Cricket: Gooch plays straight in leadership role: As the Headingley Test gets under way Martin Johnson talks to England's captain about attitude, Australians and the ageing process

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TO SEE him in his civvies, setting off for work in the morning, you might hazard a guess that the middle-aged, slightly hunched, weary looking chap with the drooping moustache, rounded shoulders and shuffling knock-kneed gait could only have one of three occupations: coalman, professional pall-bearer, or head bell-ringer at Notre Dame.

The subsequent discovery, therefore, that this was one of the world's premier sportsmen, captain of his country, fitness fanatic, and with a gift and enthusiasm for his chosen profession unmatched, after 21 years, by any wide-eyed teenager, you would be as entitled to inhale deeply from the smelling salts as anyone who had just been rendered trance-like by a curious phenomenon. England beating Australia in a Test match, for instance.

Today, Graham Gooch leads his country for the 28th - and possibly last - time in his 105th Test, and there is not much he would not give to end a sequence of failure over the traditional enemy now dating back to December 1986. However, Gooch's one unshakeable demand is not so much winning as competing toe to toe with the enemy and, if the enemy then proves to be the better man, so be it.

Given, therefore, the number of times that an England team under his command has offered as much competition as a fart against thunder (to recall his own wistful phrase referring to his motivational properties during the last Ashes series in Australia) it is scarcely surprising that Gooch finally reached for the towel marked 'captain' a few weeks ago, and was only prevented from throwing it in because Ted Dexter had hold of one arm and Keith Fletcher the other.

All Gooch will say about it is: 'I was very close to going. . . and I'm still close,' the postscript being a reference to whether or not England, should they concede the Ashes with two games still to play, would be better off installing a new man immediately rather than at the end of the summer.

'If I looked more miserable than usual early in the first couple of Tests then most probably it's because I was. We did not have the right attitude, I did not feel any response coming through, and it gets to you after a while. What is most important to me is the team doing well. What is not important is the guy in charge just hanging on for the sake of it.'

Trent Bridge perked him up a little ('compared to how we had been playing, it was bloody good') although he is well aware that even that rare shaft of sunlight has been slightly scoffed at by the growing suspicion that he is no longer captaining England as leading a United Nations' relief mission.

Gooch maintains a diplomatic silence on the 'foreign' player issue, although it is reasonably safe to say that he regards the qualification regulations as only marginally more stringent than the one on shaving, and there is also a clue in the fact that he wants the national anthem - of both teams - played before Test matches.

'I wrote to Alan Smith (the Test and County Cricket Board's chief executive) after the World Cup asking for the anthems, for both sides, to be played,' Gooch said. 'That's what it's all about isn't it? Playing for your country.' Smith wrote a letter back along the lines that it was 'too difficult.'

Gooch himself has appeared, in the past, to somehow find it too difficult to inject a bit of younger blood into the team, a charge to which he partly holds up his hands. 'The selectors have possibly been rightly criticised for not making the sort of changes we made at Trent Bridge a little earlier. I think I would accept that. The new guys certainly brought in a breath of fresh air. Different game, wasn't it?'

It is perhaps surprising, given Essex's success in blooding young players early, that Gooch has not presided over a policy more in keeping with his county, to which the cynics would add that playing for England and playing for Essex pretty well amounts to the same thing nowadays.

'I realise that people look at the number of Essex players in the team and raise their eyebrows,' he said, 'but what do you do? Not pick the guys you think you should pick because they happen to come from your own team? We were thinking about (Matthew) Maynard and (Mark) Ramprakash before deciding on Nasser (Hussain) for Trent Bridge, but in the end it has to boil down to personal choice. We're not going to get it right every time.'

England's selectors, of course, are never short of advice, whether it be well meaning or, as in the majority of cases, involves the kind of custard- pie abuse that goes with the job. Micky Stewart once received a letter that merely said: 'David Gower, O B E, Micky Stewart . . .' followed by four letters that neither added up to an honour nor a compliment.

As for Gooch, his own postman could give him a good contest in the rounded shoulder stakes. 'Oh yes, I get letters all the time, mostly firing off so many names we'd be playing 30 guys in a Test match.'

There would not, however, be many letters advocating that Gooch ought not to be in the side. By general consent, including his own, the old boy is playing as well now as he ever has and he goes into this match knowing that England have won their last two Tests at Headingley - against the West Indies and Pakistan - on the back of two supreme Gooch centuries, on bowler-friendly pitches against some of the world's unfriendliest bowlers.

'People say to me 'you're lucky McDermott isn't playing' and I take the point. But for me, enjoyment is facing the best bowlers and the sense of achievement if you do well against them. I have probably been as successful as anyone against the West Indies and that gives me great satisfaction.

'I'd love to be out there this winter too, but I definitely won't be touring again, and yes, going to India was probably a mistake. I love playing, but three months away - travelling, hotels, what are we doing tonight?, all that bit - I've done all that and enough is enough.

'I hope to play for Essex for another two to three years and I'd like to think I might play for England again next summer. However, that depends on Fletch - and policy. When you get to my age, you've got to be batting bloody well otherwise you disappear out of the side. And that's right.

'The only reason to stick with a 39 or 40-year-old guy is if they are an automatic choice. If it is touch and go, it is more sensible to look at a younger bloke. That's why I was very nervous before the Old Trafford Test. I had had a bad tour and when you get to my time of life you'll soon disappear out of the side if you don't perform.'

Gooch's appetite for competition has not diminished with the encroachment of middle-age and it is the shortage of this quality - rather than talent - that he believes currently makes England an unsuccessful side. 'I don't believe that our bowlers are pie-throwers, or that we are generally-speaking any less talented than other countries.

'However, we still need to improve our attitude and the way we approach playing the game. We've not got to sit around in pavilions hoping it might rain, but get out there and bust a gut. Each individual has to know exactly what he wants to do and what he has to sacrifice to achieve that.

'Look at the Australians - how competitive they are. Sure they dish out the verbals and pressure the umpires, but that's the way they've always been. They play it bloody hard. We at least gave them a run in that department in the last game and that was good.'

So good, in fact, that Gooch came dangerously close to looking cheerful - although the hangdog image is a long way from being an accurate reflection of character. A shy, reserved man in public, who turns on the auto pilot for press conferences ('I don't know why we bother with these things. You lot keep asking me the same boring questions and I keep trotting out the same boring answers. . . ') he is outgoing with his mates, likes a pint, and has a ready line in dry wit.

In his first press conference as captain, in charge of an inexperienced side, he was asked what he would be telling the younger players before their first Test match. 'Get more runs than I did' (he made 0 and 0) was the answer. Then again, posing for pictures after his 333 against India, one of the photographers wondered whether a smile might not be appropriate. 'Can't do that,' he said. 'It would ruin the image.'

On the second day of this Test Gooch celebrates, if that is the right word, his 40th birthday, and he will probably say that he is past his sell- by date and that there is precious little petrol left in the tank.

Then again, he has been saying that for heaven knows how long and those of us who marvel at his longevity have this mental picture of a hunched, balding figure with greying stubble and a white moustache shuffling into the press room having just eclipsed Jack Hobbs's record of 100 hundreds after his 40th birthday.

He will look faintly embarrassed by it all, give it what appears to be enormous thought and, in that familiar high-pitched voice, offer the same verdict as he did after his treble hundred at Lord's. 'Not bad for an old 'un.'

(Photograph omitted)