Cricket: Hats off to Gooch the institution: Richard Williams finds new reasons to admire the former England captain

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM GOOCH celebrated his 41st birthday quietly at Lord's yesterday, his thoughts mostly hidden beneath a broad- brimmed white sun hat as South Africa went about their task of building a match-winning total.

His familiar faded blue England baseball cap, a cherished item, was stowed for much of the day in English cricket's most amply provisioned and immaculately packed kit bag, alongside assorted bits of carefully shaped sponge for padding his gloves and one of those things for putting rubber grips on bat handles.

On Thursday, during South Africa's first innings, the cap had been much in evidence as Michael Atherton sent his predecessor on what amounted to a farewell tour of cricket's headquarters, the scene of six of his 20 Test centuries, including the 333 against India four years ago.

As he fielded around the boundary during the day, pitching camp at all four points of the compass, he received warm personal applause. And yesterday, when he moved to a position at the south-western corner of the ground in mid-afternoon, the start of an over by Darren Gough was postponed until the occupants of the Tavern stand had completed a chorus of 'Happy Birthday', acknowledged by a seigneurial doffing of the white hat. In his 111th Test, Graham Gooch has become an institution.

It's all reminiscent of what Chris Evert used to say about the Wimbledon crowd: they don't love you until you've lost. Some of us were displeased by the decision to recall Gooch to England's colours at the beginning of the summer, feeling that a man who had exercised his inalienable right not to face the West Indian quick bowlers in the Caribbean had thereby forfeited the opportunity to harvest runs from New Zealand's medium-pacers.

But since his opening 210 in the first Test at Trent Bridge, perhaps the most apathetically received double-century by a home player in the history of Test cricket, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

Instead of sailing on a tide of big scores past Viv Richards into fourth place in the all-time list of Test-match run accumulators, Gooch has inched towards the target. He remains five runs short after his innings of 20 on Friday, and a more comprehensive failure in the second innings of this match might just leave that ambition forever out of reach.

If so, he will have the consolation of the crowd's warmth throughout a series of sun- bleached days here. Deprived of the burden of captaincy, bereft of the runs which defined his existence, he has become an altogether more appealing figure, at last offering a glimpse of the private man. Now that the torch of leadership is in other hands, his shambling, round- shouldered silhouette seems less like an infuriating symbol of national impotence.

On a less sentimental note, there has been something new to admire in Gooch's game at Lord's. For most of his career he was a magnificent second slip, with fast eyes and flypaper hands. Now that he finds himself in semi-retirement in the deep field, far from the centres of activity and influence, his extreme professionalism is evident each time he retrieves the ball and returns it, fast and flat, to six inches above the bails.

That's a lifetime of dedication to good cricketing habits coming out, a curiously moving sight and, in a way that extends beyond the specifics of this match, as valuable as any century.