David Gower: sage on stage

English cricket grandee David Gower is taking to the stage with a new show about his life in the sport. Neil Tague spoke to him about England’s chances in the forthcoming Ashes

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Few things excite sports fans and the sports media like clashes of style and personality. Southern smoothie Sebastian Coe and North Country boy Steve Cram, big-hitting Beefy Botham and boring Geoff Boycott, old school Scot Sir Alex Ferguson versus cerebral arriviste Arsene Wenger in football.

“I think the series looks pretty even. Australia hold the Ashes, so have the high ground.”

A generation ago, English cricket’s cavalier and roundhead approaches were represented by David Gower and Graham Gooch. The gentleman and the player. The languid, it’s-only-a-game stylist against the ascetic grafter. The latter eventually carried the day, Gower’s England career ending under the Essex man’s disapproving glare, black marks including the infamous Tiger Moth flight on tour in Australia.

In retirement, both hold a fond place in the heart of cricket followers, as England’s fourth and second highest scorers of Test runs respectively. And now Gower is taking to the road, with a stage show looking at his life in and around the sport.

Gower’s one-man show, On the Front Foot, returns for a series of dates in October and November after dipping his toe in the water with a few dates in spring. The former England test star and doyen of the Sky Sports commentary box is looking forward to it.

“We did 14 shows on a slow tour through April to June, and it seemed to go pretty well,” he muses in those smooth, instantly recognisable tones. “It’s pretty much a rattle through my life – growing up, county cricket, test cricket, touring – with some pictures, film and questions at the end.”

Where the tendency is to go for a Q&A “audience with…” format, Gower strides out alone. The upside for the audience, one imagines, is that there’s less chance of things becoming formulaic and routine, the downside for him is that there’s no let-up and no way out.

“It is slightly more challenging. There’s no one to play off and if I forget something the whole thing drops off until I can pick the thread up again. It’s actually not unlike getting ready for an innings – you prepare, sharpen yourself up, get nervous, then walk on and do it. Pretty quickly you get a feel of when it’s going well.”

The words are a reminder that for all the flamboyant, devil-may-care stereotype, nobody gets to average 44 over a 14-year test career in an era beset by fearsome pace attacks without knowing how to graft.

And by the time of the first show on 7 October, we’ll know the destiny of the 2019 Ashes. England and Australia face off over five tests, starting at Edgbaston on 1 August in what feels like a tough series to call. Although the last four Ashes series have been won by whoever happens to be at home, Gower believes a factor usually in favour of England and its attack leader Jimmy Anderson is slightly nullified.

“It’s well-documented that when England are at home, they use the old-style Dukes ball, which their bowlers like because it does things that not all bowlers can control,” says Gower, who led England to a home Ashes victory in 1985. “But Australia have Mitchell Starc, and maybe Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins – all of them skilful and capable of making it swing.

England win the World Cup this month
Above: England win the World Cup this month

“I do think the series looks pretty even. Australia hold the Ashes, so have the high ground. They’ve got their best batsmen, Steven Smith and David Warner – who had a good World Cup – back. There are two skilled bowling attacks, and two batting line-ups with some stand-outs and some seeking fulfilment, so it’s really balanced. As experts, we’re expected to predict these things confidently, but no one really has a clue.”

Australia performed well in the World Cup, in cricket’s one-day format, until they were bushwhacked by a forceful England in a raucous Edgbaston semi-final. England would go on to win the final, but Gower’s not sure this will be such a key factor in the long form of the game.

“Of course it helps England, if only for the reason that if everything had gone wrong there’d be psychological damage. But not all of the personnel are the same. There’s also an emotional cost with such a huge effort, and they have to re-set quickly. Ashes cricket is very different, and it isn’t far away. Australia’s leadership have to raise their team up, and England’s have to settle theirs down.”

England, although the best one-day team in the world, are currently ranked only fourth in tests, with Australia a place further back. Their World Cup triumph might mean a promotion for two stars of the shorter formats, namely opening batsman Jason Roy and bowling sensation Jofra Archer, although the latter’s strenuous efforts meant he wasn’t picked for last week’s warm-up test against Ireland, in which England were bowled out for only 85 before lunch on the first day.

Fast-tracked with some controversy through the residency process to secure English nationality, Barbadian pace threat Archer was a revelation.

