Brilliant but fallible, swashbuckling but reserved: David Gower is the sort of hero that sport no longer admits. And more's the pity ...

Giles Smith
Sunday 27 August 1995 23:02

David Gower OBE, the former captain of the England cricket team, is sitting in the Presidential Suite on the top floor of a small but rather perfectly formed central London hotel. It is the day before the commencement of the final Test match between England and the West Indies and Gower, who commentates on cricket for the BBC, has come up from his home in Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is seated at one of the room's many glossy, repro rosewood surfaces, on the phone to his agent, planning ahead to this winter and England's tour of South Africa, which Gower will be covering for Sky Sports. There is talk of departure dates and houses to stay in and much shuffling of an impressive, ledger-size diary. He tells his agent, with no particular emphasis: "I may just disappear into the bush for four days at the end, I'm not sure."

The aura Gower gives off these days is businesslike, at least as it extends to his clothes and accessories. Not for him the ever-present shellsuit of the retired tennis pro or the loudly leisured look of the ex-footballer. He is wearing a crisp shirt and a navy suit redolent of sales meetings in Birmingham and Trusthouse Forte conference rooms. He is going the modern route - from swashbuckling sportsman to media personality. Next month, in a kind of apotheosis, Gower becomes one of the regular team captains (the other is his friend Gary Lineker) on They Think It's All Over, a new television quiz show - based on the original Radio 4 version - which, according to Gower, is "Have I Got News for You meets A Question of Sport and goes down a different road altogether".

It would be fair to say that brisk efficiency characterised neither Gower's England captaincy nor, from time to time, his own playing style; and nor, more to the point, was he especially interested that it should. He became in 1989 the first captain of any Test team to preside over eight successive defeats and was promptly replaced by Graham Gooch. At the same time, he is England's second highest Test match runs scorer, the veteran of 18 Test centuries. He is also one of the most graceful, fluid and popular batsmen ever to stand at the crease, and a gentleman to boot - even if these qualities came at the price of some hesitancy. This is the player of whom Martin Johnson, this newspaper's cricket correspondent, once wrote: "It is as much as he can do to decide which pair of socks to pull on in the morning." In retirement, this no longer seems to be Gower's problem.

"If you acknowledge early enough that there's going to be a finishing day," Gower says, moving now to the suite's dining table and dispatching at great speed a room service club sandwich, "then it doesn't have to be a shock when it arrives. In my last years as a player, I was already doing a little bit of writing and radio. So it wasn't a big change, just a change of emphasis."

It's the dilemma facing pretty much any sportsperson - the brief career span, the retirement (in Gower's case, two years ago at the age of 36) and the construction of a life thereafter. From captain of England to captain of a quiz team: you don't need to be a psychologist to see that this is a shift which might take some adjusting to.

But Gower seems to be coping well, certainly filling that giant diary. He has just come from Lord's cricket ground, from a lunchtime party for a large-format picture book marking 100 Cornhill-sponsored Test matches. Gower has contributed a foreword, which is game of him, given that the volume contains at least two full-page, full-colour plates depicting the author wincing in front of a crushed wicket. But there are images of triumph, too, most notably a balcony scene from 1985 showing Gower in a storm of champagne, holding up the tiny Ashes trophy as a leering Ian Botham empties a can of Castlemaine XXXX over his head.

By contrast with Botham, Gower always appeared to have a subtle, faintly angelic demeanour. Only the blue eyes, which are shockingly bright, suggesting mischief. As a county player at Leicestershire, he was mocked in the dressing room for his possession of Genesis albums, but other satirical angles were hard to find. Rory Bremner, in a stage show, once attempted an impression of Gower but was greeted with general bafflement in the audience: there is little in that way to hook on to, just a quiet and considered tone with a nicely judged flicker of irony. The side of Gower that famously led him, during a bored moment in Australia, to buzz his fellow batsmen in a light aircraft, seems to be carefully guarded. He needs to be with friends and off duty and only then will he - as he did in 1990 - take an Opel Vectra hire car for a drive at night across a frozen lake near St Moritz, hit thin ice and sink the car altogether to the lake's bed.

Aside from the opportunity to travel and fly small planes, why would anybody wish to be captain of the England cricket team? The job is, after all, for a good 90 per cent of the time, unadulterated 24-carat grief. It is also one of the great comedy roles, a realm of never-ending haplessness. Gower says there were so many media duties pendant upon him as captain immediately following a day's play that the dressing room would often be empty by the time he got back there, the rest of the team long gone.

"There's still, though, a lot of status in being England's cricket captain. And there are very few circumstances in which you could turn it down. Anyway, everyone who gets to that stage automatically has a feeling that they can make it succeed. The problem is, you're more vulnerable than other sporting captains because of the nature of the sport. Will Carling, Gary Lineker, Linford Christie - most of what they do is done behind closed doors. But the England captain has to stand there and point a bit and change the bowlers and move the fielders and make declarations and all the rest of it. The things you do off the field - the team talks in the dressing room, the private chats with the players in the hotel, whatever - no one knows about."

When he retired from county cricket at Hampshire in 1993, the public was still shouting for his England recall. But by then, he had fallen out terminally with the management. It was suggested he was bad for team discipline - planes, hire cars etc. In the early Nineties, under the captaincy of the generally dour and workmanlike Graham Gooch, Gower regularly found himself either unpicked or in dispute. Chilly words like "professionalism" and "dedication" were bandied about. No one seemed to be having much fun - and fun was, quietly, probably Gower's chief motivation. Gooch lectured Gower on several occasions about his commitment and his absences of mind. Gower would parry by pointing to his record as a run-scorer. Gooch reflected ruefully in his autobiography that Gower was "my biggest failure of man- management". The pair have preserved cordial relations but, Gower says, "agree to differ".

The alarming thing about Gower's passing out of the game was that he was the kind of hero - brilliant but fallible - which sport seems increasingly reluctant to admit.

"I was never destined to be on the ball 100 per cent of the time. I don't have the same ability that Graham Gooch has, to produce something very close to his best every time he plays. There were Test matches where I suddenly felt, at the end of it, 'Well, I wish I'd really been at that one.' And people say, 'You're representing your country, a pinnacle which millions aspire to; the least you can do is to be switched on when you get there.' But there were days where something was wrong and I knew full well.

"Sometimes it would be a question of feeling tired and lethargic at the beginning of the day. Right at the last moment, you might be walking out to bat and thinking, 'Come on, you can do this.' Or sometimes you would get clues that things weren't right. There are days when you stand there at the crease, before you've even faced a ball, and feel absolutely perfect. Your stance is good, you can see the first ball perfectly comfortably. But there are days when your stance feels completely different. You've put your feet in the same place, but it feels wrong. Now, I played in 117 Tests and you'd think the odd lapse might be excusable. But modern sport says it's not excusable."

At least commentary is more forgiving. The BBC team's stalwart, Richie Benaud, Gower says, has given him all manner of advice, not least of all the tip that, "if you speak gibberish instead of English, don't worry, because it's gone. Let them worry about it at home. And the chances are they'll think: 'Did he really just say that? No, he can't have done.' "

"Every now and again," Gower says, "I get a twinge. Mostly when it's looking pretty easy. This summer, watching England play at Trent Bridge on a fairly flat track, I thought, 'Maybe I could do this still.' But then watching them battle away on a fiery pitch at Edgbaston, I could believe that I made the right decision at the right time. And despite the fact that the commentary position at Edgbaston is old and cramped, I thought, 'I'm a lot better off in here than I would be fending off West Indies bowlers on a nasty pitch.' "

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