David Gower (left) and John Morris prepare to take the infamous Tiger-Moth flight over an Australian cricket ground during the 1991 England Ashes tour. Both were heavily reprimanded for the incident © Getty Images
On January 21, 1991, David Gower and John Morris left the cricket ground during a tour match against Queensland, hopped on a Tiger Moth at the nearby airfield, persuading the pilot to fly low over the field of action. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day when the classy batsman and his young teammate were severely penalised for their harmless caper.
England was not enjoying the best of tours. They had lost the first two Ashes Tests and drawn the third. In the three-nation Benson Hedges World Series, the tourists had lost four matches on the trot. Even the tour match against New South Wales held less than a week before the tie against Queensland had ended in an ignoble defeat by six wickets. The mood in the camp was morose, not exactly helped by the regimental, all-work-and-no-play attitude of captain Graham Gooch and coach Mickey Stewart.
However, it took somewhat more than defeats to subdue the spirits of David Gower. Besides, the left-hander, one of most esoteric timers of the ball in the history of the game, had been in sublime form. He had stroked his way to delectable hundreds in the second and third Tests even as the team had meekly surrendered.
So, when England was having a smooth run against Queensland, his spirits soared as he watched the biplanes flying over the Carrara Oval, a scenic venue on the Gold Coast. At lunch on the third day, with England showing some form, already leading on the first innings with five second innings wickets in hand, Gower fancied that he could do with some aviation. He mentioned his intentions to Robin Smith and Allan Lamb.
Smith was still at the wicket, closing in on a hundred. Lamb was yet to bat. However, standing nearby was the stylish Derbyshire middle-order batsman John Morris. The young man, just three Test matches old, had not played any Tests on the tour, but had seized the opportunity in the tour match by walking in at No 4 and scoring an impressive 132. In excellent spirits himself, he eagerly requested Gower to include him in the high-flying plans. It is quite revealing that although their career figures were diametrically different, Morris and Gower did have one thing in common. Both were born quite aptly on the first of April.
Gower had played with Gooch long enough to know that the austere captain would not really be delighted with the idea. So, Morris in tow, he left for the airport without a word to anyone else. The air-strip was close enough to the ground for the two to hasten back in case of a sudden batting collapse. On arrival, they checked to find that Smith and Lamb were still holding fort and took off on a pre-War Tiger Moth.
The planes were supposed to fly at heights over 2000 feet. However, Gower had charmed the pilot into flying much lower. The Tiger Moth hovered over the ground at something more like 200 feet. Lamb, having no doubt about the identity of the aviators, raised his bat like a gun and fired off a couple of rounds to shoot them down. But, the English dressing room remained blissfully unaware about the new ways two of their batsmen had devised to get on top of the bowling.
A banner proclaiming the innocence of David Gower and John Morris circles the WACA ground during the 1991 Test between England and Australia at Perth. This followed the infamous Tiger-Moth incident which effectively cost John Morris his Test career © Getty Images
However, luck did not favour the brave duo. Adrian Murrell, a photographer covering the trip, thought that he recognised the passengers through a telephoto lens. When the two made their way surreptitiously back to the dressing room, a rather suspicious Graham Gooch asked: “That wasn’t you two up there by any chance, was it?” Prompted by Gower, the two stuck resolutely to stout denial.
But, the damage had been done. One of the pilots had alerted the press and a circulating rumour claimed that Gower had intended to drop a water bomb on the pitch. The English team manager, Peter Lush, was asked for reactions – and he bristled with indignation.
The two adventurers were summoned for a hasty hearing in front of the team disciplinary committee. To the infinite chagrin of Gooch, Stewart and Lush, Gower and Morris were back at the airport to pose for another photographer, Graham Morris, who had missed the fly-by pictures.
From the shoot, Gower went directly to a dinner with David Firth, while Morris returned to the hotel. Gower observed later that Morris was: “John Morris puffed in shortly afterwards and was pounced on by this human volcano (Lush).”
A perceptibly nervous Morris dialled the restaurant and warned Gower that they were in hot water and that a choleric Lush was foaming at the mouth, demanding to see the curly haired stalwart at once. However, Gower already was tucking into a lavish dinner and splitting a bottle of 1987 McLaren Vale Chardonnay.
Besides, he had been around for more than a dozen years and was not eager to be intimidated by a top brass eager to instil military discipline.
When he finally waltzed back after his rendezvous, he found three hand-written summons from Lush, scripted in exponentially increasing degrees of peevishness.
Gower and Morris shuffled across to face the committee of captain, coach and manager. The three men looked at them with grim faces and set lips, the high school disciplinary committee written all over them.
Gower shrugged and provided them with the available options: “You can either be heavy about it or you can treat it as harmless prank.”The triumvirate had already decided on the former approach. And Gooch, from under his intimidating walrus moustache, voiced doubts about David Gower’s commitment.
According to the captain: “They let us down badly. What if the rest of the team, especially the younger ones, thought that sort of behaviour was par for the course?”
Gower recalled later: “Gooch and Stewart were very regimental in their dealings at the time. It was a one-rule-for-all-types regime, which didn’t allow someone to have a little bit of fun.”
It was indeed rather surprising that the immensely experienced Gower, an ex-captain and one of the greatest batsmen of his era, was not taken aside and dealt with separately rather than with a very junior player. In some ways it was a direct disregard for his credentials.
The severe punishment
The decision was delayed till the eve of the fourth Test. According to Lamb, the vice-captain, the disciplinary panel had considered sending both of them back home, finally overruled because the side was doing extremely poorly.
Gower and Morris were made to cough up a fine of £1,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by their contracts. For Morris, a junior player who received £15,000 for the whole four-month trip, that was quite a financial hit.
It needs to be remembered that Lush was the manager on tour during the infamous Mike Gatting – Shakoor Rana incident. The captain had walked away on that occasion without punishment for stretching the spirit of the game to the very limits. On the contrary, the entire team had been paid an extra £1,000 as hardship allowance.
Gower’s reactions were as casual and cool as his crisp strokeplay. When Lush informed him of the fine, while also unravelling his intention to issue a press release labelling the incident ‘immature, ill-judged and ill-timed’, the southpaw responded saying that he was over-reacting. To the press, Gower said that £1027 (the fine and the cost of the joy-ride) was a little too steep for a 20-minute flight.
There was some support for the pair in the press. Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote in The Cricketer : “One would hate to think that it has become a crime to enjoy a cricket tour.” David Firth, who had that excellent dinner with Gower on that fateful evening, wrote: “The fines should ensure that no England player in future will even dare to look up from his crossword puzzle while a match is in progress.”
For all Gower’s flamboyant reactions, decision did not go down well with him. The indifference for his seniority and feats cut him to the quick. His form plummeted to despairing depths. He scratched around for runs in the two remaining Tests, managing just 11 and 16 at Adelaide, and 28 not out and five at Perth. His relationship with Gooch, never cordial to start with, reached an absolute low. And after the tour, he played just three more Tests before his illustrious career came to a sad, deplorable end.
Morris, on his part, never played for England again.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)