Mike Gatting – still one of the most popular figures in cricket © Getty Images

Mike Gatting, former England captain and erstwhile President of MCC, had one of the most interesting and eventful careers. From leading England to Ashes triumph to sitting on the precipice of a diplomatic crisis, from cooking steakes for customers in a South African restaurant to facing the supposed ball of the century, he has done it all. He remains one of the most recognisable and popular personalities at Lord’s. Arunabha Sengupta caught up with the legend at the Mecca of cricket during the Middlesex-Nottinghamshire match.

CricketCountry (CC): You got your first Test hundred during the 1984-85 tour at the Wankhede Stadium. It should be considered as one of the best ever innings against quality spin. It came against Laxman Sivaramakrishnan at his best.

Mike Gatting (MG): It was very important from the point of view of the match. It was a turning wicket, and we had Ravi Shastri playing, we had Shivlal Yadav. And of course we had Siva. Siva bowled really well, he had already got (six) in the first innings. Sadly, down the line, he could not quite handle the fame. It’s a shame, he was such a good bowler.

There was certainly one bat-pad catch during the innings when I came down the wicket and felt I had definitely got a nick. But surprisingly nobody appealed. That was very strange.

CC: The first hundred took its time in coming, did it not? It took you 31 Tests.

MG: Well, it was a relief to me because I had had to wait for such a long time. When I had got on the bus that morning from the hotel, I had heard someone saying to me that I was going to get a hundred. I had looked around and seen no one. I was not quite sure what that was, and I was actually very, very worried. It was an interesting experience.

Sadly, we lost the Test match … I got out, caught at long-off. And then we sort of fell away.

CC: But you won the series…

MG: Yes, we won at Delhi. At Calcutta the crowd got really upset with Sunil Gavaskar because he would not declare. And then we won again at Madras. So, it was a very good series for us.

The Madras Test was particularly pleasing. The plan to beat India was to bowl them out, get 600 and bowl them out again. And that’s exactly what we did.

CC: You got a double-hundred as well in that Madras Test…

MG: Yes, with Graeme Fowler. It was rare, two double hundreds in the same Test innings. That was the first time anyone had done that for England, which is strange given all the great players who have played the game (Fowler and Gatting became the first pair of Englishmen to score double-hundreds in the same Test innings. The feat had been achieved for the first time by Don Bradman and Bill Ponsford at The Oval in 1934). Azhar got his second hundred in the Test as well, playing awfully well for a young lad.

CC: So it was a very memorable tour.

MG: It was a very special tour. Especially when you think of all the sad things that happened.

Indira Gandhi was assassinated. We had reached late, at around three o’clock in the morning. I came down at around nine o’clock in the morning, got out of the lift and heard people talking about it. And I said, “That cannot have happened.”

There was a thirteen-day mourning period, and so we went down to Sri Lanka for preparation, and then it did not seem to stop raining. After that, one day we were just about to go for practice when all of a sudden there was a huge explosion in the naval yard. It was just about half a mile from our hotel. The Tamil Tigers had blown up half the yard.

We came back to Bombay, and went to meet the Deputy Commissioner (Percy Norris) who was retiring in three months. The following morning our practice was delayed. We asked, “Why’s that?” They said that the bloke you went to visit the last evening has been assassinated.

There were thoughts about returning home. They had assassinated Indira Gandhi, they had assassinated the British Deputy High Commissioner. What about the cricketers? It would make a great international ripple. There was a bit of talk about leaving. In the end we decided to knuckle down and carry on, and I am glad that we did.

CC: But that was not your first tour of India. You had been there earlier, in 1981.

MG: Yes, that was the most boring Test series ever. India won the first Test and then there were five Tests on the flattest, dullest wickets ever prepared.

CC: The next time you visited India, you played the reverse-sweep in Calcutta.

MG: Yes, during the World Cup final. Well, I played a lot of reverse-sweeps in the semi-final against India and got a decent score. It’s like any other shot. You get out to it, it’s a bad shot. So I was not necessarily that worried about it.

