Free spirit aiming to haunt his old mentor

Cricket: England will be leaning heavily on Yorkshire's Darren Gough this season. He spoke to Martin Johnson
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The Independent Online
Darren Gough has never properly said thank you to Richie Richardson for kick-starting a career that involved yo-yoing between Yorkshire's first and second XIs and an even more glamorous winter occupation shifting traffic cones around a variety of road works on the M62.

However, Gough plans to put that right this summer, and if the West Indian captain might regard receiving an extra quota of rapid bouncers and toecrushing yorkers as a somewhat curious demonstration of gratitude, Gough would like him to know that he should regard it as a compliment.

Gough has a habit of reserving a bit extra for the batsman he regards as the biggest danger to his side. Last winter Gough deliberately targeted David Boon, and this summer he is keen to reassure Richardson that his recent decision to become the last remaining Test batsman to convert from cloth hat to helmet was a wise one.

Brian Lara is clearly the tourists' best batsman, but Gough recognises that the best way to damage West Indian morale is to puncture the confidence of the captain. Whether or not Richardson is flattered by this accolade, he will certainly recognise the irony if Gough begins fizzing a few deliveries past his visor this summer.

Gough himself recalls the day, three years ago, when Shaun Udal came down the pitch to hit him back over his head in a Yorkshire-Hampshire match, and Richardson wandered over from the slips. "Don't let him do that to you," he said. "I've seen you in the nets, and you've got the talent to bowl fast. Why don't you do it?"

From that moment, Gough abandoned the path to medium-paced anonymity trodden by so many English bowlers, and he also discovered that he had the mentality to be a quick bowler. When Allan Donald hit him a painful blow on the hand during last summer's Lord's Test, Gough stomped into the dressing-room and demanded a pen and paper. With his wrong hand (the other one was too swollen to grip the pen) he scrawled: "Donald Dies", and placed it inside his kit-bag.

Donald, happily, did not die, but it was a pivotal moment in the birth of Gough as a genuinely quick Test match bowler. "I would hate to be a slow bowler," Gough says. "The thing about being fast is that if someone bounces you, you can always get them back."

"It was not all that long ago, however, when Gough generated most of his speed from a knife and fork. "Dazzler", as he is now known, once revelled in the slightly less flattering soubriquet of "Guzzler", and Rodney Marsh's description of English bowlers as "pie-throwers" certainly would not have applied to Gough. If he had a pie in his hand, he didn't bowl it, he ate it.

It was his wife, Anna, who brought home to him that a certain amount of self-discipline is an essential ally to talent, and Gough's still generous figure is now mostly muscle. Scarcely a day goes by without him entering a gym, and it is his upper body strength, he says, from which he generates his pace.

The other thing that Gough generates more than most is ebullience. Australians love an extrovert (which is why Merv Hughes was so popular long before he became a class bowler) and Gough last winter became that rarest of animals (Ian Botham was another) of a Pom being applauded for the way he played his cricket rather than the team he represented.

Whenever he took a wicket (particularly the two he captured with disguised leg breaks) Gough usually completed at least one orgiastic lap of the square before sharing his pleasure with his team-mates, indulged himself with some left-handed switch hitting ("I won't do it too often, because if it turns out to be a full length ball, I'm screwed") and when he was running between the wickets, could rarely resist watching himself doing so on the giant video screens.

"Glenn Hoddle was my sporting hero," he says, "and I try to be as free spirited with my cricket as he was with a football. You've got to enjoy it, because, let's face it, cricket can be a boring game at times, and I like to liven it up.

"Nothing I do out there is planned. I don't work to a script. It just happens. To be honest I rarely realise what I've done until I see it again on video, and while I'll do one or two things that might embarrass me, that's the way I want to be.

"I enjoy my cricket, and nothing was more frustrating than having to come home early from Australia. They're a competitive lot, but I didn't get too many verbals from them. On the rare occasions I did, I'd just laugh at them. If anyone ever chirps me, it just fires me up.

"Personally I didn't feel that we were that much behind them last winter, it's just that when they sniffed an opening they went and took it. It surprised me that Australia beat the West Indies, but I don't believe that it will make any difference to the series this summer. If we play well we'll beat them. If they play well, they'll beat us. Simple."

As for the extrovert side of his character, it rarely shows off the field. Comparisons with Ian Botham extend beyond the actual cricket, but Gough is not the sort to go around pouring beer into team-mates' boots, or craving loud company at the bar. He is more likely to indulge in a quiet meal, or a trip to the cinema, and the off-field comparison starts and ends with the fact that they both have a son named Liam.

As for on the field, he says: "You're talking about a bloke with 380 Test wickets against one with 37, and a Test No 6 as opposed to an 8 or 9. I don't mind batting higher in one-day cricket, though, which is a form of the game I enjoy just as much.

"There's a lot more skill involved in one-day cricket than the game is credited for. If you don't bowl tightly you'll get slapped, and you have to improvise when you're batting. You only have to compare the crowds to realise that first-class cricket is not a big enough attraction for some people, and one-day cricket has the extra energy they enjoy."

It is Gough's extra energy which makes him, given that England have too often betrayed themselves in that area, one of the most important cogs in the side this summer, and England will be looking for the sort of approach which launched them to a spectacular victory over South Africa in last season's Oval Test.

Keith Fletcher, it is alleged, conveyed a steady stream of "calm down" signals from the balcony when Gough and Phillip DeFreitas were launching into Donald, although they were never going to have much of an impact on Gough, who, before walking out to inflict similar punishment on Craig McDermott last winter, was asked by a Sky TV presenter how he intended to approach the situation. Gough replied: "Hang on to your seat-belt."

He added: "I don't much care for people telling me how to bat. If someone tells me how to play when I'm out there batting, I don't listen anyway. I've got my own theories [he once said that he always imagined he was a West Indian when he was batting] and as they've worked out reasonably well so far, I'll stick to them."

Another part of Gough's charm is that he manages to convey this example of how he thinks the game should be played without any arrogance, and those who know him say that his exposure to the limelight has not resulted in either foot leaving the ground.

Earlier this season, when a group of suited and tied Yorkshire players gathered in the hotel lobby for an excursion to celebrate Martyn Moxon's birthday, Gough turned up in casuals.

"Am I all right like this, or should I change?" he whispered into one or two ears, which was the sort of thing you would expect from a junior pro rather than someone just entering the world of agents and sponsorship deals.

Gough himself is in no doubt that he can cope with the attention. "Being written about and talked about has not affected me at all, really. I've been around long enough now to know that you can see your name in the paper one day, full of nice comments, and the next day, they're giving you stick. The thing to do is not to pay serious attention to either, but just get on with it.

"I admit I like being in the spotlight. Everyone wants to know you, and it's nice. But you've got to remember the ones who wanted to know you before you got where you are, and be good to the people who have helped you get there."

Gough, in fact, will only admit to a single occasion when he took any notice of a newspaper article. It was when an English journalist combined a reference to Gough with the blanket observation that all fast bowlers are stupid by nature, and Gough threw the paper across the room. "I don't mind him saying I'm a crap bowler," he snorted, "but I bloody well object to being called thick."