Graham Gooch and the indomitable will to win

May 10, 2020

The thing was, he was out. By a foot or more. At the point Barrie Meyer, the umpire, ruled him in, the match was hanging by a thread: Graham Gooch out and Hampshire were favourites to go through to Lord’s; Gooch not out and the tag passed to Essex. Gooch out, Gooch in - the theme of many a county cricket match.

Hampshire had never made it to a cup final at Lord’s. All those fabulous players from Roy Marshall to Malcolm of the same name; from “Butch” White and Bob Cottam to Andy Roberts; from Derek Shackleton and Peter Sainsbury to Trevor Jesty and David Turner; from the start of Barry Richards to the anointing of Gordon Greenidge as the world’s greatest opening batsman, none of them had managed to negotiate the dreaded sea of a semi-final. In 1985, neither did we, though we got so close we could touch, feel and smell that Lord’s turf. Essex beat us by virtue of having lost fewer wickets in a match so tense that nerves and tempers were stretched to breaking.

Put in to bat by Keith Fletcher on our own, oddly damp, Southampton pitch, we scratched and scraped to 224 for 8 in our 60 overs (yes, 60 overs per side, how retro!) I got to 39, the top score on a seaming pitch, before playing all around a little outswinger from Stuart Turner and was incandescent when given out lbw. On the BBC, Richie Benaud said, “It looked pretty straight to me, but I don’t know that Mark Nicholas thinks much of it.” In the dressing room, I watched the replay. Richie was right.

In defence of a feeble score, on a pitch improving beneath some August sunshine, we got rid of every Essex batsman who mattered except Gooch. In the final over before tea, Goochie called for a tight single to cover where Paul Terry was lurking. There was no better fielder in the world - not Derek Randall, nor Viv Richards, not even Roger Harper. Paul hit the stumps direct with the Essex talisman clearly short of his ground. Meyer gave him not out. Expletives ensued.

At tea the BBC kept replaying it. Gooch was at least a foot short. There were toys everywhere and we were throwing them. Then I thought we better get this thing back on track because the game isn’t done yet. We fought, by heaven we did, but there just weren’t enough runs with which to play. It was like squeezing toothpaste from an empty tube. Essex inched closer, Gooch in control - one of the best players anywhere, going nowhere except Lord’s. I took some gambles, specifically bowling out Malcolm Marshall in an attempt to collar the man between us and a big day out. But by heaven he had some game that Graham Gooch. He took Marshall and Marshall didn’t take a wicket. Marshall could bowl.

I told Nigel Cowley, the gentlest offspinner, to lob it up and buy the bloody man’s wicket; I even bowled a few at him myself - some proper nonsense - but the clock kept ticking, seemingly set for victory. Having tried anything and everything, we were left with Greenidge bowling the last over and Essex needing two to win. Gordon never bowled, ever. Goochie took a single when the chance came and watched from the non-striker’s end as Stuart Turner safely blocked the last balls of the match. The scores finished level. Essex had lost seven wickets to our eight. Stupid rule because we had to bat in the morning when the ball was nipping around all over the place. Graham finished unbeaten on 93, from the full 60 overs, having steered the ship with an enviable calm. As Benaud used to say of key batsmen in limited-overs cricket: “Be there at the end”, which Gooch was, but it is easier said than done.

Wisden recorded that “the Essex reply was built around Gooch, who was most fortunate not be adjudged run out just after reaching his fifty.”

Mr Meyer, a lovely man who kept wickets for Gloucestershire in his day, cost us the dream. Ah well.

A year earlier, Gooch made 220 against us on the same Northlands Road ground, reaching each milestone - 50, 100, 150 and 200 - with sixes. His headlong mastery over our attack, minus Marshall that day, was something to behold. It was man and boys. By then, he had adopted the upright stance with his bat raised to stump level and the blade open. He tucked his left shoulder into his chin in an exaggerated fashion, as if it were a difficult routine to repeat, and he held his left elbow pointed directly towards the stumps at the non-striker’s end. This became a widely imitated and sometimes parodied stance, but now, of course, is very much the norm for there is barely a batsman left who taps the ground in waiting.

