Mike Gatting: 'Once your foot is on the Aussies' throat you have to keep it there'

Brian Viner Interviews: When England's Ashes tourists headed for Australia in 1986 no one gave them a hope. As Andrew Flintoff's men prepare to face the heat, on and off the field, the captain of that side - the last to return victorious - recalls what it took to silence the hosts
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The last England cricket captain to win an Ashes series on Australian soil makes himself comfortable at a corner table in The Norfolk, his excellent local restaurant in Enfield, Middlesex. The Norfolk has an unapologetically old-fashioned menu - jellied eels, sole meunière, beef stroganoff, that sort of thing - which pleases Mike Gatting, perhaps because there is something vaguely old-fashioned about him, too. He is an English beef-and-brawn classic no less than the menu, and in an age of sinewy, streamlined sportsmen, it is good to see those gigantic forearms again.

The maître d' knows him well, which comes as no great surprise: Gatting's formidable appetite has not waned in recent years. It may even have waxed.

But he has never minded the jokes. When conversation turns, after a long and mighty lunch, to his famous dismissal by Shane Warne in 1993, the so-called "ball of the century", he chucklingly reminds me of what Graham Gooch once said, that he'd never have let it bounce had it been a cheese roll.

There is so much to talk to Gatting about, but really only one overriding question: might his success in the Ashes, which was kindled in Brisbane 20 years ago next week, offer any useful tips on how to beat the Aussies in their backyard? In a way there are some encouraging parallels between then and now.

Gatting, like Andrew Flintoff, ran an inclusive dressing-room. He had learnt from his own unhappy early touring experiences with England, with the senior men pulling rank, that the younger guys needed to be made part of the gang.

Like Flintoff, he had a shrewd éminence grise at his shoulder: Mickey Stewart rather than Duncan Fletcher. Like Flintoff, he had a talismanic all-rounder, in the beefy form of Ian Botham. Never mind that in Flintoff's case, it's himself. If he manages his own contributions as cleverly as Gatting handled Botham, who responded with a first-innings 138 in the first Test at Brisbane, then England might confound the doom-mongers predicting that Australia will regain the Ashes at a canter. And that's something else that Gatting had in common with Flintoff: a pessimistic English media.

Martin Johnson, of this very newspaper, notoriously suggested that there were only three things Gatting's England side couldn't do: bat, bowl or field.

"Martin was right in the sense that we hadn't been playing well," he says, "and yet we had people like Gower, Botham, Lamb, Dilley, and the two best spinners in the world in Edmunds and Emburey. The real big bonus for us was Philip DeFreitas. We knew about Gladstone [Small], we knew about Fozzy [Neil Foster], but Daffy was quite special."

For all England's strength in personnel, Gatting's first notable ally was a coin. "I was glad I lost the toss in Brisbane, because we ended up batting, which we might not have done, and then managed to get through the first day only losing two wickets. We lost another two very early on the following day, but who did we have coming to the crease? Botham and Gower. You couldn't ask for any more than that."

Gower had been earmarked to bat at No 3, but Gatting decided on the first morning that the pair of them should switch. Again, it is a lesson that Flintoff and Fletcher might heed: batting orders need not be set in stone. "I'd been batting [first-wicket down] at Middlesex and was quite happy with it, and David didn't seem to be in good form. You don't protect players like David, but if there was a little less shine on the ball, he would be the ideal one to capitalise on it and at the same time build up his own confidence.

"The other thing was that we caught all our catches. I'm not sure we dropped one in the entire series, and that was very significant.

"This England team has to hold its catches. It's a must. But more than anything, it's about their discipline. That's where the Australians are so strong: Glenn McGrath, for instance, whose bowling is so tidy. But England have talent and courage, and if they're as disciplined as the Australians, I think they'll retain the Ashes."

Twenty years ago, it was Gatting himself on the receiving end of advice from grizzled old-timers. He had been captaining Middlesex for a couple of seasons, and had skippered a Grade Cricket side in Sydney, but leading England out in Brisbane was a different proposition. However, he also had the invaluable pedigree of having played in the 1981 Ashes under the cerebral leadership of Mike Brearley, already a hugely influential mentor at Middlesex.

"When I was about 19, Brears came up to me in the middle of a session and said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'What do you think we should do, who should we bowl next?' He obviously felt I was drifting a bit and wanted me to concentrate more on the game. But more than that, asking me at the age of 19 what did I think we should do, all of a sudden he's got me as a bloke. After that I'll walk through walls for him. And it made think about the game in case he asked me again, so it was clever on two counts. The way he worked with people was phenomenal."

Of Gatting's own merits as a captain, my colleague Angus Fraser has told me that of all the men he played under - among them Gooch, Gower, Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart - "Gatt" was the best. "Work was work and play was play," Fraser summarised. "And he seemed to have a knack of making bowling and field changes at just the right time."

