Cricket: Gough primed and ready to fire

England's fast bowler believes he has found an antidote to his injury jinx and is set to hound South Africa.
RECIPE FOR a fast bowler to beat South Africa. Take the stamina of Red Rum, the never-say-die spirit of Ian Botham and leave to simmer in the African sun. Then add a bit of Yorkshire grit (optional south of the equator) and place new cricket ball in right hand. Leave on until opposition are all out and it is time to bat. Finally pat on back, moisten with beer(s) and allow to rest.

In case you did not recognise the final dish, Darren Gough is back, not yet at his best perhaps, but back none the less. The beating heart and puffed-out chest of England's cricket team is once again set to unleash his thunderbolts, a mercy many will be thankful for, not least his captain, Nasser Hussain. England are not fancied in this series but, while Gough has a glint in his eye and a spring in his step, hope will always spring eternal.

Last summer Gough missed all four Tests against New Zealand, a series England lost amid claims that they had become the worst Test team in the world. His absence was crucial, not only for his bowling, which is fast and direct, but for the banter and enthusiasm he brings to the dressing- room.

At home or away Gough is renowned as both butt and provider of the team's humour, and dozens of "Goughisms" abound. Indeed when one of the batsmen blocked him for a few overs in the recent game against the Free State, he marched to the skipper and informed him that he would rather be watching Magic Roundabout than bowl to a batsman this boring. It was a point that brokered some sympathy until one of his team-mates pointed out that Gough himself had spent 45 minutes on nought the previous day.

But whether toiling or larking about, he is a captain's dream and, along with the game's greats, he possesses an unflinching desire to put himself on the line. In a game renowned for its comfort zones, this is one player who simply does not know the meaning of cruise control.

Gough had a miserable time when he last toured South Africa four years ago, playing just two Tests, including the one at Johannesburg where he failed to take a wicket. This morning he returns there, hopeful to make amends despite being another game or two light of full match fitness.

"After the first innings at Bloemfontein, where I felt as if a bus had hit me, things have been getting back to normal," he said yesterday before getting his Tin-Tin quiff tended to before today's first Test.

"I didn't bowl that well in the last match but I bowled quickly. I know I'm an important cog, so I haven't got the luxury of taking a few more games to peak.

"In the past I needed to bowl and bowl, but I don't need that now. It's probably because I search more for a rhythm now, rather than trying to do too much with the ball."

He rates highly this current England attack, pointing out that he partnered Andy Caddick in Wellington during the tour to New Zealand three winter's ago with some success. In fact their styles and characters complement each other; Gough's grins and skidders, a jaunty counterpoint to Caddick's impassive expression and steep, probing bounce.

Their use of the new ball will be crucial to the outcome of the series, though Gough feels too much is being made of it. "Over-stressing the importance of the new ball creates an unnecessary pressure on the bowlers. Teams can be 100 for 0 and 220 all out. After all, we've done it loads of times when we bat.

"I believe the important factor for me and the other bowlers will be their lower order. With Mark Boucher, Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener batting at seven, eight and nine, that is where the game could be taken away from us."

Along with Michael Atherton, for whom he has enormous admiration, Gough has been England's most regarded player over the past six years. Like Atherton, too, whose bad back has been a constant companion, he has long- standing injury problems linked to the way his ankle lands when he bowls. Until Australia last year, he had never remained fit throughout a tour. On this one, he has nine pairs of boots and a massive ankle brace to prevent the joint inverting as he lands.

Gough, who has taken 125 Test wickets, reckons he has missed 31 Tests since he made his debut for England in 1993 against New Zealand. He knows, for he has counted every one. "Having missed so many I should want to play for as long as I can. But I want to be able to walk in later life."

His chunky frame does not help either and unlike Allan Donald, say, he does not have a fast shoulder or the supreme athleticism to lessen the strain. In fact Gough only made himself into a fast bowler after a conversation with Richie Richardson, when the West Indian played for Yorkshire in the early 1990s.

A medium-pacer with a steady county career ahead of him, he was asked by Richardson why he didn't want to play Test cricket? "I do," said Gough. "Well do something about it," retorted Richardson, "and bowl fast." To his credit the bowler did and within days the conversion was made.

It will probably shorten his career and Gough, now 29, believes he will recognise the moment when it arrives.

"In the past few years we've had this thing where team-mates write down what they think of you on a piece of paper. Of course it's anonymous but so far they've been things like: England's top strike bowler; one of best new-ball bowlers in the world; he has fight, determination and courage.

"When they stop writing down stuff like that, that's the moment I'll hang up my boots; all bloody nine pairs of them."