Darren Gough: A dazzling, entertaining cricketer; England and Yorkshire legend

Darren Gough © Getty Images

Darren Gough, born on September 18, 1970, is a former England and Yorkshire fast bowler and handy lower-order batsman. Jaideep Vaidya profiles the man who was called the pulse of the England dressing room during his time.
It is a huge pity that Darren Gough was probably born 10 years too early. Born in 1970, and having played majority of his cricket in the 1990s, a character Gough was unlucky to have been part of possibly the worst England cricket team of all time. The word ‘character’ has been deliberately used here, instead of the more clichéd ‘talent’, because Gough was such a wholehearted and colourful one. He was, as David Lloyd rightly termed, “the heartbeat of the England team”, always enjoying his cricket and doing his best to ensure that his mates enjoy it with him. Not once in his career did he ever have the fear of failure; he was as happy-go-lucky as they come. He was the sort of bloke who wouldn’t give a damn about homework or bother to find out who the opposition was. It didn’t matter to him; all that mattered was that he was going to have to take the ball and bat in his hand and deliver. And if he didn’t, never mind, there was always tomorrow.

That isn’t to say that Gough was an unserious cricketer who wouldn’t mind dabbling in mediocrity. You sure can’t say that about a man who became the first England cricketer to get 200 wickets in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and was, until James Anderson went past him in 2013, the country’s highest wicket-taker in the format. He was a very noticeable man on the field, built with a somewhat stocky frame and a unique bowling action to go along with it. He used to charge in, huffing and puffing like a freight train with his chest expanding and contracting faster than a marathon runner. His delivery stride would include a leap in the air coupled with a side-on action before delivering the ball. He wasn’t Allan Donald in pace, and neither was he Wasim Akram in swing, but he was just the right amount of both and made up for any shortcomings with the energy he brought to the game.

When English cricket was going through a severe bad phase after the retirement of Ian Botham and before the dawn of the Freddie Flintoff generation, Gough was the ‘go-to man’ for his captain. This wasn’t just because he was a capable bowling all-rounder and one of the best in the business, but also because of the influence he had on the dressing room, especially on the younger players towards the latter half of his career. “Gough was my trump card. He was our Botham,” wrote Nasser Hussain in his autobiography Playing with Fire. “When I became captain I’d identified certain people from whom I had to have 100 per cent support, and Gough was right up there in our team. I love him to death and think he has been arguably our most influential bowler since Botham, but he was also dangerous in that he was such a magnet and such an influence in the dressing room that the young players took notice of anything he said.” Gough was, as his autobiography is aptly titled, a ‘Dazzler’; and he very well knew it.

September 18, 1970 was a sad day for the world of rock’n'roll. It was the day when Jimi Hendrix was found dead at the age of 27 in his London home. However, as Gough would observe in his autobiography, “That date in 1970 may have been a bad day for rock’n'roll, but for the Gough family, and the cricket world in general, the more important event of the day was the arrival of Trevor and Christine’s first son, Darren.” Gough did not find out about his connection with Hendrix until much later, and when he did his reaction apparently was, “One legend goes, another arrives.” Gough was, on his own admission, quite the showman.

Born and raised in the Barnsley town of Yorkshire, Gough was immersed into sport right from the beginning. He excelled in football, cricket, rugby and athletics, and had a preference for the former growing up. He represented Barnsley youth teams, idolised Glenn Hoddle as a boy and had dreams of playing in the Premiership for Tottenham. However, those dreams were soon dashed when he realised that although he had the skill set, he did not have the speed that a midfielder ideally should.

So, young Gough concentrated on his cricket and went on to represent Yorkshire in various age groups, the Second XI and eventually the first team. On his First-Class debut in 1989, against Middlesex at Lord’s, Gough picked up three for 44 in the first innings, including his first wicket that came off just his eighth delivery, that of England international Paul Downton, followed by two for 46 in the second. It was enough for all the national newspapers to be talking about the new lad from Yorkshire, with the Daily Telegraph even going overboard by calling him the “son of a Barnsley rat-catcher”, which did not please Gough Sr. who was actually a pest control officer.

Gough did not quite live up to his billing of the next big thing as he went on to take just 24 championship wickets at an average of 41, which earned him the following comments in Wisden: “Darren Gough did little to justify the high hopes held for him.” In 1991, Gough could manage a grand total of 16 wickets at over 55, although on the batting front, he did perform better. Gough recorded his maiden First-Class half-century that year, against Northamptonshire, along with an unbeaten 60 against Lancashire that prompted Mike Watkinson to call him “the first white West Indian to play for Yorkshire” in an era when the white rose team shunned from recruiting foreign players. Gough would follow it up with a three-wicket haul in the same match.

