Cricket: Gooch gloried in the role of true Essex man

Derek Pringle looks at the career of England's foremost Test runscorer who lifted his county out of cricketing obscurity
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The Independent Online
Graham Gooch, the man who has given Methuselah a run for his money, is this week to play his last first-class game of cricket for his beloved Essex. After a quarter of a century and well over half a million miles on the road, it seems, to coin a favourite phrase of his, that the old boy, 44 tomorrow, has finally "run out of petrol".

The game, against Worcestershire at Chelmsford, which starts tomorrow, will be Gooch's 391st for the county. By the weekend, though, it will be no surprise if the whole of Essex is in mourning, for there can have been no greater servant in its history. Since 1980, Gooch has bestridden the game like a colossus, performing deeds for county and country that neither Gower, nor Botham, nor even that other great county servant, Mike Gatting, have been able to match.

As the consummate team man, he was quite unable to give Test cricket the preferential treatment others do. To him, both were challenges he felt obliged to drive himself equally hard to conquer. His 8,900 Test runs (the most by an Englishman) and almost 45,000 first-class runs bear testimony to that and his extraordinarily consistent talent.

Gooch is an intensely proud man. His creed - "I want to be the best. Not one of the rest" - was not just an idle boast, but a lifelong code. With only one fifty this season, he clearly feels that his batting has begun to dip below his own towering standards and that the time has come to step aside for a younger man.

The decision, however, despite a string of unsatisfactory scores, will not have been an easy one. When Gooch's father Alf died late last year, the grief-stricken son promised to play another season in his honour. It will sadden him that, with Essex currently riding high in the Championship, he has not fulfilled that pledge.

If anything meant more to Gooch than cricket then it was his family. Brought up in a council flat in Leytonstone, he was part of a family who epitomised the old East End with its unquestioning loyalties and tight- knit closeness. These values later applied to Essex, who were essentially a big, squawking mess of a family when he joined them in 1972 - albeit one where high jinx off the field belied the collective sense of purpose on it.

It was in this environment that the painfully shy Gooch began to find his feet, driving to home games on a scooter. A burly man even then, he soon thumped his way into England contention, finally make his debut at Edgbaston against Australia in 1975.

The match, which England lost, was a disaster for the 21-year-old Gooch, and although many pointed out that Len Hutton also got a pair in his first Test, the experience severely dented his confidence and he was relieved to be dropped after the next Test at Lord's.

Deflated, Gooch had to wait another three years before getting another chance. By then a certain David Gower had announced his precocious talent to the world by striking his first ball in Test cricket for four. Although it is one of life's imponderables, it is tempting to think that English cricket might well have been even better served had Gower got the pair and Gooch thumped his first ball for four.

Ironically, it was Gower's sacking as England captain after losing the Ashes in 1989 and the subsequent re-instatement of Gooch, that provided the spur for his Test career. Only weeks earlier, his technical frailties against Terry Alderman's outswing had caused serious doubt over his Test future.

He had been captain the previous winter, but due to his and several other players' connections with South Africa (he was due to take up a contract with Western Province), the tour to India had been cancelled by Indira Gandhi herself.

Although, Gooch had never craved captaincy of any kind, he set about it with the zeal of those born again, trying to build an England team in his own image. Since the rebel tour of South Africa in 1982, Gooch had, as a way of doing penance for his three-year ban, begun to practice and train far harder than his considerable talent required. So hard that his evening meal, particularly if it went on after 8.30pm, would often double as a pillow. Not unreasonably, he expected those under him to follow suit.

Indeed, nothing baffled Gooch more over the years than players who did not share his work ethic. But if the overkill made him feel better, it did not always sit well with the likes of Gower and Botham. He was a stickler for protocol, too, and he once sent back a bottle of wine that the waiter had not opened in front of him.

Of course, what should have been cleared up quickly by two grown men escalated, with Gower's casual insouciance subverting Gooch's puritan standards. It all came to a head on the 1990-91 tour of Australia when Gower buzzed a match in a Tiger Moth, an act later canonised by dilettantes everywhere, especially those in the MCC who even went as far to demand the left-hander be included on the 1992-93 tour to India.

