David Gower: A batsman whose feats are better chronicled by poets and painters than sports writers

David Gower… was all grace at the crease © Getty Images

April 1, 1957. The birth of David Gower, a batsman of surreal beauty at the crease. Arunabha Sengupta relives the ups and downs, sublime joys and sudden dismays of his sparkling career.

“Oh what a princely entry,” gushed John Arlott as David Gower’s lithe and lissom form stepped back with aeons to spare and pulled the first ball faced in Test cricket for four. “And if that doesn’t please him he must be a very odd young man along with being a brilliant one,” Arlott continued.

Of course, the youth from Leicestershire, perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing batsman ever to brandish a willow for England, was delighted with his emphatic beginning. Later, speaking about the boundary hit off Pakistan’s medium pacer Liaquat Ali, Gower was not too eager to make much of it.  “Imran was not playing, barred through Kerry Packer, and had he delivered the same ball on the same length as dear old Liaquat, they might have been picking bits of me out of the fence as opposed to the ball. I might not have been so keen to unveil the pull shot first ball against an Imran or Andy Roberts. Pakistan attack at that time could hardly be equated with that of the West Indies when Graeme Hick arrived at the wicket in 1991.”

Yes, David Gower never seemed to take himself and his phenomenal gifts too seriously. And it often made the English cricketing establishment totter dangerously on the brink of apoplexy, turning Graham Gooch crimson above his Zapata moustache. The image of Gower remained that of a supremely gifted batsman who more often than not threw away his wicket after some exquisitely timed strokes that echoed with the sound of genius and untold promise. The press labelled him ‘laid back’. Frances Edmonds wrote that it was difficult to be more laidback without being comatose. This in turn made even the blithe spirit behind the sublime left-handed grace frown in annoyance. Gower hated this term that seemed to trivialise his contributions. After all, he was the greatest English batsman of his generation — even taking into account the late flowering of the workmanlike willow of Graham Gooch.

That the tag bothered him was common knowledge. On the Saturday morning of David Gower’s 100th Test, the inimitable Brian Johnston asked him whether he would like to have any ‘two words’ erased from his career. Gower sidestepped the question with a response as scintillating as any of his classic drives through the cover: “Yes, ‘caught Dujon’.”

It was prophetic too. On the Monday of the Test, Dujon caught him for the second time in the match. And Gower’s close mate Chris Cowdrey, the captain of England for the Test in that summer of four skippers, informed him that he would not be playing in the Oval match.

Fun, style and excellence

Three years later, he had added four hundreds and more than a thousand runs to his handsome Test record, all at a pretty fair clip, when the guillotine that had hovered above his blonde curls finally came slamming down and his career was cut off forever. It is quite astounding that during the eighties and early nineties, a period when English cricket was wallowing in the muck of indignity, a player of David Gower’s calibre could be dropped multiple times. Not even the most gifted for the Mother Country — even among the many South Africans recruited shamelessly — had a fraction of his gifts, consistency and record. However, his reputation for being laidback eventually caught up with him. The most noticeable fingerprints on the cruel knife that severed his glittering name from the English fortunes belonged to Graham Gooch and Mickey Stewart.

The Gooch-Stewart regime as captain-coach had heralded a new austere era for English cricket, in which — according to Gower — “Running around the block counted more than runs on the pitch.”Gower had scored 407 runs in five Ashes Tests in Australia at 45.22 with two hundreds. But, he was considered to have that celebrated malaise that management has forever hidden behind while surreptitiously shooting down talented individuals who did not see eye to eye with them – namely, ‘attitude problem’. Of course, a ride on the Tiger Moth during a tour match did not help his cause.

Gower just had the time to drive Aaqib Javed through the covers in the next series to overtake Geoff Boycott and take on the mantle of the highest run scorer in the history of English cricket before he was informed that he would not be making it to India — a tour that ended in a 0-3 brown-wash against England.

This very achievement jars somewhat with the perennial problems that team managements seemed to have with the man throughout his career. It is true, his sojourns at the crease often hastened to contrived self-manufactured ends after tracing ethereal peaks of batsmanship. Granted, Gower played his cricket with a smile that seldom disappeared with the most atrocious downfall at the wicket. But, who can amass 8231 runs at 44.25 with 18 hundreds in the mean period of 1980s without there being certain amount of steel beneath that flow of artistic flair and whims?

