Graham Gooch’s unbeaten knock of 154 against the West Indies at Headingley was third in Wisden’s list of top 100 innings of all times published in 2001 © Getty Images
Graham Gooch’s 154* against West Indies at Headingley was third in Wisden’s 2001 list of top 100 innings of all time © Getty Images

On June 9, 1991 Graham Gooch carried his bat with 154 against the West Indies at Headingley. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back one of the greatest Test innings of all time.

When Wisden published their list of top 100 innings of all time in 2001, Don Bradman’s series-defining 270 at MCG in 1936-37 topped the list, and Brian Lara’s 1998-99 heist of 153 not out at Kensington Oval came second. The third entry was Graham Gooch’s unbeaten 154 at Headingley in 1991.

What made Gooch’s innings so special? There have been plenty of innings in excess of 150 in the history of the sport. Batsmen have carried their bat through an innings many times. True, he had scored 61.11 per cent of the team total (which placed him 10th on the all-time list), but even that was not what marked Gooch’s innings from the others.

England had not won a Test against West Indies at home since 1969 at Headingley. Things were different then. England (closely followed by South Africa), were the best team in the world, unlike the battered and bruised outfit of 1991. On the other hand, West Indies, under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, had reached to the top of world cricket, and had remained there for a decade and a half.

To top things, the conditions at Headingley were overcast — to the extent that the sky had turned the depressing colour of ageing steel. When Richards won the toss and elected to bat, his fast bowlers — Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, and Patrick Patterson — were possibly licking their lips in anticipation of having a go at England, whose middle order included two debutants in Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash.

Fast bowlers wreck England

After Patterson ran through Michael Atherton’s defence early on Day One, Gooch decided to take the bull by its horns, and muscled his way to a 49-ball 34 before he edged one off Marshall. Walsh removed Hick immediately, and with Allan Lamb also perishing soon, England were, somewhat expectedly, reduced to a dismal 65 for four.

Robin Smith joined Ramprakash, and the two added a crucial 64 as Smith played some dazzling strokes. Ramprakash held one end up till he was claimed by Marshall, and Smith had scored an 88-ball 54 before he was found inches short of his ground by a brilliant throw from Ambrose. England ended Day One at 174 for 7, in trouble.

There was little resistance the next morning. England were bowled out for a paltry 198 in 79.2 overs, and the four fast bowlers shared the wickets between them.

England fight back

Phil Simmons responded by launching a furious onslaught on the English opening bowlers. The first breakthrough came at 36 when debutant Steve Watkin found Desmond Haynes’ edge. Phil DeFreitas removed Simmons, and two run outs followed: Ramprakash, in an acrobatic effort, ran out Carl Hooper, while Richie Richardson was left stranded attempting a third run.

The wickets kept falling, but Richards was in his elements: the four-pronged English seam attack seemed to have no effect on him as he biffed his way to a 98-ball 73 with seven fours and two sixes. He was out early on Day Three, and West Indies collapsed to 173, conceding a 25-run lead.

DeFreitas led the rout with figures of four for 34, while Watkin and Derek Pringle picked up two wickets apiece.

Gooch’s epic

Gooch walked out with Atherton in the morning gloom of Leeds. Richards opened with Ambrose and Patterson, and they gave the English batsmen a torrid time. Ambrose, tall, mean, and accurate, hit the deck hard and choked the batsmen with his length and bounce, while Patterson bowled at a pace that turned out to be too much in the dim light.

Gooch had come out with a different mindset. Clad in a half-sleeve sweater and protected by his white helmet, he batted like a dream from the very moment he took guard. The determined face, the thick moustache, the broad shoulders, high back-lift, the clenched jaws were in perfect synchronization as Ambrose ran in to bowl the first ball of the innings. The Headingley crowd had no idea that they were about to witness history.

He off-drove Patterson past Marshall for a couple and set off on his way to one of the greatest innings of all time. When Ambrose pitched one on Gooch’s pads, he flicked him past square-leg for a boundary.

With the score on 22, Atherton poked at one off Ambrose, and Jeff Dujon, with his weight on the left foot, transferred his body-weight and took a flying catch almost in front of first slip. Atherton fell for six; little did he know that it would turn out to be one of the higher scores of the innings. Gooch, however, stood up tall and drove Patterson past long-off for a boundary, and then cut him for four more.

At the other end, Hick caressed Ambrose past mid-off for another boundary – but the bowler soon had his revenge as an unplayable yorker slid under Hick’s bat. Hick had scored 6.

