Cricket: Gover remains the original player-maker

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FOR three decades Alf Gover was the most famous cricket coach alive. His advice was sought and heeded by the great and the good from all over the world. The indoor school he ran in London was tantamount to a shrine and if players could not make a personal visit they wrote explaining their symptoms in the belief that Gover might have a cure. He was a guru long before such creatures became fashionable.

"I'd get two or three letters a month, sometimes more," he said. "Players who might be a bit out of form wanted a little bit of reassurance about their method. But I've always felt the real art of being a good coach is knowing when not to coach. And there are some players, usually batsmen, who you can't teach anything except maybe how to place the ball past the field a bit better."

The Alf Gover Cricket School was not quite the first of its kind and nor was he its first owner. But he and it became synonymous with teaching correct cricketing procedure. He retired as a player in 1948 ("I decided to finish with Surrey before they decided to finish with me") but barely a day went by until he was well into his seventies without him donning his whites and dispensing his wisdom.

Gover has just turned 90, or would have done had he not been born on 29 February 1908. As it is, he will have to wait another two years to mark what will be his 24th birthday. If he does not quite look 24 these days he looks nowhere 90. The body is still lean and erect, the eyeskeen and searching.

He is refreshing to listen to not simply because he has a lifetime's knowledge of cricket and cricketers but also because he steadfastly refuses to deride the modern player. Gover can spot weaknesses in their game but he is happy with the overall standard and the level of entertainment. He treasures Test cricket but he is an admirer of the one-day game.

"England are a good side," he said. "They can bat well, they field tremendously, they're dedicated, they've got a good, steady captain in Mike Atherton. We could do with one really fast bowler but then they've never come along too often."

Before he took over his centre in Wandsworth the young Gover was himself a bowler on the decidedly brisk side of medium. In the late Twenties and Thirties perhaps only Harold Larwood and Bill Voce were quicker in England and now he is a nonagerian he is still no nearer to solving the puzzle of why he was awarded only four Test caps.

Bowling at The Oval, a batting paradise, was one fairly sound possibility and Surrey's continuing, almost amusing inability to take catches off his bowling at slip was another.

Still, he twice took 200 wickets in a season, almost unheard of for a seamer, so he might have expected more caps. Those he got coincided with the first appearances in Tests of Len Hutton and Denis Compton in 1936. Compo also played in Gover's last match for England, in 1946. "He was a brilliant footballer at the time as well and when the ball went to his left on the ground I spotted Vijay Merchant out of his ground. I shouted to Denis, 'Shoot'. He responded by kicking the ball, hit the stumps directly and Merchant was out."

It was afterwards that Gover's name and fame spread. His role at the centre - he bought his initial share in it from his Surrey colleague Herbert Strudwick after losing his winter job as a quantity surveyor - led to regular coaching columns, frequent appearances on the popular children's television programme Seeing Sport, and a stint as a radio summariser.

"You can spot a good batsman long before he gets to the wicket," he said. "I could tell as he was walking on from the way he walked, held his bat. Bowling takes a bit longer, until the delivery stride."

There are scores of cricket centres in England now. The ECB do not keep an exact record but all the first-class counties have one and hundreds of sports centres have room for cricket. But Gover was a pioneer, recognising, too, that it was one way to enthuse young players out of season. He was always ready to advance ideas to further the game.

"I suggested one-day cricket as a way to bring back more spectators," he said. "The powers that be thought it was outrageous. Not much more than a year later they started the Gillette Cup."

Gover was president of Surrey in 1980 and still attends every home match. He thinks well of the present team with his habitual proviso - the lack of a truly fast bowler.

"All teams need one, always have, always will," he said. "Speed can get you wickets on just about any surface but, more importantly, it can do so much for the bowlers at the other end, too. But speed's another thing you can't coach."

His master's voice: The guru recalls some of his past star students

Colin Cowdrey

He came along when he was still very young. He hadn't even started at Tonbridge School then and it was obvious that he was going to be some player. He had it all in terms of timing, and there wasn't that much to teach him. Just how he might place it better.

Fred Titmus

Gubby Allen at Middlesex sent Fred along. He was a seamer at the time and it didn't look as though he was going to be much good, so Gubby suggested that I try to make a spinner out of him. It took a week or so. Fred had short fingers for a spinner so he used three of them to get purchase on the ball and to help him develop some turn and control.

Frank Tyson

In the First Test against Australia on Len Hutton's tour in 1954-55 Frank didn't take any wickets. Len then asked my advice and I suggested Frank would be much more effective if he cut his run, leaving out the first hop and starting from the second hop. Frank wasn't happy about this but Len told him that I was the one who knew and he had better do it. He took 10 wickets in the next match and won us the series.

Hanif Mohammad

Pakistan sent a whole bunch of players to me, asking me to help them out. Hanif wanted to come along, too. I told him I couldn't possibly coach him. He had it all so there wasn't anything that I could teach him. But he came anyway.

Ken Barrington

What a player he turned out to be. But he worried so about his batting. He came to me and asked me what was going wrong. I said he had to stop faffing about, and just to treat the ball like a golf ball and hit it hard. He tried it and I think that it made some difference.