Gough is back to his old tricks

Ian Stafford talks to a player who has recovered his self-belief in time for England's winter tour after extremes of feting and slating brought him low
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the space of just 24 hours Darren Gough knew that his fortunes had swung as dramatically as any of his wicket-taking yorkers. The venue, of all places, was Headingley, and the local and national hero strode confidently to the middle of the wicket, ready to do battle with the West Indies in the first Test of last summer.

This was supposed to be the young man's triumphant comeback. The year before he had emerged from relative obscurity to take the game by the scruff of its neck, not only taking wickets and scoring runs with Bothamesque outrageousness, but by doing it all with a big smile, wearing his heart, for all to see, on his flapping white sleeve.

He continued in similar fashion down under until, during a World Series match against Australia, he fractured his foot, and returned home to his waiting wife and new-born baby boy as the biggest name in British sport.

Now he was back, and boy, was he going to make an impact. The cricketing world held its breath and waited for the fireworks to begin.

"As I walked out of the pavilion and towards the square I received the loudest cheer possible," the 26-year-old Yorkshireman recalled last week as he prepared for this winter's England tour to Zimbabwe and New Zealand. "The first ball I received deserved to go for six. I was determined to play my usual game, and went for it. I was caught on the boundary, and as I walked back you could have heard a pin drop.

"I'd already injured my back while bowling, and only took one wicket in the match so, all in all, I wasn't prepared for the treatment I received the next day."

Which was what, exactly? "Well, I got murdered in the press for that one shot, but the headline that stuck out then more than any other, and which has stayed with me ever since, was the one that said: 'Idiot'."

In his previous Test match the boy whose nickname in the Yorkshire dressing- room is simply "Lege" (as in legend) hit the likes of Craig McDermott, the Waugh brothers and even Shane Warne to all corners of the Sydney Cricket Ground, before then tearing into Australia's world-beating top order to take 6 for 49. It was Boy's Own stuff, and the bobby-dazzler of English cricket had become a massive favourite with just about everybody.

On his return to Heathrow following the injury he was almost mobbed by the public and the media. Suddenly everybody wanted a piece of Darren Gough. "I was on cloud nine, and didn't have a care in the world," he recalled.

"Shoe companies were fighting over my signature, and I had 10 agencies approaching me. [He plumped for Advantage International, the worldwide group which, among others, looks after Steffi Graf and Jansher Khan]. I appeared on the bed with Paula Yates on the Big Breakfast, and was even asked to appear on Celebrity Gladiators. People kept warning me that, sooner or later, I'd be knocked down, but I wasn't really listening to them. I was having too much fun."

One Test, and six months later, he became an idiot. The contrast was incredible and, for a wide-eyed, naive man used to adulation, it all proved too much to take. If he did not know what was happening to him during his rise to household fame, then he was positively clueless when the downfall came knocking at his door.

"From the moment I read those headlines I never played the same way again," he admitted. "Of course, I should have just stuck to my natural game, but I tried to change both my bowling and batting. The same former Test players who had been writing about how great it was to see me emerge and playing the game my own way, were now queueing up to tell me, through the press of course, to change my game completely. I can assure them now that they have stayed in my mind, and will do so forever."

His performances, and perhaps more crucially, his confidence, waned. He wasn't exactly playing badly, but by his own, incredible standards, Gough had become an average player. "When I bowled I tried to change the angle of my foot as it landed because I was conscious of my injury, and I had begun to listen to all this conflicting advice," he explained. "And I became more cautious as a batsman which was just not my game at all.

"Mentally, I was in a mess. I used to say to my wife, Anne: 'What's gone wrong? Why's it all changed? What have I got to do?' She and my friends noticed a change in me. I've always been a pretty happy-go-lucky person, but I would become increasingly grumpy at home. I've always been a confident person, and after my start in Test cricket I had become super-confident. But now I could feel all my confidence disappearing and I was beginning to wonder if I had lost it completely."

Up to the Australia Test match Gough had played nine Tests and taken 44 wickets. Since then he has been picked for three further Tests, and taken none, in a stop-start period which has never seen the man fully fit. Much more of this and by now he could have been the subject for one of those "Where are they now?" features you read from time to time.

Instead, a fax from Shane Warne, no less, kick-started the change, and the comeback. Gough and the Aussie spinner had struck up a mutually admiring relationship down under, and after returning to Yorkshire in a wheelchair, Gough sent Warne a fax saying what a great honour it had been to play against him and the best team in the world. Last January, Warne returned the compliment.

"It was mainly from Shane, but some of the others in the Australia team put their names to it as well," Gough explained. "It simply said: 'To Darren Gough. Be natural, be yourself.' It meant a lot to me, and it also made a lot of sense."

Last summer Gough played his heart out for Yorkshire, in an injury-free season that saw him notch up his maiden first-class hundred, and bowl 565 overs, taking 17 wickets in his last two matches, which all helped to make him the Whyte & Mackay top bowler. His initial disappointment about failing to make the Test series against either India or Pakistan turned to relief.

"It's done me the world of good to be out of the limelight, to be able to play hard all season, and to have people supporting me again," he said. "I kept reading during the summer about how I should be playing for England, and I was thinking, 'Don't pick me, I'm happy as I am right now.' I needed a year to be out of it, in order to be completely ready for Test cricket again."

His inclusion in the winter tour to Zimbabwe and New Zealand suggests that he is. Does he agree? "I actually think I'm playing better than ever now, and I'm back to my carefree way of playing the game. I can recognise how much I've matured in the past couple of years. Looking back, I can't believe how naive I used to be, but I'm a lot more streetwise, and I tend to be able to tell who my real friends are now."

Of course, the past could remain as a millstone around the neck. He fully accepts that one, outstanding performance could drag it all up again. "If I have one good game and, say, score a fifty and take five wickets, what's it going to be like? Maybe I should aim for three wickets and a thirty to begin with, and then go on from there."

He also accepts that his crazy start in Test cricket could not, and should not have continued. "If it had stayed at the same level the pressure on me would have been immense," he conceded. "And I'm sure it would have placed a terrible strain on family life. I've missed the financial gains a little, but at least it's been a lot more settled at home, and my life has been in my own control."

So would he have changed anything? "Apart from the foot injury, no," he replied within an instant. "Do you know, I still watch videos of me playing for England in Australia, and it brings tears to my eyes. Do you want to know why? Because I did it against the best team in the world. If I never played again I can tell myself that I'd made it."

He looks a lot leaner these days, does Darren Gough. As we walk past the Headingley pavilion, I put it to him that perhaps he would rather now settle for a consistently good performance in Test cricket, rather than his crash, bang and out former existence.

He initially agreed, and then stopped walking. "Actually, no," he said. "If I'm honest, I want to be the main man again. I want to relive those moments again, and I'd rather have the occasional nightmare if it also meant I produced match-winning performances.

"That's what Botham and Hoddle did, my two sporting heroes. There were times when it went horrendously wrong for them, but they are remembered for winning matches almost single-handedly, aren't they? Well, I feel the same way, and that's how I'm going to play my game from now on. I'm back to the Darren Gough of 1994, not last year's version."

So, Darren, it is the first Test in Harare in December. England are 125 for 6 when you come out to bat. The first ball you receive is a long hop on the leg side. Now, and I want you to think about this one, what are you going to do?

He takes about half a second to reply. "I'll smack it for six, that's what I'll do." Welcome back, Darren Gough.