Old man seeks fine swan-song

Martin Johnson reports from Perth as Graham Gooch approaches the final overs of his career in Test cricket
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Graham Gooch has never been regarded as an emotional man (he gets mildly animated when West Ham win a football match, and just about managed to raise his bat when he walked off at Lord's with 333 next to his name) but he will never be closer to a lump inthe throat than when he leaves the Test match arena for the 118th and last time here.

After the last World Cup, Gooch wrote to Alan Smith, the chief executive of the Test and County Cricket Board, asking (unsuccessfully) for the national anthems to be played before a match. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" he said. "Playing for your country."

Well, Gooch now realises that that is not what it's all about. It is playing for your country to the standards you have always set yourself. At 41, he considers that he is now not performing in the way that he used to, and although it is his batting thathe specifically refers to ("I can't accept getting 30s and 40s") it is as much his waning powers in the field which have really convinced him it is time to leave it to younger men. When he wore his pyjamas under the World Series floodlights, he looked as though he needed a cup of cocoa to go along with them.

"I'm history" is what he has taken to saying to his closest friends, and Gooch's international retirement marks the end of an era in which most of the great players of his generation (Botham, Richards, Gower, Border) have now gone. Unlike Gower, Gooch isnot looked upon as a natural treasure, and will be remembered with admiration rather than affection. However, such have been his achievements, latterly through adding complete dedication to his natural talents, that the nation has long since forgiven him for getting rid of Gower.

Today, Gooch overtook Gower as England's most capped cricketer, but in character they were poles apart. The opposition used to marvel at Gower, suspecting that the man who was busy creaming them through the covers had prepared for his innings with a glass of Bollinger and half an hour in a hammock, but they also knew who they would rather not be bowling to. Gooch.

Gower was never really in love with cricket, and in the latter stages of his Test career, even against the ancient Ashes enemy, Gower's idea of serious preparation was tackling the morning crossword. Gooch found this totally bewildering, never more so than in the Adelaide Test of 1991.

Gooch had been batting for four and a half hours when Gower crassly gave his wicket away to the last ball before lunch, and was so astonished that the other players were half-way through the soup course before Gooch finally dragged himself off the field.Gower had failed to meet Gooch's one unshakeable demand. You compete toe- to-toe with the enemy, and if the enemy proves to be the better man, so be it. But don't give it away.

Gooch's weakness, particularly as captain, was in failing to see that what worked for him did not necessarily apply to everyone else. The 1990-91 Ashes tour was a disaster for many reasons, but not least among them was Gooch's stubbornly misguided beliefthat all work and no play was the right away to go about a demanding three-and-a-half month tour.

"I am stubborn by nature" he said yesterday "and I expect players to share the same level of commitment as I do. I am not very tolerant of those who do not match up, and that's one of my failings. We all have faults, and my biggest fault is inflexibility.

"However, I have always taken enormous pride in playing for my country, and I think I'll be quite emotional at the end of this game. Test cricket has been a very big part of my life, and although I know it's right for me to leave it now, not being able to do it again will hit home hard when it's finally over."

Gooch does not consider that this final tour was a mistake, even though he said in India two years ago that he would "definitely not go abroad again." He said: "If I had scored a lot of runs out here, then I would probably not have called it a day. But Iset high standards for myself, and the enjoyment does go out of it a little bit if you are not doing as well as you want to.

"What I really want to see now is England winning Test series again on a consistent basis. On our day, as we proved in Adelaide, we can beat anyone, but we are clearly not consistent enough. We need players of character - people who will tough it out when they have to.

"I had my own methods, and they worked pretty well for me. What I failed to spot was that they were not ideal for everyone. There is no such thing as the right system. If you go to the pub every night and win, then that's the right system. If you do 1,000 press ups every night, then that's the right system."

Gooch can see much of himself in the current captain. Although Atherton is much less inflexible with individuals, he too is a stubborn character, and it is no coincidence that both have improved their personal performances through added responsibility. Without the captaincy, Gooch averaged 36 and Atherton 35. With it, Gooch averaged 59, Atherton 52.

"He has proved himself to be a tough nut in a short space of time," Gooch said, "and I hope he is a long-term appointment. There is no mileage in chopping and changing captains, although Mike will ultimately depend, as I did, on the players he has under him."

Gooch has achieved virtually everything by hard work.

Essentially a shy, reserved man, he has even turned himself into a highly entertaining after-dinner speaker, although his public persona as a round-shouldered, morose sort of character would not be recognised by his closer aquaintances. "I do look a bit miserable," he said, "but once people give you the label it is fairly difficult to shake off."

However, Gooch's shuffling gait, hangdog moustache and persistent claims that he began his career opening the batting with Methuselah, disguise a far cheerier soul with a nice line in dry wit. When he described his 333 against India as "OK", it was a deliberate understatement from a bloke who was actually highly elated, but, as he said at the same press conference to the photographer who asked him for a smile: "Can't do that. It would ruin the image."

He would like, he says, to be remembered as someone who always gave his best, but who above all provided entertainment. "If people have enjoyed watching me bat, then it's obviously something that gives you a good feeling."

He will still, of course, be batting next summer for his beloved Essex, and, in county cricket at least, it is difficult to see him ever calling it a day. Some of us have this mental picture of a hunched, balding figure with a white moustache, shuffling into the press room having just eclipsed Jack Hobbs' record of 100 hundreds after his 40th birthday, and being asked what it feels like. He will look faintly embarrassed, appear to give it enormous thought, and in that familiarly high-pitched voice of his say: "Yeah. Not bad for an old 'un."