Ambrose’s next ball was a lifter that Lamb fended to Hooper at second slip: it was virtually a repeat of his first innings stroke; England were 38 for 3 now, and as Richie Benaud mentioned on air, ‘in disarray’. The prowling vultures walked in closer as the debutant Ramprakash walked out on a hat-trick. ‘Ramps’ managed to play the ball off his hips to fine-leg for a single.

Marshall, who had pulled a muscle on Day One and had batted with a runner, was brought on now. He pitched one up, and Gooch leaned forward to drive him through cover. The ball reached the fence, and England somehow managed to reach the fifty-mark.

As the batsmen grew in confidence, Richards turned to Walsh. There was a quiet period when Marshall and Walsh refused to give anything away. The spell was eventually broken when Walsh bowled one short — but Gooch was equal to the task: he turned his body almost entirely, and pulled it past fine-leg for four.

He followed it with a confident off-drive against Marshall that sped to the fence. As the batsmen looked settled, Walsh accidentally ‘slipped’ a beamer that hit Ramprakash on the arm; but the young man refused to flinch, and the match went on.

The incident had probably affected Gooch’s concentration. He was beaten by Walsh, and the ball took his pad and went to Dujon. The West Indians went up half-heartedly for an edge, but David Shepherd turned the appeal down.

Ramprakash cover-drove an Ambrose lifter beautifully to ease the pressure and scrambled for three, and Gooch flicked him for a single to reach his 50 in 112 balls. He had hit six fours, and England were 80 for 3, 105 runs ahead and somewhat in control of the match.

Ramprakash glanced Ambrose for four, and then Gooch played an even better stroke: as Patterson bowled one short, Gooch pulled him ferociously for a boundary past mid-wicket. Running out of options, Richards not threw the ball to Hooper, and a single to mid-on brought up England’s 100, with Gooch on 59 and his young partner on 22.

As Hooper bowled one short just outside the off-stump, Gooch rocked back slightly and cut him late past third-man for his eighth boundary. Just after tea, though, Ambrose found Ramprakash’s edge, and Dujon took — impossible it may sound — a catch even better than the previous one.

The West Indians celebrated, but did not look surprised; with Dujon around, they would not have been surprised even if lightning had struck twice on the ground. Ramprakash had scored 27 off 109 balls, and the pair had added 78 in 142 minutes. Ambrose had now taken 4 wickets out of 4, and looked hungry for more.

Smith looked in apparent discomfort with his gloves as he strode out. Ambrose ran in and had Smith caught on the back-foot off the next ball — the last of his over — to obtain his five-for. Shepherd did not hesitate, and with England on 116 for 5 — 141 runs ahead — the balance had shifted back.

Jack Russell walked out with the match evenly poised. Gooch left the hat-trick ball from Ambrose alone, and soon afterwards, Russell flicked Walsh beautifully for four. Ambrose found Russell’s edge soon, though, and picked up six out of six as the latter headed back for four. England were 124 for six, 149 ahead. Could they manage another hundred?

With Gooch on 74, Walsh had a leg-before appeal, but Dickie Bird turned it down; replays showed that it would have missed leg. Soon afterwards, Pringle survived one from Ambrose that had hit his pad outside the off-stump. With both batsmen surviving the appeals, Gooch pulled Walsh to the square-leg fence.

At this stage, with the score on 137 for 6, the umpires offered light to the batsmen, but Gooch refused to accept it. He decided to bat on — and it was possibly this decision that gave him the psychological advantage over the West Indian fast bowlers. England progressed only up to 143 for 6 at stumps, but Gooch’s decision had dented the confidence of the fast bowlers. As they walked back, Gooch remained unbeaten on 82 and Pringle on 10; the Headingley crowd (which included John Major) stood up in unison to applaud Gooch off the ground.

The pitch was definitely not at its best on Day Four, and Ambrose lifted one early in the morning. The ball whizzed past Gooch’s bat, but he seemed unfazed, and leg-glanced Ambrose shortly afterwards to bring up England’s 150. Pringle, meanwhile, shuffled outside the off-stump and on-drove the next ball from Ambrose for a sparkling boundary.

Pringle pulled one from Patterson for four, and looked in complete control of the situation. Reassured by Pringle’s support, Gooch began to open up. His concentration was infallible, and even though he played his strokes, he looked determined not to throw away the initiative.

He cover-drove Ambrose for four to reach the nineties; the desperate Richards brought back Marshall. Could he use his vast experience to break the partnership? Gooch responded by driving Marshall to the extra-cover boundary off the back-foot almost immediately.