CC: You were wonderful against the spinners, but also had a tough time against the West Indian pace bowlers. But, one thing few remember that between 1985-87, you were one of the best batsmen of the world. (From the 1984-85season to the end of the 1987 summer, only Dilip Vengsarkar had a better record than Gatting)

MG: Against the spinners I had some very good innings, but against the West Indies I did not play as well as I would have liked to. Probably I never got a chance because I did not last long enough. I never got a hundred against them. Sometimes I got a start but did not go on to make a big score. I missed two tours, and missed playing against them because of injuries, broken thumb and so on. So I would have to say that I was not really good against the West Indies. But against the other sides, the hundreds that I got between 1985 and 1987 were probably as good as any.

CC: It was during this period that you were made captain of England.

MG: I was given the captaincy at Lord’s after the first Test against India. I took over from David (Gower). We lost the second Test at Leeds and drew at Edgbaston.

CC: The conditions were pretty dreadful at Leeds.

MG: It was a little medium-pacer who got the wickets in an afternoon spell — Roger Binny. He got five wickets in the session which ruined the Test match. It was just one of those things, a lottery depending on what the weather was like. If the sun was out it was flat, but if there were clouds it would nip around, always a wicket where if you bowled well and kept to the right areas you had a chance. There was also the issue of David. People were taken aback a bit by his being sacked and therefore possibly it was a little difficult because he was still in the side.

After that there was Edgbaston which we drew.

CC: You got 180-odd in the Edgbaston Test

MG: Yes, that’s right; and then there were the Ashes in the winter.

CC: With Micky Stewart as the coach.

MG: Yes, it was quite interesting when Mickey became the coach. I knew he was a very similar bloke to me. The nice thing was that when we picked the side, we were picking 15 or 16 and we had about one-and-a-half differences. It was quite amazing for two people to come together and understand and agree on what is best for the side. A very good sportsman, a straight man, and very passionate about the game. And a great help to me.

CC: Not many people gave you a chance in the Ashes

MG: True, but to be fair we had a very good team. There were (Ian) Botham, Gower, (Allan) Lamb, and in (Phil) Edmonds and (John) Emburey as good a pair of spinners as anywhere in the world during those days. We had one or two guys who had points to prove in Chris Broad and Bill Athey. The talent was there. Young Phil DeFreitas was a huge bonus to us. Graham Dilley bowled as well as I have seen him. So, a lot of things went were going for us.

We did not play very well in the first month. Then there was a welcome sort of team talk from Botham. Positive, very unlike him … and we were able to go out there believing we could win because he did. Beefy proved it too, by getting 138, which gave us a good position in the first innings. And the boys bowled really well. I don’t think we dropped a catch in the Test series, and the fielding, with Athey and DeFreitas in the slips, was quite outstanding.

CC: Did it help that you were already leading Middlesex and had Emburey and Edmonds playing for you?

MG: Yes, I suppose. Phil was always a difficult bloke to captain, but he was a very passionate and talented cricketer who always wanted the team to do well. John Emburey was the same. Middlesex was a very good team. Blokes like Clive Radley played. Most of the players who played were full of passion. I am not sure I could do what the guys do now, play for England and nothing else. I enjoyed coming back and playing with my mates because I wanted to win for Middlesex. I never could understand why you would not want to play for your county, even between Tests, especially if you were a batsman.

CC: Even before being given the job, you did demonstrate your captaincy skills. Wasn’t it you who plotted the dismissal of Dennis Lillee in the famous Headingley Test of 1981, when Mike Brearley was at the helm?

MG: I mentioned to Brears that we were bowling too many different lengths. I said to him how about bowling good-length on off-stump because that was how we get most tail-enders out. I just put that as a thought to Brears. So that was what Bob (Willis) did. Probably Dennis was expecting a bouncer or a length ball, and tried to knock it into the leg side. It held up a bit, lobbed up to me and I just ran in and caught it.

CC: You dived full-length to catch it…

MG: Yeah, there was a lot of momentum going down the hill and I probably tripped over and dived. It was a nice moment. It was a nice moment.

CC: After the Ashes and the Reliance Cup, things started going downhill. With the Shakoor Rana incident and the Summer of Four Captains.

MG: Yeah, that was sadly when, I would say, things weren’t handled very well by the people running the game. A lot of the times they were not there when things happened. I don’t think they appreciated certain situations and did not deal with them in the right manner. The players continued to play, but they were not being supported by the people who needed to support them. They were difficult times, sadly.

CC: Is it true that you ran into Shakoor Rana again in England?

