Cricket: Ready to fly the flag again

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THIS week the parole board of the International Cricket Council is expected to reduce the five-year sentence imposed on the 16 English players who toured South Africa in early 1990. Next summer - if civil unrest in South Africa does not change the picture again - when the Ashes have to be regained, England should be able to call again on their former captain, Mike Gatting, the Graf Spee in the international shipping of modern cricket.

At Lord's, on any day of the week when Middlesex are at home, Gatting still parades what England have missed since his 'defection', in disillusionment, in 1989. Middlesex have won the toss and are batting; spectators are no more densely dotted around the stands than gulls on a beach. After a passable start, Middlesex have lost a wicket and it is the cue for Gatting to bristle forth and windmill his bat on his way to the middle as assertively as Ian Botham. Never mind the grey-to-whiteness in Gatting's beard; last month he was no more than 35.

If the ball is still in mint condition, and the pace bowlers hungry, Gatting may not be at his best in a morning session. He has had the tendency, when in doubt or under pressure, to push his front leg speculatively forward, and thus been forced to play around his pad, making him liable to be leg-before; or else he has misjudged the line, withdrawn his bat and been bowled. In his last Test, against Australia at Lord's three years ago, he was out in these two ways. Against the extreme speed of the West Indies he averages 18, against 37 in all Test cricket.

After lunch, however, when the sun has dried the pitch, Gatting is in his white sun-hat and his element. Early on, Middlesex's coach noted that Gatting batted best on a full stomach, and only a week ago he hit the South African pace bowler Richard Snell four times to the boundary in the first over of the afternoon. And Gatting has a right to tuck in, for he needs fuel for his energy; and, besides, he leaves his Enfield home early to beat the rush hour and arrive at Lord's by half-eight or quarter to nine. His relish for lunch, for potato and Branston's pickle, is a reflection of his appetite for living.

It is against medium-pacers and spinners that Gatting's game nears perfection. When set, he has no fear of being dismissed; the strokeplay is daring, then demoralising, as cross-bat strokes embellish the basic crunching drive; and the footwork once won him a bronze medal in ballroom dancing at the Neasden Ritz. Now he is translated into the company of the very finest county batsmen there have been, alongside Patsy Hendren and Denis Compton as a great pleaser of Lord's. In every season since 1980 Gatting has averaged 50 or more for Middlesex, except for 1985 when it was 48; this season he is averaging 105.

A long time passed in Gatting's career before he could reproduce this county form in Tests. Over the space of six years he played 30 of them, on and off, up and down the order from numbers one to eight, before he made a century - a far longer apprenticeship than Graeme Hick and Neil Fairbrother have had. But when he did establish himself, in 1984-5, he exceeded 500 runs in the next two series and showed what a destroyer of less than the very best Test bowling he can be.

It was in India, against medium-pacers and spinners, that he played as if for Middlesex at Lord's. There was no Bob Willis or Ian Botham to cow or overawe him, as he had been before. He was vice-captain to David Gower, the perfect position for Gatting, from which he could infuse the other players with his energy, keenness and patriotism. He scored his maiden Test century in Bombay in a losing cause, and a double-century in Madras in a brilliantly victorious one. His 207 there remains the highest innings by an England player in India, and forms a temptation for the TCCB to have the ban rescinded as from October, so that Gatting can make this winter's tour.

A broken nose, inflicted by Malcolm Marshall, interrupted this run, but he was scarcely less effective when he took over the England captaincy from David Gower in 1986 and led England to the 'grand slam' in Australia that winter. For winning the Ashes series, the World Series Cup and the Perth Challenge, Gatting was invested with an OBE at Buckingham Palace in the late summer of 1988. But 24 hours later he was attending a disciplinary hearing of the Test and County Cricket Board and fined pounds 5,000 for his book Leading From The Front. His relationship with the England authorities had long since gone sour.

When the confident colt who was Mike Gatting had a trial at Lord's, the coach's report was limited to two words: 'Has everything'. He had learnt the game, not at John Kelly Boys' High School, but in the youth teams of Brondesbury CC in north London. Playing club cricket with adults not schoolboys - aged 13 he scored 50 against an Oxford college - he had to be combative and confident to survive. It is interesting though, to set against this cricketing maturity, Gatting's self-definition: 'I think I'm more of a boy at heart than anything. I like playing on pinball machines. I like fantasy stories, like 'The Jungle Book', James Bond, 'The Wizard of Oz', and Tolkien.'

He was not quite 18 when he made his debut for Middlesex, and 20 when he played his first Test, against Pakistan in Karachi. He was given leg-before, not playing a stroke, and was one of six LBWs in the England innings, a record which has not been surpassed. One of the umpires on this auspicious occasion was a tall, gruff Punjabi fellow, by name of Shakoor Rana.

IN HIS recent, controversial book on captaincy, Graham Gooch argues that Gatting is the man best equipped to be his successor. This was written before Alec Stewart made his sudden, stratospheric rise; but it is a possibility which has to be countenanced if the ban is lifted. Gatting is second only to Gooch in experience, having captained Middlesex for so long, and England from 1986 to 1988 - not to mention the rebel England team, even if his main job then was as a puppet and propagandist off the field, defending the indefensible.

Officially, Gatting was deposed for behaving irresponsibly in inviting female company to his hotel room for a late evening drink during the First Test of the 1988 summer. But it was really his affair with Shakoor Rana that did for him: he was seen to be lowering the prestige of the England captaincy to unprecedented depths by shouting at an umpire.

There was a charge of unbecoming behaviour to be laid at Gatting's door, but not perhaps in this instance. The Faisalabad Affair has been almost buried, if not covered up, so that the essential truth of it has not been widely grasped. Beyond reasonable doubt the England players were right in thinking that the Test series was 'fixed' by a Pakistan regime which has mercifully moved on. Pressure, direct and indirect, was put on the umpires to bring about a Pakistan victory in the first Test, and to halt England in the second in Faisalabad. When Gatting exploded - although the immediate issue, of moving a fielder behind the batsman's back, was a grey area - most human beings would have done the same as he did, following the accumulated injustice. Gatting was as good as stitched up.

Subsequently, there were occasions - too many occasions - when England's behaviour sank below acceptable standards during Gatting's captaincy. Players were fined for displays of dissent, and if they were not exactly taking their lead from him, the captain had created a climate in which disagreement at umpiring decisions had become overt. Since then, during his exile, he may have mellowed and matured as a personality; but at the time he was not able to stand back from his players, as Gooch has done, and to see the wider picture.

It was, therefore, in disgust at being dethroned - for the right crime, if the wrong incident - that Gatting listened to the South African overtures of Dr Ali Bacher. There was a lack of communication in the late Eighties, as England's management failed to stress how much Gatting was wanted, as a batsman if not leader. With an almost tragic inevitablility, the man who was born by nature and instinct to take the Queen's shilling took the republic's krugerrands instead.

Gatting has become a wealthy man during his exile. He was able to set up his wife Elaine and two sons with a rural retreat near Bognor as he earned pounds 200,000 from his South African venture, pounds 50,000 from his book, and at least pounds 205,000 from his Middlesex benefit. But the pocket battleship would probably have been just as happy steaming forth and bristling out to the middle to bat for England.

(Photograph omitted)