As Walsh ran in to replace Patterson, a light drizzle began, but the umpires decided to play on. Walsh bowled one short, and Gooch pulled him for a boundary — his 12th — to bring up his 14th hundred (fifth against West Indies) in 240 balls. With the century, he completed his set of hundreds on all six major English grounds. He took fresh guard, and was back to business again.

The pitch now displayed uneven bounce, and a delivery from Marshall almost did not leave the ground; it shot through Dujon for four byes. Marshall overpitched the next ball, and Gooch punished him by cover-driving him for four more.

When Walsh pitched one short, Gooch cut it past point for a boundary to bring up England’s 200. Marshall was driven, again, for four past cover the very next ball. Gooch continued with the onslaught, and followed it with an on-driven boundary off Walsh, and then pulled him to the square-leg fence.

Richards opted for the new ball and threw it to his most experienced bowler. Marshall and Walsh moved the ball around a bit and hit Pringle on the pads a couple of times, but the appeals were turned down. To ease things a bit, Gooch hit Walsh past the stumps for another boundary.

Gooch looked indomitable at this stage, and the mighty pacemen — all of them champions of their era — hoped to get the batsmen out at the other end. Marshall tried a shorter run-up, and immediately found Pringle’s edge. He had scored 27 off 94 balls, which, along with Ramprakash’s innings, would turn out to be the second-highest score of the innings. The 98-run partnership had lasted 144 minutes. Play was called off for a while due to rain, but resumed after tea.

Soon after resumption, Walsh trapped DeFreitas leg-before for 3. Two runs later, Marshall had Watkin caught very low by Hooper at second slip for a duck, and England were 238 for 9. Running out of partners, Gooch drove Marshall to extra-cover for a single to bring up his 150 in 325 balls with 18 fours.

Marshall returned to his shorter run-up, and Devon Malcolm hit a queer straight-drive for a four. Marshall returned to his original mark, and clean bowled Malcolm the next ball. England were bowled out for 252, setting West Indies a target of 278. Other than Ramprakash and Pringle, none of Gooch’s partners had crossed 6.

Gooch remained unbeaten on a 331-ball 154, made over a span of 452 minutes. It was as much a display of fortitude as any batsman could muster, especially a 37-year old. He was the second England batsman to carry his bat at West Indies (after Len Hutton at The Oval in 1950), and the first Englishman since Geoff Boycott at WACA in 1979-80 to do so.

The crowd applauded him off the ground, and as he left, out came a glorious rainbow. It seemed as if even Mother Nature had been a silent spectator of the innings, and had sent her own token of appreciation to acknowledge one of the greatest innings ever played on English soil.

Wisden wrote that “no praise could be too lavish for Gooch”, and added that he “gloriously confirmed his standing on the international stage”. Mike Selvey wrote: “What makes this innings so extra special, though, was the balance between defence and attack… In a world where the word all too often is misappropriated, that is greatness.”

Gooch himself said: “All I could do was to fight every ball and hope that runs would come from somewhere. Even on a pitch like that, if you can stay there for a session, things don’t see quite so bad. The ball gets older and often bowlers get frustrated because they think they should be bowling a side out.”

DeFreitas seals Test

DeFreitas, charged up by his captain’s innings, removed Simmons first ball, and though Haynes and Richardson put up 61 runs for the second wicket, things went downhill rapidly. Richardson added 48 more with Dujon for the sixth wicket, but once he fell, West Indies lost their last 5 wickets for 26, and lost the Test by 115 runs.

DeFreitas picked up 4 for 59 and finished with 8 for 93 from the Test. The other three seamers shared the remaining 6 wickets, with Watkin returning match figures of 5 for 93 on debut. However, there could have been only one Man of the Match.

What followed?

After a draw at Lord’s, West Indies struck back to win at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston to take a lead in the series. Phil Tufnell, however, spun out Windies with a spell of 6 for 25 at The Oval (the Test that marked the exits of Richards, Marshall, and Dujon), and the series ended in a 2-2 draw. Gooch finished at the top of the English batting charts with 480 runs at 60.

Brief scores:

England 198 (Robin Smith 54) and 252 (Graham Gooch 154*; Curtly Ambrose 6 for 52) beat West Indies 173 (Viv Richards 73; Phil DeFreitas 4 for 34) and 162 (Richie Richardson 68, Phil DeFreitas 4 for 59) by 115 runs.

Man of the Match: Graham Gooch.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)