Gower's simple logic on survival in Pakistan

England's Class of 2000 urged to 'enjoy touring... feel the culture... accept they do things differently there' to attain success
Click to follow
The Independent Online

An exceedingly sleek, silvery Jaguar glides through the Grace Gates at Lord's, and from it emerges the exceedingly sleek, silvery David Gower. He is here to attend his first meeting since joining the committee of the MCC. Improbable as it seemed in the days when he was buzzing cricket grounds in bi-planes, and being berated by elderly soaks in the Long Room for his nonchalance at the crease, Gower is now officially an Old Fart.

An exceedingly sleek, silvery Jaguar glides through the Grace Gates at Lord's, and from it emerges the exceedingly sleek, silvery David Gower. He is here to attend his first meeting since joining the committee of the MCC. Improbable as it seemed in the days when he was buzzing cricket grounds in bi-planes, and being berated by elderly soaks in the Long Room for his nonchalance at the crease, Gower is now officially an Old Fart.

He is also a commentator for Sky Sports, through whose good offices this interview has been arranged. Gower has kindly turned up 90 minutes early for his MCC meeting, and we fill the time in an excellent pub I know round the corner. He is good company; thoroughly, almost studiedly charming, with a gentle quip for the barman who pours his mineral water and another for the waitress who brings him a hefty steak-and-kidney pie. If he has a fault as a conversationalist, it is perhaps that which dogged him as a cricketer - not that he doesn't take himself too seriously, more that he appears not to take himself quite seriously enough. The next ripple of wry self-deprecation is never more than an anecdote away.

I want to talk to him about his one and only tour of Pakistan, in the winter of 1983-84. With England currently on their first tour of Pakistan since 1987, much has been written about that year's Mike Gatting-Shakoor Rana imbroglio (which Gower missed, having "very presciently" decided to take the winter off). But not much has been said about the three-Test series three years earlier, which was almost as controversial, thanks largely to Ian Botham's ill-advised and ill-timed remark that "Pakistan is a place every mother-in-law should be sent for a month".

What, I ask, does Gower recall of all that? "It was a difficult time anyway, because it followed what became known as the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll tour of New Zealand," he says. "Ian had been accused of minor drug abuse, denied it hotly, then admitted it and took his punishment like a man. He also decided that his back was too unhealthy for him to stay in Pakistan, so he went home for an operation. It was from the comfort of a hospital bed that he dispensed his words of wisdom about mothers-in-law. Even 16 years ago news travelled very quickly. And they took it very seriously in Pakistan. There were meetings in parliament. In Lahore, the waiters downed tools and refused to serve us. It will be interesting to see how Ian [Gower's fellow commentator on Sky] is received this time. I hope everyone is grown-up about it, but you do have to be careful. They're proud people."

From a purely cricketing point-of-view, however, and even though England lost the series one-nil, the tour went well for Gower. He took over the captaincy for the second and third Tests, after Bob Willis contracted hepatitis. And rose majestically to the occasion, scoring 152 in Faisalabad and 173 in Lahore. "It was a flat, slow pitch," he recalls of Faisalabad, where he established a record seventh-wicket stand for England against Pakistan of 167 (with Vic Marks, if you're looking for a fiendish trivia question). "[Abdul] Qadir got the ball to turn but only slowly. If you read it or watched it carefully, or both, there was no problem. It didn't have the fizz that made him unplayable."

As someone who has played and prospered in Pakistan, what advice does he has to offer the current England tourists, I wonder? "The first thing is to accept conditions off the field, to decide that it is a great place with lovely people. But touring is hard, even in Australia, which is a great place in anybody's book. There is lots to do there, you can [wry smile] hire a plane at the drop of a hat. But in 1986-87, when Gatt was captain, some of our players couldn't come to terms with the Australian principle of all-out war on the field, then sitting around afterwards sharing a few tinnies with the oppo. After all, it can come as a shock when you get on well with Lillee and Thomson, or whoever, and then you go out next morning and three bouncers whizz past your nose. You can look at them and think 'hang on, we were having a drink together last night.' And they're thinking 'yeah, but we're playing cricket now, stupid.' Once you've got the hang of that it's a very good system.

"In Pakistan, the off-the-field stuff is important in a different way. You have to accept that there are things to do very different from what you might do here. For instance, I remember a small group of us going to see A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Alhambra Theatre in Lahore, performed by a travelling troupe of English players. And it was actually a fun evening."

Perhaps this is unfair of me, but I can't imagine Allan Lamb, say, sitting in the Alhambra Theatre applauding the antics of Bottom the weaver. "Well, no, it was a fairly exclusive clique of us. And certainly Lamby struggled to come to terms with the local cuisine. But considering that he had been, er, central to some of the allegations in New Zealand, and was busy trying to limit the damage at home, he bounced around more or less as normal. Basically, I think players need to recognise that they are getting a chance to visit a different culture for three months, and should perhaps make a gentle effort to do a palace or a temple now and then. Because it doesn't matter what sort of novel music system the size of a thimble you have, delivering 100 watts into each ear, it can be very limiting just sitting around. Touring shouldn't just be about cricket."