From the time he scored an unbeaten 98 against Australia at Sydney in 1979-80, Dennis Lillee, that most competitive and nasty of fast bowlers, always had immense professional admiration for him. Gower led England in one of the rare victorious tours of India in 1984-85, and a triumphant Ashes campaign in 1985 plundering over 700 runs in the 3-1 victory. One wonders if these could be achievements of a happy go lucky reveller who did not play the game hard enough to justify a place in the side.

Gower’s batting was always fun, style and excellence. And as his records show, they did bear as much — and often far more — positives as the grumpiest of stonewallers to blot the landscape of the game.

And when he did flow, it made cricket the noble sport one revelled in soaking up while sitting in the sun.

Henry Blofeld was not the greatest admirer of the maestro, but a typical Gower hundred had him in ruptures of delight, crooning, “If Shakespeare had seen the innings, he would have written a sonnet on it.”

Gower’s batting was sublime art in action. Like the greatest of performing arts, when the gifted artist was on stage it seemed the easiest of things in the world. The underlying grind that produced it often escaped notice, and led to that sneering denunciation of ‘laid back.’

It was nothing of that sort. Gower was one of the very best in business.

Ups and downs

Gower made his debut for Leicestershire in 1975, spending much of his formative days sharing the dressing room with Ray Illingworth. His Test debut followed in 1978 at Edgbaston, and the pull of Liaquat Ali kicked off a fluent innings of 58.Another half-century followed at Lord’s, and when New Zealand visited later in the summer, Gower brought up his first Test hundred.

Another century followed during his first Ashes tour, against a depleted Australian unit of 1978-79. And when he was back to play India in the summer, Gower hit a glittering unbeaten 200 at Edgbaston.

The following season — during one of the most difficult tours of West Indies — Gower made 154 not out at Kingston, launching a fierce counter-attack against the four pronged pace attack, targeting Colin Croft in particular, and saving the match after England had been struggling at 32 for 3.

There ensued a period when he got plenty of starts without converting them into big scores. The grit and application had been in full display in the Caribbean, but his natural free-flowing style with a sequence of promising starts continually had the ‘laid back’ label following him around.

Yet, in 1982, a stiff neck suffered by Bob Willis propelled him to the helm of the side, leading England for the first time at Lord’s against Pakistan. As usual, Gower looks back at this outing without taking himself or his leadership too seriously. England lost the Test, the only reversal in their 2-1 series win.

He recalls in his autobiography: “Mohsin Khan was so strong off his legs, I thought it might be a good idea if our bowlers concentrated on a line just outside his off stump. The plan worked so well that Mohsin was tempted to go for one or two rash shots on the off-side, and he kept smashing it through the covers for four, which was a trifle disappointing. Eventually, Chris Tavare came up to me and said, ‘I think we’ve seen enough of his weakness, why don’t we try bowling to his strength?’  So we did, and got him out caught at square leg for a modest 200.”

The press was not very critical in those early days of his captaincy. What they did not know was revealed in the memoirs: “We probably lost the game on the fourth evening in a French restaurant in St John’s Wood. Needing one run to avoid follow-on, and the No. 11, Robin Jackman, at the crease on zero, Gower, (Allan) Lamb, and Jackman all trooped off for some French cuisine with their respective partners, and not being a superstitious sort of trio, we all plumped for the breast of canard. Duck. Next morning, first ball — a big in-swinging yorker from Imran, Jackman lbw zero. There then followed a stirring speech from the acting captain — Agincourt, the whole bit – and about an hour later, we were 50 for five. All five to Mudassar, including Lamb zero, Gower zero.”

Well, the batting of Gower was far more substantial than the tone of his reminiscences.  Centuries did follow in Adelaide and at home against New Zealand. And when he got a chance to lead again — at Faisalabad against Pakistan — he scored 152 in a draw.

David Gower: A batsman whose feats are better chronicled by poets and painters than sports writers

Celebrations… (from left): Allan Lamb, Mike Gatting, Ian Botham, David Gower and Paul Downton celebrate winning the Ashes for England at The Oval, 1985 © Getty Images

Captaincy lows, highs and lows

As the regular captain of England, his start got off disastrously. The West Indian juggernaut rolled over English grounds in 1984 and the home side was trampled 0-5 under the formidable all-conquering wheels. Runs dried up from Gower’s bat as well, but he managed to hold on to the post of captaincy.