Actually Gooch is far from being the miserable killjoy many believe and it may interest Gower fans to know that he and I once went ballooning over the Peak District before the start of a county game against Derbyshire. If it does not sound all that exciting, the landing made in a 15 knot tailwind certainly got the adrenaline pumping.

Inability to defuse Gower's intractability was, as Gooch later admitted, probably his greatest failing in his 34 Tests as England captain, a number headed only by Peter May and Michael Atherton.

He may be right, for although he was tactically sound and led his troops from the front - a modus operandi winningly portrayed by his unbeaten 154 against the West Indies at Headingley - he was rarely any good at administering a bollocking. Instead, he would let things smoulder half- said, preferring to save confrontations for his opponents in the middle.

A punishing batsman, he was peerless when the fast bowlers got the ball above the pads. His bravery in the face of barrages by the West Indian pacemen who ruled the world in the 1980s, made him a deserving hero and few have come close to rivalling his record against them in that period.

His weakness, for such a cumbersome looking man, was not against spin, which he slaughtered, but against medium- pacers who could make the ball leave him. By using a heavy bat, he would often be drawn into the shot early, so that any subsequent movement by the ball had to be countered by eye alone. It was not always successful and it remained the one problem area he never really surmounted.

Along with the rest of Essex in the 1980s, he was a devout admirer of Margaret Thatcher. Although Essex man is a much-hyped stereotype, it is one that can be readily applied to Gooch in the context of Thatcher's Britain. After all, only in Essex could a man begin his career riding a scooter and finish it driving a Lexus.

By retiring, Gooch will not be severing his contacts with the game. Already a selector, he is to manage this winter's England A tour to Kenya and Sri Lanka with Gatting. If it goes well, it can only be a matter of time before a more permanent job within the England set-up comes his way.

In his time Gooch has achieved as much as can be done in the English game and it is doubtful that anyone in the future will be able to boast his tally of 118 Test caps, six County Championships, three Sunday Leagues, as well as winner's medals from both knockout cups.

Nevertheless, it has been a popular claim by those that have failed to win much that Essex have been a lucky county. In that they had the loyal, unstinting service of Graham Gooch, they are undoubtedly right, and it would be no exaggeration to say that his mighty bat oversaw and inspired the greatest period in the county's history. Few can surely wish for a better testimonial than that.

Leytonstone to Lord's: From a `pair' on his Test debut to 333 against India

1953: Born 23 July, Leytonstone, Essex.

1973: First-class debut for Essex.

1975: Test debut for England: out for a "pair" against Australia at Edgbaston.

1979: Switched from middle-order batsman to opener as Essex won first major honours, the County Championship and Benson and Hedges Cup. One of Wisden's five cricketers of the year.

1981: Captained England rebel tour to South Africa - three-year Test ban.

1982: Hit B & H Cup record score of 198no against Sussex at Hove.

1984: Sunday League record 176 for Essex at Southend (broken two days ago by Surrey's Alistair Brown).

1985: Returned to Test cricket against Australia.

1986: Appointed Essex captain and won County Championship in his first season.

1988: Relinquished Essex captaincy but led England for first time in fifth Test against the West Indies at the Oval.

1989: Took over the Essex captaincy for a second time.

1990: Hit his highest Test score of 333 against India at Lord's and century in second innings for Test record aggregate of 456. First player to score 1,000 runs in Tests during an English summer.

1991: Guided Essex to fifth Championship; received OBE.

1992: Essex retained the Championship.

1993: Resigned as England captain after fourth Test against Australia at Headingley, his 34th in charge.

1994: 100th hundred against Cambridge University at Fenners.

1995: Retired from Tests with record 118 caps as highest run-scorer for England with 8,900. Hit 20 centuries and averaged 42.58. Stood down as Essex captain.

1996: Appointed England selector.

1997: Retires as player. Chosen to manage A tour to Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Runs: 40,859.

Centuries: 113.