It hurts, but Goochie must go: The England cricket captain risks ending up as a tabloid turnip, says Jim White

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ON SUNDAY, during the final Texaco one-day international at Lord's, Graham Gooch took a dolly of a catch. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, for a man whose catching ability was such that he was once widely assumed to have a pair of buckets attached to his wrists. But his reaction to it was instructive. He collapsed into the arms of a colleague in relief.

Graham Gooch has had so little contact with success recently that it was no wonder he was bowled over by astonishment at its sudden return. It was, however, to be a brief re-acquaintance. His team proceeded to rehearse the hapless self-destruct exercise that has become their trademark under his leadership, abdicating their way to a seventh successive one-day international defeat. Gooch himself, despite one or two flourishes that reminded us of his prodigious talent, scored 42: the 17th time on the trot he has failed to make 50 for England. And he is a captain who leads by example.

It is inconceivable, with a track record of failure like this, that Will Carling would remain as England rugby captain, or Graham Taylor stay in charge of our footballers. Yet there is Goochie, still at the helm for the first three matches of the Ashes series this summer, looking about as athletic in the field as Baloo the Bear, his shoulders set in that familiar droop of defeat, his flat press conference delivery talking of ills that can be cured by nothing more than graft, graft and, er, more graft. And it is no good comforting ourselves that this was only the one-day series he lost. A catastrophic atmosphere of defeat has seeped into the England dressing room, which will be impossible to dissipate before the Test series. Imagine what that will do for national morale. Imagine being English in Sydney this summer, there will be little consolation in jokes about zinc nose cream. Let's pray for rain.

It is an atmosphere of defeat impossible to dissipate; that is, with Graham Gooch at the helm. Goochie must go. And with him Fletcher, Dexter, Uncle Dennis Amiss and all those who have created a cricket regime that makes John Major's government look competent. We don't care about Dexter and his chums, of course, but to say that about Gooch hurts. He has to go, however, not just for the sake of English cricket but for his own wellbeing.

At the moment the headlines still contain a hint of affection ('Time to Texa-go Goochie' was the Sun's), but it will take no more than a defeat in the first Test for things to turn. And, as anyone who saw his wonderful innings of 333 against India in 1990 will agree, no one deserves to be called a vegetable less than Graham Gooch.

You would never realise it from his body language, but Gooch's problems are no more than nine months old. In April 1992, by a combination of professionalism and verve, England almost won the World Cup. But then, after narrow defeat in an acrimonious summer series with Pakistan, came India.

Of all the places Graham Gooch, a reluctant tourist at the best of times, didn't want to lead his troops, it was to the sub-continent last winter. A previous England trip there had been cancelled when the Indians refused to play against a team including Gooch, who had recently returned to the international side after a ban for leading a tour to South Africa. Moreover, his marriage was on the point of collapse. After lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiation, Gooch managed to excuse himself from the Sri Lankan leg of the trip. So our boys arrived in Delhi with a captain - a leader, remember, by example - who did not want to be there. They proceeded to prove their solidarity with their boss, slipping to the most supine series of defeats in England's chequered history. Worse, Gooch talked himself into an embarrassingly dispirited corner. Lacking, perhaps, the public relations skill to appear gracious in defeat, he blamed the smog, the dust, the seafood.

Oh for a swashbuckler in the mode of David Gower, at least to go down gloriously. But Gower wasn't there, Gooch didn't take him to India, unable, it seemed, to accommodate his free spirit in a side stuffed with hard-working journeymen. And, as India proved, the trouble with hard-working journeymen is that when hard work proves insufficient, they have nothing more to give.

Gooch has remained captain despite the unprecedented disaster of India, largely because there is no obvious alternative. For this, Gooch, who is no Mike Brearley, must take some responsibility. Gower is not the only player whom he could not fathom: a generation of potentially match-winning young players - Tufnell, Atherton, Ramprakash, Malcolm - have failed to flourish under his tutelage. In the past, Gooch's own performances have disguised the shortcomings around him. But now, touching 40, he seems to have run out of form altogether. After the game on Sunday, he announced proudly that he would attempt to recover it in a game for Essex's second eleven. Another PR disaster. Success by the England skipper against Somerset's second-string attack is hardly designed to make the Aussie camp take to their XXXX in dismay.

Graham Gooch is a brave, determined man. He has come back from humiliation before: on his debut against Australia in 1975, he scored a pair; his triple century came a year after some torrid Ashes performances when he played Terry Alderman with all the confidence of a novice ice-skater. But seeing him lollop hopelessly, defeatedly, around Lord's on Sunday, it seemed inconceivable that he would finish the summer as anything other than a tabloid turnip. Which is no swansong for a hero.

(Photograph omitted)