Graham Gooch: 'Above all, I want to try and make a difference'

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He played in the first ever Test in Sri Lanka. Now he's back trying to help the current England crop cope with their latest trial by spin. He talks to Stephen Brenkley

Get Graham Gooch on the subject of batting, which is slightly less difficult than pushing at an open door, and he does not easily get off it again. He loved batting and he loves the idea of batting.

In a professional playing career which spanned 27 years in all for Essex and England, he scored 67,057 runs, which is more than anybody else anywhere has ever done. Of those, 13,190 were in internationals, 8,900 in Test matches. Last month, after dabbling around as England's batting consultant for a couple of years, he was appointed the team's permanent batting coach.

"To be there working with the players and trying to assist and shape, and helping England to win cricket matches is only surpassed by going out there and doing the job yourself," he said. "I really enjoy what I do but when people say to you, 'How does it compare with playing?' – well, nothing is like playing because that's why you take up a sport, to play it. That's the ultimate; helping others is the next best thing."

Gooch has been associated with England in one way or another since he was selected for his debut at 21 in 1975 and made a pair against Australia. It was a long haul from there to the 42 he eventually averaged and for a year or so in his late thirties he was the best batsman in the world.

No Englishman since has really matched him, including the present lot. But as well as playing, he has been captain, tour manager and selector. In his recent role, Gooch's influence on England's rise has been clear and decisive. When they decided to stop mucking around and make it official and permanent, it was about time.

For Gooch there is something privileged and significant about playing cricket for England – or playing cricket at all for that matter. When they came calling he could not turn them down, because of the past, but as he said: "There's a lot more commitment in terms of time away and I'd be lying if I said that wasn't an issue. Every player and every coach in that dressing room would say the same.

"The most important thing is England being the best and most respected team in the world. I know that the clock is ticking for me a little bit at my age. I still feel fit and am ready to do the job but there's a time limit for everybody. I want to enjoy that for as long as I can but above all I want to try and make a difference. That might sound a bit lofty but that's what it is about."

Gooch was discussing batting on this occasion in the serene surroundings of the Singhalese Sports Club in Colombo, where England were playing their second and final practice match before making their way down the coast to Galle for the first Test match.

He first came to Sri Lanka 30 years ago to appear in the country's maiden Test. It was staged at the P Sara Stadium in Colombo, where England will return for the first time in the second and final Test of this mini-series next week. England won that inaugural match by seven wickets but only after Sri Lanka lost their last seven second-innings wickets for eight runs, the collapse of the naïve.

As Gooch recalled, it was a satisfactory but confused conclusion to a fraught tour of the sub-continent. England had spent the preceding four months in India where, having lost the first Test match of six, they spent the next five on a series of slow, lifeless belters, "the flattest, blandest wickets of all time", said Gooch. India secured the 1-0 victory they craved but the following year they won the World Cup and Test cricket in the country was never the same again.

The cricket was bad enough but all the time it was going on, many members of the England side, including Gooch, were negotiating contracts for a rebel tour of South Africa. The week after they were in Colombo they went to Johannesburg.

"Looking back, the business of South Africa wasn't ideal because the recruiting was going on," Gooch said. "I don't really want to talk about it but that was definitely going on in the background."

The upshot was that Gooch and several others went and were banned from playing for England for three years. If his reluctance to talk about that adventure after all this time is still curious, this assignation was made to shoot the breeze about batting.

Gooch's immediate task at hand is to ensure that the batsmen perform rather better than they did recently in the United Arab Emirates, where the collective batting defects ensured that England lost the series 3-0. He is confident in this bunch of batsmen, not complacent and also knows it cannot happen again – "or we have a problem".

"The thing in professional sport always is – you've got players doing a job, doing a good job for you, but you are always looking at the next best. It's not like a guy who is, say, a solicitor and is doing a fantastic job, you're not looking for anyone else. In sport it's not like that: you're preparing the next one, and that is no disrespect at all to these guys, who are exceptional young men."

Gooch's relationship with the players is under close scrutiny. It seemed perverse that after England batted so badly in the first Test against Pakistan he went home. That was in the contract then. "The first way you coach individuals in any sport is you build a relationship with someone and to do that you have to have an element of trust," he said. "That's how you can make the most of it. It's a two-way thing, not a one-way thing. It's not about telling. Very rarely do I just tell. You throw ideas around, you give people observations and ideas, both technical and mental across the whole spectrum.

"You can't be everything to every batsman; you can't be the perfect coach to everybody; some people you connect with better than others, that's human nature. Some people you have a bit more influence with than others. I believe you have to work with what they have got and come to agreement."

Of those who influenced him as a player, Gooch's fondest memories are of Ken Barrington. Like Gooch, Barrington had a modest start in Test cricket (a duck in his first innings) but he returned to become the archetypal builder of big innings. It is easy to imagine Gooch talking of him to the players now.

"Batting is one of those up and down things; you can be in good form and stretch it out for as long as you can but you have got to stay balanced. You don't want to be up there and then go down there. 'Fill your boots,' Ken would say and he was a great, great man. 'Book in for bed and breakfast.'

"If you get to 50 make it 100, go on to 150 and then on to 200, because the next time you go in you might get that one which takes off and gloves you, caught behind. The next time you go in after that it might shoot along the deck so you've got two noughts. You'll be happy then with your 200 not out and not giving it away for 110 because you never know what's going to happen the next innings. When you get in, make it count."

Several of Gooch's charges are in a bit of trouble at present. The most obvious is Ian Bell, who has had a string of low scores this winter after a sublime Test year. But Andrew Strauss, the captain, needs runs as well.

"We have one-to-one chats but that's an ongoing thing," Gooch said. "I saw Ian Bell twice before we came out here, and obviously he came out a week early as well. He is having a little sticky patch but he has to remain mentally strong and he has to believe it will come right. Form can put you under pressure as a person; you have got to hold your nerve. Alastair Cook experienced it in 2010 and there aren't many players who don't experience it.

"If you're judging people on a few games – and it is more instant these days – it's quite difficult; someone is going to be under pressure all the time. Strauss is always under pressure; it's much easier being captain if you're doing the job with the bat because that is your main job, contributing runs to the team.

"Nothing is different for him than for the others. He has worked really hard. You can see little tweaks in the technique and it should pay dividends for him. It is always good to score runs as a captain. Opening the batting is a great place for a captain because you can set the tone, you can dictate the terms of the game; that's one of the great things."

With that, Gooch went off for a net with Alastair Cook. "I don't have favourites, but he's an Essex boy and he's everything you want in preparing to bat," he said.

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