug of the shoulders. At the last he was to have personal reward: a thrilling and as authoritative hat-trick as there could have been. He has simply continued from there. As every England player would tell you as well, it is not merely his bowling prowess which makes him indispensable.

When Gough was asked after the Sri Lankan match if he thought he was up in the fast bowling stratosphere with Glenn McGrath - and that is a long way up indeed - his captain, Alec Stewart, interjected: "Yes, he is."

Stewart willingly expanded on this analysis. "His record has been very good. He has had a few injuries but on this tour he has bowled consistently well. At times in the past he has bowled well and become over-excited perhaps. Now he has really grown up and is a top-class international bowler."

Gough began his England career in 1994 in one-day internationals by dismissing Martin Crowe in his first over and later that summer in his first Test over removed Mark Greatbatch. That winter on his first Australian tour he became a star. Figures of 6 for 49 and a maiden Test fifty at Sydney, both accomplished with zest and panache, hinted at a rich future (though perhaps a veil ought to be drawn over his recent batting, which has utterly defied his natural talent).

But he was to break down in the next match, had to come home and kept breaking down. Injury forced him to withdraw from last winter's tour of the West Indies before it started and when he returned against South Africa in the summer Allan Donald broke one of his fingers before he had bowled a ball. The result of this is that he has 125 Test wickets when he might easily have 200 and be gunning for records.

"I always wanted to play for England," Gough said. "I went through a couple of years when I was in and out of the Yorkshire side. From the moment I got in there full-time I wanted to play for England and I haven't played enough."

While the sparkle in his eye and the arch in his back suggest otherwise, there is a case for omitting Gough in some of the matches in the present tournament. He has opened England's attack in all of England's first 11 international matches this winter, but he is resisting resting. "They are international games and I have missed enough in my career," he said. "I want to play in them all. If I was tired or wanted to miss one and we had qualified for the finals, which we must do first, then maybe. But I want to keep going."

His freshness of mind has certainly been helped by a body free from injuries. Gough made a specific point of referring to the efforts of the England fitness coach, Dean Riddle, in ensuring that. "When I came on this tour I didn't set any targets for wickets," he said. "I just wanted to be as consistent as other players for their countries. I think I have been that, apart from a spell at Melbourne and Adelaide."

So he has. The manager of this section of the tour, David Graveney, recognises that the benefits he has brought to the team are profound. Gough bowls ferociously with the new ball, sparingly in the final overs of a one-day innings.

"He's in control of his game," said Graveney. "He wants the ball and he wants to bowl. He has missed a bit of cricket in the previous two years and you can see why he wants to play. He's bowled fast, I can tell you, and he enjoys the speedometer."

That device shows that Gough is bowling regularly at speeds of 90mph and above, frequently faster than McGrath in the Carlton & United tournament. England have been well blessed with the sort of fast bowlers they have used lately, men with big hearts and lungs to match. Nobody embodies the spirit more than the ebullient Gough, a man approaching his zenith.

In a magazine interview a while back he was asked, given the choice, whether he would rather win the Ashes or the World Cup and chose the latter. Perhaps it offended tradition but it demonstrated his modern credentials. Well, the Ashes have gone again but the World Cup is looming and Gough is ensuring that his desire may not only be in his wildest dreams.