The runs did not flow for long, but his conquest of India was a success. England won 2-1 in the Tests and 4-1 in the One-Day International (ODI) series. The start had not been easy. Within moments of their landing in the country, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated. There was a dark shadow over the tour, and players feared cancellation, anti-British feeling, riots and stray incidents. Gower, for the first time, was forced to take a stern stance. And it bore fruit. In spite of losing in Bombay in the first match of the series, England won at Delhi – due to some casual hitting by Kapil Dev and Sandeep Patil — and after 11 Tests Gower went to the press conference for the first time as the winning captain. England won the fourth Test at Kanpur to take the series.

Back home, Gower enjoyed the best season of his career, a summer when nothing went wrong. The Ashes was won by a 3-1 margin, and Gower scored 86 at Lord’s, 166 at Trent Bridge, 215 at Edgbaston and 157 at Oval.

The face of the England captain that exults from the famed picture, where he has just caught Wayne Phillips off Phil Edmonds after a rebound from the instep of Allan Lamb, tells us the story of that dream summer. David Gower was at his peak as a batsman and captain.

Things plummeted in 1986. Gower lost his mother a week before the West Indian tour, and England were routed 5-0 once again. Back home, they faced India. Dilip Vengsarkar piled up runs at Lord’s and England lost the opening Test. Gower relinquished captaincy to Mike Gatting.

Gower returned to form with 136 at Perth during the Ashes tour that followed, but refused to go to the sub-continent for the 1987 World Cup. The reason given was that he had been on nine successive winter tours since debut and did not want to travel, but this was yet another opportunity for critics to question his commitment.

It is one of the vagaries of English cricket that after he was dropped after his hundredth Test match — as briefly mentioned in the beginning — Gower was reinstated the following year as captain of the English defence of the Ashes. It was a rejuvenated Australia that faced them, with Mark Taylor making tons of runs. England lost the series, and Gower did himself no favours by walking out of a press conference claiming that he had tickets for the theatre. The questions about his commitment grew louder and he lost the captaincy for the final time, having won five and lost 18 of the Tests he had led in.

The final flight

He did answer his critics with a gritty, match-saving unbeaten 157 at The Oval which helped England win the series against India. And by the time he went to Australia under Gooch and Stewart, he was once again in prime form. High scores followed, all made with superb grace and timing that characterised his style — 61 at Brisbane, 100 at Melbourne and 123 at Sydney. The second innings zero at Melbourne ended a world record 119 innings without a duck.

However, when he accompanied John Morris for a joy-ride in a bi-plane during a match against Queensland, the management was not amused. This was followed by Gower’s dismissal at Adelaide. He walked out to the crease to the tune of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. The last ball before lunch was bowled down the leg-side to a leg-trap, and Gower flicked in his languid manner to be caught at leg-slip. According to Mike Atherton in his autobiography, “Gooch was at the other end, and as he walked off his face was thunderous.”

The complaint lodged by the management was that Gower was a bad influence on younger players and the only motivation for him was to overtake Geoff Boycott’s tally of Test runs. Gower maintained that he thought the regimental discipline during the tour was ridiculous, and any allegation about his going for Boycott’s record demonstrated the way Stewart’s mind operated, not his. The record was definitely an honour, but so was playing for England.

After the three Tests against Pakistan, during which he did achieve the record, Gooch informed the southpaw that “it would be easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for Gower to get back into the England side.” This did not really correlate with Gooch’s earlier message to go out and get runs in Australia, because that was exactly what Gower had done.

Gower retired in early 1993, having delighted thousands of people the world over with his delightful stroke-play for a decade and a half. Gooch did huff and puff past Gower’s new England record for maximum Test runs, and that led to many conjectures about the true reason for the omission of a great batsman. However, according to Gower, Gooch and he were two very different men who never quite got to know each other.

Joy to behold

Serious or not, committed or not, Gower was endless joy to behold at the wicket, and supreme dismay when a casual edge cruelly cut short the ethereal entertainment.

According to Peter Roebuck, he did not move, he drifted. He drove through the off-side with surreal beauty, and cut with a flash — with little effort and unlimited grace. And when the ball was short and making for his body, he could hook and pull, lending to even those strokes of battle the elegance of the brush.

However, he did admit that there was a huge proportion of balls he would have been better off leaving alone. Geoff Boycott would never have played them. “I got caught in the gully off wide deliveries more than Boycott did … probably because the previous two wide deliveries had been pinged through extra-cover and I enjoyed the feeling enough to try again … I think more people enjoyed my batting than Boycott’s.” Few would disagree.

Photo Gallery: David Gower’s life in pictures

(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)