Gatting does not noticeably swoon with pleasure when I pass on Fraser's encomium: one, he is too long in the tooth to submit to flattery, and two, he is too busy spearing some deep-fried courgettes. But he concedes that there were times when he got it right, not least during Australia's second innings in the fourth Test in Melbourne when Allan Border was beginning to cut loose.

"Gladstone Small was bowling and it was a question of, do we have a third slip or a gully? In the end John Emburey went to third slip, and two balls later AB's had a big wind up at it, slashed it hard and only Embers could have caught it, getting up high with his left hand. It was a brilliant catch and, really, that particular wicket was what won the Ashes. I thought that if someone was going to go hard at the ball, it was more likely to go to the slips as there was a bit of bounce in the wicket, and Gladstone was bowling at a goodish pace. It was a hunch. Mike Brearley always said captaincy is about acting on your hunches, not thinking too much about them."

Gatting concedes that, had the current England captaincy been in his gift, he would have given it to Andrew Strauss, not to Flintoff. "Flintoff's like Botham, in that he can play a huge part with both bat and ball, but there's huge responsibility on his shoulders even without the captaincy. Not being captain enabled Beefy to stay out of the spotlight. It gave him time to wind down after a Test match. For that reason I would have given it to Strauss.

"Freddie did a great job in India and he will be fine if the off-field responsibilities are properly shared, giving him plenty of time off. But if not, it will be a problem."

Another potential problem, Gatting thinks, is the relatively little time England have to acclimatise to the fierce Australian summer. "We'd been there almost a month playing warm-up matches and we'd got used to the heat, or at least to dealing with it. It's not the same now. They don't want to be away from home for too long." Gatting says this matter-of-factly, not scornfully, but the charge of namby-pambyism is implied. "Brisbane is very, very humid," he adds, "and there's no hiding from the sun, so the bowlers have to be really well looked after and keep rehydrating. It's tough."

All of which compounds the achievement of 20 years ago, winning in Brisbane by seven wickets. And even more satisfying for Gatting than seeing the English doom-mongers being force-fed humble pie, was seeing the Aussies being hammered by their own media.

"I honestly believed that the Aussies thought that all they would do was turn up, bowl and we would lose. But the response from the Australian press was amazing. They seriously caned their players, I think because they were a little red-faced themselves at having been so confident. Their players never really recovered either, because our boys never really let them. That's another thing you have to do with the Aussies. Once your foot's on their throat you've got to keep it there. That's what we did [drawing the second and third Tests, then winning the fourth to take an unassailable lead] and their press couldn't quite cope with it."

It is nice to think that the Australian press might again be taken unawares by Pommie supremacy these next few weeks, but in a sense the Ashes will begin with the English foot back on Aussie throats. It is still only 14 months since a certain open-top bus tour through Trafalgar Square. On the other hand, memories of the golden summer of 2005 might be as burdensome as they are beautiful for Flintoff and his team. Can they play as well as that again? You have to assume that some of the players are wondering.

Gatting picks out Steve Harmison as a source of particular uncertainty. "I would like to see more consistency from him and the only way he can do that is by doing more work in the nets. When he's consistent he's a match-winner, and I think you can learn consistency."

Might Harmison have benefited by playing more for his county, I wonder? "Well, central contracts have been a good thing, but I think they have tipped the balance too far [away from the counties]. I also think that central contracts should be for players who are fit. I don't think Simon Jones warranted one. What he warranted was support from the ECB, saying, 'We are going to pay all your medical bills. Get yourself fit and as soon as you are fit you can have your contract back'."

And what of a rather slower member of the England attack, Monty Panesar? "I think he's going to be brilliant. I mean, what he has done so far is quite special, really. When was the last time a young spinner went to India, bowled against some of the best players of spin, in their own country on their own pitches, and bowled something like 35 overs, taking 2 for 90? You have to say he is very special. As for his fielding, he's already improved.

"And I think Duncan is good with players who need to improve in certain areas. He challenges them mentally to prove that they can work hard at it." So Gatting does not subscribe to Geoffrey Boycott's belief that Fletcher has had his day? "That's Boycott saying something mischievous to remind us all that's he's still alive and kicking. He's played the game long enough to know that if you've got an Ashes series and World Cup coming up then to sack the coach is suicidal."

By the time the conversation has embraced Shane Warne and his old nemesis Shakoor Rana, the light is fading over Enfield and Gatting needs to get home to prepare himself for a Middlesex groundsmen's dinner at Lord's, at which he is speaking. Will he declare himself too full, after a hefty lunch, to eat dinner? Probably not.

Whatever, the groundsmen are lucky to have him, for he remains one of the most respected England captains of recent times.

And yet, he captained England to victory only twice in 23 Tests. Happily, those two wins came in Brisbane and Melbourne. That's all it takes, Freddie, that's all it takes.