In 1992, Gough did a little better, taking 25 wickets in 11 games at 36.40. After a miserable first half of 1993, his fifth professional season, where he managed just 16 wickets, Gough contemplated a move away from the club for the first time. He was growing increasingly demotivated and it had begun to take a toll on his fitness and lifestyle too. However, he was talked out of moving by girlfriend Anna who said that he should concentrate on getting fitter instead. Gough wrote: “I had been going through the motions for long enough. I wanted success in my cricketing life — and excitement. I had been confused about how I should be bowling. I did not realise that it was also about fitness and lifestyle. When your girlfriend tells you to get fit, you want to get fit for her. Yorkshire never gave me the kick up the arse that I needed. Anna did that.” And just like that, the second half of the season produced 39 wickets for Gough. He had gone from ‘Guzzler’ to Dazzler’, and an England call-up wasn’t far away.

Thus, after a stellar First-Class season where he took 55 wickets, and after a year or so of travelling with the England squad but being restricted to carrying drinks, Gough was to get his first England cap in a one-dayer against New Zealand at Edgbaston in May 1994. Not that a debut match wouldn’t be nerve-wracking, but Gough’s sense of anxiety was high since he hadn’t done so well at the venue in the past. It was a packed house, with 18,000-odd people present waiting in anticipation of the debutant, as compared to the few hundreds that turned up to watch the county fixtures. Gough’s skipper Mike Atherton didn’t help ease the pressure when he told the press that Gough was “England’s second-quickest bowler after Devon Malcolm.” England put on a modest 224 for eight batting first, Gough was not required to bat. Finally, he got the ball in his hand. “I took a long look around the ground, kissed the single lion on my sweater and charged in for all I was worth…I was pumped up and hoped all the adrenalin might add an extra yard.”

Facing him at the striker’s end was the legendary Martin Crowe. Gough’s first ball was dug into the ribs of the New Zealander; good start. The next ball, however, was a bad ball: it was short and wide and begged to be cut away to the boundary. Crowe tried to play the guiding shot down to third-man, but instead found the edge that was easily pouched by Alec Stewart at slip. “I could not believe it: a wicket in my first England over, and one of the best batsmen in the world, too.” Gough would then remove a settled Bryan Young with one of his trademark inswinging yorkers, and ended up with figures of two for 36 in his debut match; it could have been three had Chris Lewis not dropped a sitter in the deep.

England won by 42 runs and Gough was “in seventh heaven. This was why I’d played cricket all these years. This was where I belonged,” he wrote. The new chairman of the board, Ray Illingworth, also a Yorkshireman, and who had pushed for Gough’s inclusion in the team, noted: “Darren Gough is my sort of player. There aren’t many who are more positive, and he enjoys his cricket so much, there doesn’t seem to be the slightest fear of failure. Aggression, penetration — call it what you like, some bowlers have it and some don’t. That’s why I pushed for Gough.”

Darren Gough: A dazzling, entertaining cricketer; England and Yorkshire legend

Darren Gough took 229 wickets in 58 Tests for England at an average of 28.39 © Getty Images

Gough’s Test debut was to follow suit, at Manchester for the third and final match. Batting first, England had squandered an advantage of 104 for three to end up on 235 for seven when Gough strode out to the middle to bat alongside Phil DeFreitas. The unlikely duo carved out a defiant partnership of 130, which began tentatively but ended up in both trying to outdo one another in boundaries. Gough soon brought up his fourth First-Class half-century and was out stumped for 65 off 126 balls, including 10 boundaries; DeFreitas made 69 and helped England to a healthy total of 382. Gough was not done yet. “That 65 made me feel part of the team and I went out to bowl feeling that failure was not an option.” On the fifth legitimate delivery of his first over, Gough got Mark Greatbatch to duck out of the way of a short one, only to glove it to Graeme Hick at second slip. By the time the Kiwi innings ended 231 short of England’s total, Gough’s figures on debut read four for 47; he took two more wickets in the second innings, even as the match ended in a draw. Gough’s performance, at 23 years of age, was enough for him to be hailed as “the new Botham”.

That winter, in his first Ashes series, Gough ensured that he did his best to live up to the tag. At Sydney for the New Years’ Test of 1995, after coming in trailing 0-2, Gough had made two ambitious resolutions: not to lose a Test match to Australia in 1995 and not to get out in the middle of a Shane Warne hat-trick. The first resolution was already hanging in the balance when England found themselves shaking at 20 for three, before Atherton and John Crawley addd 174 for the fourth wicket. However, another collapse of four wickets for four runs was to follow, before Gough went out to bat at 197 for seven. “Fasten your seatbelts”, is what Gough told commentator Mark Nicholas, who had wandered into the England dressing room, before he went out to bat on Day Two.

“The next hour was heaven. I swung from the arse…and connected,” wrote Gough. “The Aussies got rattled and started moaning at Craig McDermott. ‘Bounce him.’ He did and that’s when I hooked him for six. Then I hit him back over his head. Finally, I pushed a single for my 50 and then gave the crowd that famous lasso salute, swirling the bat around my head. Of course I was carried away. The SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground) was full, I’d never heard a noise like it and I’d belted the cream of Australia’s bowling to all parts. I was out soon afterwards [for 51], caught hooking, but the whole mood of the game had changed,” as England went past 300. Wisden described Gough’s innings as a “jaunty innings of village-green innocence and charm.” Graham Gooch said that it was “just like having Ian Botham around,” to which Illingworth replied, “Don’t let us compare him to Beefy (Botham), Fred Trueman or anyone else. Let us just be happy we’ve got Goughie.”