Fair enough, but from the brutal perspective of those of us watching at home, there is scant satisfaction to be gained from the albeit unlikely news that Darren Gough has greatly admired a 14th century mosque. We expect nothing of him except good performances on the field. On which all-important subject, what does Gower think of England's chances against Pakistan?

"I think there is scope for optimism, and scope for concern. Pakistan have good seamers, and Saqlain is a top-class spinner, but if Mark Taylor can score 300-plus there... which is not to decry his skills, at least I'm trying not to... then we can definitely get runs. Our batsmen need to watch the bowler's hand, watch the ball, and move their feet, just as they would in a county game at The Oval. If they do that they will get in. I wouldn't quibble too much with the selection. It was a brave decision to take [Ian] Salisbury, and the hard part for him is that Pakistani batsmen play spin rather well, because they see plenty of it, but it is a fact of life that we haven't got a Saqlain or a Warne. What we do have is a good coach in Duncan Fletcher, with a knack of getting to the rub of things. And a good captain in Nasser [Hussain]."

As good a captain as D I Gower? Another wry smile. "Oh, he's much better than me. He has a far better attitude to communicating with the players. And there's a lot of steel there. But after a poor summer with the bat he must try, as much as he can, to isolate his batting from his captaincy."

Hussain's batting, as Gower says, is temporarily in the doldrums. But as a captain he is enjoying a fine run of form, and in this summer's triumphant series against the West Indies he deployed his bowlers with particular guile. In Pakistan much again rests on the sturdy shoulders of Andrew Caddick, Gough, Dominic Cork and Craig White. "What happens with the new ball will be key," says Gower. "But it will also be very interesting when the old ball starts to reverse swing."

Reverse swing is one of cricket's darker arts, and one surrounded by allegations of ball-tampering. Whether illegally enhanced or not, it is essentially a Pakistani art, supposedly perfected in the early 1980s by Sarfraz Nawaz. "I first encountered it, without really knowing it, when Pakistan came here in 1982," says Gower. "Mudassar [Nazar] bowled us out at Lord's, swinging the ball prodigiously, and I remember looking at the ball to see what he'd been doing to shine it."

Gower pauses. This is still controversial territory, and of course the subject of a dramatic trial involving Imran Khan (who had admitted ball-tampering) and an outraged Ian Botham (who vehemently denied it). In fact, Gower was called on to give evidence in support of Botham. "I like to think," he says, "that I held my own against [Imran's barrister] George Carman. It was one of the proudest moments of my career, like appearing at Lord's for the first time. Except it was the Old Bailey, and George was there, his eagle eyes glinting away, conducting some erudite discussion about what you can do with a cricket ball. Imran's assertion was that everyone did it [tampered with the ball]."

Choosing his words with more care than usual, Gower then adds: "There is an aspect to this which says that even if you have applied a fingernail or whatever, there is still an element of skill involved. You're not meant to have pockets full of serrated knives and sandpaper, but if you can still make it do things... [longish pause]... without giving too much away, I know that some of our bowlers tried [ball-tampering] in the late 1980s, but Wasim [Akram] and Waqar [Younis] were still getting the ball to swing a mile while we weren't. You've still got to make it do things. Of course, reverse swing is now a respected and accepted principle, and the ball will wear naturally. Goughie uses it very well."

Indeed, but can we just return to Botham, because as Gower has reminded me, his long-ago mother-in-law jibe is not his only offence against Pakistan, there was also the highly acrimonious legal business with Imran. I don't suppose Botham is apprehensive about his reception over there. When, after all, was Botham ever apprehensive about anything? But I wonder whether he has given it much thought? Has Gower talked to him about it?

"We spoke a couple of days back, but not really about that. I know he's put the court case behind him." You mean he and Imran have made up? Gower smiles. "No, I don't think they've made up. They both still occupy, let's say, rather entrenched positions. But we had other things to talk about. For instance, Ian said to me, 'if you're not already bringing a bottle of Scotch, make sure you do.' "

Has Gower, like Botham, hung up his flannels? The latter, I know, has not picked up bat or ball since the day he retired from the first-class game. Gower, by contrast, has turned out in various charity games.

"But I won't do it again. The truth is that... I... do... not... like... playing... any... more." That is how he says it, labouring each word for effect. "I am obviously not as good as I was, and I do not want to slide off slowly into cricketing impotency. I used to play in Victor Blank's big day for the Wellbeing Foundation, in a lovely location in the middle of Oxfordshire, from which Wellbeing benefit by a huge sum, so I feel guilty saying I don't want to play, but I really don't. Fielding has become top of the list of occupations during which I think to myself, 'what else could I be doing over the next three hours?' And the answer, even in the middle of Oxfordshire, is quite a lot. I look round and think 'why am I dressed like this? Look at these flannelled fools.' " Gower looks as stricken as it is possible for Gower to look. "I think, 'oh God, why didn't I have flu today?' "