MG: It was during a quarter-final of Benson & Hedges. He had brought the Sun newspaper with him — a reporter and a photographer. He wanted to have tea with me. I said “you’ve had plenty of time to have tea with me and apologise in Pakistan,” and we just left it at that. And I got accused of many nasty things.

CC: Given another chance, would you have gone on the Rebel Tour?

MG: Probably not. But, there was the South African position to consider. We were promised that Mandela was going to be released, and there would be things taken out of the statute books. We asked the question — do we need to be there or would it happen anyway. The answer was yes, it would help if we were there.

At the same time I was asked to captain England before I had even said yes to South Africa. The meeting was held at The Oval where I was asked to take the England team to West Indies. And I just asked if they would give me 12 hours to tell Ali Bacher that I was not coming to South Africa. I did not want them to read it in the newspaper. It would have been unfair to the team that had been put together. And also, although there was no contract, it would not have been fair to the people who had asked me to go to South Africa.

Well, there were only three people in the meeting, and it ended up in the newspapers the following morning. That sort of summed up to me that these people did not want me to be around. Whoever leaked it did not want me to be involved in England cricket.

Maybe the next time I would have given it some more thought and not gone to South Africa after all.

CC: Is it true that once you had to cook your own steak in a restaurant?

MG: Well, to tell you the truth we actually served the whole restaurant. It was very enjoyable, a fascinating evening. The people who worked in the kitchen were told they had to leave because the England team were going there. We turned up there and they walked out. We knew this might happen, so we said to the owners, “We are very sorry that this happened, but we can cook if you want us to.” We told the customers “We’ll cook fish and chips, we’ll cook steak and salad … if you are happy with that.” I think to this day that it is one of the things I will probably never forget. The people in the restaurant were unbelievable.

And as I said, the outcome of the tour was good for South African cricket.

CC: You also walked out into the crowd to meet some protestors.

MG: Yeah, we were asked to do that, and I thought, okay, we should go ahead and do it. The organisers were worried about it, they did not want anybody hurt or anybody in trouble. It was hot and they had been out there most of the day. I certainly didn’t want anybody to get hurt. So we went out there. When we got there the organisers didn’t really know who we were anyway, so it was a bit strange.

CC: Coming to the final phase of your international career, you have said that there were better balls you faced than the ‘Ball of the Century’…

MG: I suppose there were better balls I faced. That one pitched in the right place and hit the top of the off-bail. I can remember Sivaramakrishnan bowling a couple of those. Also Abdul Qadir. A couple of left-arm spinners I can think of could have done the same thing. The fact was it was Warne’s first ball in Ashes cricket and it couldn’t have been pitched in a better place, because it just clipped the off bail and missed everything else.  He’s probably bowled balls that have turned even more than that one.

There are balls I have played at Lord’s when John Lever ran in, swung the ball in, pitched middle and hit the off stump at his pace. How can you play that? As it turns out, in cricket if you play for a long time you get a lot of good balls. Hopefully you miss some of them, and hopefully they don’t all hit the wicket. That’s it really.

CC: Your bowling was not particularly used in international cricket, but you were quite useful when you did bowl.

MG: Possibly in English conditions, but not particularly in flat conditions like you get in India. I could bowl in places like Australia, but when you’ve got bowlers who are of the quality we had there is no reason why I should be bowling overs.

Unless of course it was like we did in Adelaide when Beefy wasn’t fit, and so I was the third seamer. We played two seamers, two spinners and a third seamer. We knew it was going to be a flat track and we were going to bowl a lot of spin, and relied on the two very good spinners. So that was the time I was picked as what we could call a genuine all-rounder. But then I was the captain, and I could do that. We thought that was the best way of getting a result at Adelaide.

I enjoyed my bowling. Probably I bowled more overs in the nets than anyone. But it was average really. When I was younger, I was useful. But I knew I was never going to be reckoned as a serious bowler in Test cricket.

CC: How important was becoming the president of MCC?

MG: Important is not the right word. I was very, very proud and honoured. I suppose one dreams of captaining England in cricket, sometimes the dreams come true sometimes they don’t. Similarly, I have played here for a very, very long time, and have been part of the set-up, where you see all the great names around you. I have enjoyed my cricket immensely. Even if I had not been President of the MCC, I would have been proud to be on the committee or whatever. The fact that I was asked to do it was very humbling and a huge honour. To me that’s how to describe it.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)