Not yet satisfied, Gough followed up his thrilling half-century with six for 49 with the ball, all but completing his own Headingley ’81. “As the wickets fell, I realised that this was my Test. Everything I tried — yorkers, slower balls, off-cutters, leg-spin — worked. It’s a great feeling when anything seems possible. You must grab the moment, because it doesn’t happen that often in your career, however gifted you may be.” Perhaps Gough himself did not know how true those words would turn out to be. He was soon to be ruled out of the rest of the tour after cracking his foot, the first of the many injuries that would dog his career.

Injuries notwithstanding, Gough went on to become England’s first-choice strike bowler for Atherton, and later under Hussain and would be new coach Duncan Fletcher. Throughout the mid-late nineties, England were far from the top row of teams in world cricket and even languished at the bottom of the heap for a while. However, Gough’s mere presence in the dressing room was enough to provide them whatever little belief that they could perform well. “He provided the effervescent spirit and fun that stopped the team becoming too dour under Mike Atherton, or too intense under Nasser Hussain,” wrote Emma John in The Observer.

Gough crafted variations in his bowling to add to his ability of bowling fast and swinging it both ways: he soon developed a deceiving slower ball and also a nipping off-cutter. By the time he visited Australian shores again, he was good enough to become the first England bowler in over a hundred years to get an Ashes hat-trick, also at his beloved SCG, in front of a record turnout of 43,000. He was subsequently named Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1999. “In a team of brooders and worriers, he stood out for his bullish enthusiasm,” cricket’s bible wrote of him. “England need Darren Gough, and not just for his wickets.”

Under Hussain and Fletcher, Gough was part of a squad that won four series in a row between 2000 and 2001, the first time such a feat had been achieved since the time Mike Brearley was captain. Gough was Man of the Series at home to the West Indies, a historic triumph for England when the Wisden Trophy changed sides for the first time in 27 years, and also on the slow and sluggish wickets of Sri Lanka. No wicket was too flat for him.

Finally, after playing 58 Test matches and getting 229 wickets, Gough called it quits from the longer format in 2003 after another one of his injuries, this time to the knee. It brought an end to an unfulfilled and incomplete chapter in his career, majorly undone by injury, and it’s a pity that he could not go on to play more. If he had played 100, he would easily have gone on to break his idol Botham’s wicket tally in Tests (383). Nevertheless, he retired as one of England’s top 10 wicket-takers of all time in Tests and continued to play in the shorter format.

In January 2004, Gough parted ways with Yorkshire after 15 years and headed south to play for Essex, citing family reasons. He was only a shadow of his former self in the international arena after returning from his knee injury, but still had hopes of playing in the 2007 World Cup, after missing the 2003 edition. In 2005, Gough became the first of many England cricketers to participate in the reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing. The following year, he would play his final one-dayer before being dropped permanently from the squad, starting with the tour of India in the winter. Expressing his displeasure at the decision, he told the BBC in his typical style, “I’m disappointed because I think I am one of the best bowlers at the end of a one-day match. You can’t buy one of them at a local superstore — it takes years and years.”

In 2007, after much persuasion, Gough returned home to Yorkshire as captain, saying, “…they know I’ll run through brick walls for Yorkshire.” He played on for a couple of seasons before hanging up his boots once and for all, finally giving up on any hopes of an England call-back. Thus, Gough ended his international career as England’s most successful bowler in ODIs with 235 wickets at a miserly 26.42. The record has since been surpassed by James Anderson. In First-Class cricket, he took 855 wickets in 248 matches at 27.15 and scored 4,607 runs as well. If he were born 10 years later, he would easily have been one of the best bowlers in the world given England’s resurrection in the mid 2000s to a world beating side. Given his personality and swagger, he would also have made an exciting bowler in the shortest format of the game, Twenty20, which unfortunately rose to prominence much after his day. Gough, however, has no regrets except one. “To be successful against Australia was the one thing I dreamed of and I never achieved it and that’s a huge, huge disappointment in my life,” he told All Out Cricket in an interview.

Nevertheless, Gough will go down as one of England’s best fast bowlers, if not the world’s, and would always be remembered by his mates for being the life of the dressing room. Even though he hasn’t been involved in the game a lot after his retirement, never say never because this is a guy who once said, as quoted by BBC, “I still want to be playing some form of cricket when I’m 50. I’m sure some village pub team will have me. So many cricketers retire and say they’ll never pick up a bat again. I can never understand that.”

No one’s surprised, Dazzler.

In pictures: Darren Gough’s career

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)