Cricket: Sadness as Gower signs off

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The Independent Online
MANY sportsmen talk about getting out while the going is good. Not many actually do it. David Gower has.

Last night, following intense speculation, he announced that he was retiring from the first-class cricket to pursue a career in journalism, having decided that an offer to become cricket correspondent of the Sunday Express was too good to turn down.

''I am happy this is the correct move for me,' he says in today's Sunday Express. 'Obviously, if I felt an England place was a realistic hope then certainly it would have been a shame to stop.

'An awful lot of people have written and spoken to me and said: 'Don't give up'. That has added to the pressure. I realise many of them will be very disappointed, and it's left me with a slightly guilty feeling. But if I had played on I would have been letting those supporters down in a different fashion. They really don't want to see me going through the motions.'

In his last first-class match, Gower made a hundred. That was for Hampshire, against Essex, led by Graham Gooch, the friend who became his nemesis. The final phase of Gower's Test career, beginning when Gooch replaced him as captain, was messy: he played in only 11 Tests out of 37. Even so, his average under Gooch was 50.

Ian Botham, in his last couple of Tests, was a sorry figure, a corpulent shadow of his young self. Gower was almost unchanged: a slip of a middle-aged man, a veteran who could pass for a cherub, until he doffed his helmet and showed the silver in his curls.

No cricketer played so many times for England; and none, in the professional era at least, gave so much pleasure. More even than Botham, Gower summed up what makes cricket worth watching.

His style never changed. It was defined by the first fine careless rapture of the shot with which he opened his Test account: a pull for four off Liaqat Ali, first ball, Edgbaston, 1978. Gower was 21. It could have been a bit of new-boy bravado. In fact it was the result of a decision made in his teens, that his ability lay in his eye and it would be wrong to play anything but his natural game. He was still playing that way 117 Tests later.

He had more physical grace than any white player of his time. It was matched by his character. He has a temper, but never lost it on the field. His first spell as England captain was a two-year ride on a rollercoaster: a West Indian 'blackwash'; victory in the cauldrons of India; the regaining of the Ashes; another blackwash; and the sack. He met with triumph and disaster, and treated those impostors just the same.

In July 1992, he became England's leading run-getter. This was a nice rebuff for the Roundheads, but it wasn't what made him special. What counted was the manner in which the runs were made.

I remember in 1983, BBC television asked Gower's mentor, Ray Illingworth, to describe his batting. He did so in one word: 'Poetry'. The remark was more precise than it may have sounded. Gower's batting made almost everyone else's look prosaic. It was fluent, rhythmic, concise and euphonious: it looked as if the muses had had a hand in it.

The truism about a man's vices being the same as his virtues applies especially to Gower. What set him apart from other players was his sense of proportion. He saw the game as what it is - a game. The flipside of this was his flip side. It sent him up in that Tiger Moth and, like a tragic flaw, it brought him down and out of Test cricket, the only form of the game he really enjoyed. This morning, along with all the remembered pleasure, there is a sense of waste. He could be maddening. What he couldn't be was boring.