Roy’s chance may come because so many others have tried and failed at the top of the order – and he did his cause no harm last week against Ireland with the fastest 50 by an English debutant opener. England have long struggled to fill one of the two opening slots, and now with Alastair Cook retired both berths are up for grabs.

Gower says: “Nobody’s grasped the opportunity yet. Jason Roy has the talent. People say he hasn’t got the stats in first-class cricket, but he ain’t going to do any worse than some who’ve had a go. Rory Burns has probably done enough for one spot, but that still leaves a space.”

In Anderson and Stuart Broad, England’s bowling has bags of experience, but may lack pace and variety. Archer can offer both, Gower feels. “I’d be amazed – shocked even – if he’s not a part of it. He looks such a good bowler, and pace is priceless.”

Australia are in many ways still on cricket’s naughty step. The sandpaper ball-tampering scandal of March 2018 cost Warner and Smith a year out of the game, Smith his job as captain and Darren Lehmann his role as coach. There was a period of soul-searching, and questions were asked whether the traditional Aussie aggression had gone too far or, in the team’s own favoured phrase, “crossed the line”.

A team rebadged under coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine pledged to play, if not exactly nicely, then with less outright, unprovoked hostility. But then Australia suffered a rare home test series defeat to India over the winter, and a bit of needle re-emerged. Does Gower sense a change in mood at all?

“Well, they’ve had to work on their PR, obviously – it’s been strange for them. I know Justin Langer from way back, and he’s very earnest, passionate and determined. They’ve had to be almost un-Australian at times. People don’t really change though under the skin – if you’re a really competitive guy, you’ll remain like that. But being less in your face shouldn’t reduce your ability to compete.

“They’ve got a lot to prove and they went about the World Cup well. Aaron Finch was impressive as captain and may have played his way into test contention.”

The visitors have a wealth of talent to choose from – an experienced Australia A squad has been touring, allowing non-World Cup players to tune up, while several others have been playing for county sides. Gower doesn’t expect many selection surprises though.

“Test cricket is a higher level. Countless players look good at lower standards, but it’s like an MA and a PhD. Test cricket demands more of you, and those who aren’t up to it get shown up a bit. But it’s true to say that both sides have vacancies.”

England’s struggles to fill the opener slots have probably made places safer in the middle order. That’s bad news for the likes of Dawid Malan, who has an Ashes hundred and county form, but is now on the outside looking in. “All you can do is make runs,” Gower says. “Zak Crawley at Kent is doing well, like Ollie Pope did last year. It’s all you can do – but whoever makes the step up, there’s a lot of hard work ahead.”

Firm fixtures in the middle order are Yorkshiremen Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. Root’s not seen as a natural captain by many but, Gower asks reasonably, who else is there?

“There’s always pressure as a batsman and captain, and if you ask someone else they’re then under that pressure. Unless there’s a really pressing reason, I’d advocate keeping things as they are. I don’t think Joe wants to give it up. Captaincy is not necessarily mastered in five minutes – but there again, some never quite master it.”

For Bairstow’s part, he responded to heavy criticism during the World Cup by peeling off successive centuries in must-win games for England. “I’m a big Bairstow fan, but Jonny didn’t react well to comments – he can be a prickly character. He’s been exceptional. The same happened in Sri Lanka in the winter – he was left out and didn’t like it but made a hundred on his return.”

As to whether the 2019 World Cup has been a success, crossing over and catching public imagination, he’s not sure yet. “A lot of this comes down to the age-old terrestrial versus satellite debate, and there are lots more ways to keep up with games now, even if you can’t watch live.”

It should be said of course that Gower’s worked for Sky for two decades. He points out with some justification that the standard of Sky’s broadcasting has been high quality, and their money greatly welcomed by the England & Wales Cricket Board.

“Over the last 20 years, no one else has made a go of it. Even when Channel 4 had what a lot of people call the greatest series ever in 2005, they didn’t bid again because they couldn’t make it work commercially. You have to take what you can get, and people need to be realistic. We’ll see how the BBC get on with the new Hundred competition next year.”

And with that, we’re done. By the time Gower takes the stage in October, a man who has been a constant presence around Test cricket for 40 years will have witnessed five more contests in the sport’s richest rivalry. There might be some tales to add yet.

David Gower is touring the UK with On The Front Foot in the autumn, tickets from david-gower.com. Northern dates are Sheffield Memorial Hall, 21 October, Atkinson, Southport, 29 Oct, King George’s Hall, Blackburn, 30 Oct and Dancehouse, Manchester, 31 Oct

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