Heavily built and with a rolling gait, Gooch is about six feet in height but appeared taller at the crease, and his moustache or beard, depending on the day, gave him the look of hostility. Certainly, he was a man who had come to do business. His straight-driving was so good it was a joke. It went like this: a professional bowler would charge in and deliver a ball accurately and full of length to which Gooch would move half-forward, just a transfer of the weight really, and drop his bat down its line. Invariably, he connected with the middle of that bat and said bowler, while following through, would contort his body in astonishment to see the ball disappearing back past him and away to the boundary as if it were preordained. Rarely, did Gooch even run. He just stood there as if to say to the bowler: what you are doing is good exercise but not much else. This was a persecution of sorts. Indeed, it felt as if execution was next and often it was. He reduced one of our young fast bowlers to tears of helplessness, so ruthlessly was toll taken of the gulf in class between the two.

In the nets on a morning of that game when he made 220, he showed me an experimental bat made for him by Duncan Fearnley - the bats we used, our common ground. It was sawn off at the bottom, so a little shorter in length than usual but left thicker in depth; more the density of the bats today, I suppose.

Why, I asked. “Because I might be playing a lot of balls at chest and throat height this summer,” came the reply, “and I need less weight but more wood.” That was the summer of 1984, another in which West Indies were all-conquering, though Gooch didn’t play in the end, still banned for taking a rebel tour to South Africa. He had hoped to have it overturned but the TCCB (the England board as it was called then) was not to be moved.

Instead, he rampaged his way to the 2500 first-class runs that led Essex to the County Championship title. In the winter, he continued playing for South Africa’s Western Province, where he was tremendously admired for his attitude and return.

I had developed a fascination with his method and taken up his batting stance. For no good reason other than adulation, I guess, I asked Fearnley to make the same bat for me. I used it against Sussex - I did, truly, I used a shortened bat - and was yorked by Garth Le Roux! “Couldn’t get that little drawbridge down in time, could you, my boet,” said the chirping South African.

There was no one, well, other than Richards, who had Gooch’s aura in county cricket. Mike Gatting made a mountain of runs; Clive Rice stared you down like no other; I’m sure Greenidge was a handful to play against, Robin Smith too. And Allan Lamb had genius within, but Goochie WAS Essex cricket, standing firm day upon day in the model developed by Keith Fletcher and continued by his disciples.

Every element of the efficient machine that Essex became was etched onto Goochie’s heart. Increasingly, he became a pragmatist. “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail,” he would say. Or, if you hit one up in the air: “Don’t you like batting?”

Perhaps the free-wheeling, fun-loving Essex of his youth that didn’t win much became the platform of his evolution. Certainly, a more disciplined approach overtook the exciting strokeplay that first caught the eye of the selectors in 1975. By his own admission, he might have been promoted to England colours a tad early.

We talked about that at Lilleshall in the winter of 1989-90 when the England and England A teams trained and practised together prior to tours to West Indies and Zimbabwe respectively. By then, he was working closely with Geoffrey Boycott on his problems of the previous summer against Terry Alderman. Essentially, Boycott got Graham’s front leg out of the way, which, in turn, cleared a path for the bat to meet the ball square on. Goochie worked very hard at the detail of this improvement, studying tapes in the evenings and making corrections the next day. It was an education for the rest of us to follow this example and pay more attention to the little things, the 5% and 10% that can make a difference.

It was from this time really that Gooch moved into another phase of batting, primarily, I suspect, because he had established complete confidence in his technique. Ability had never been the problem. Convincing himself of how to apply it freed the self-doubt. For the five years until he retired, Gooch ranked among the three or four best batsmen in the world and played a series of great innings that rescued and rebooted the England team.

One, against West Indies at Headingley in 1991, when he carried his bat for 154, was considered by Benaud to be amongst the most exceptional innings he had ever seen - a catalogue that went back to Bradman. Another, the 333 against India at Lord’s a year earlier, displayed the same mastery over an international attack that he had long shown over the counties. He followed up the 333 with another hundred in the second innings and England went on to win a fine match. They beat West Indies in that Headingley game too, for the first time at home since 1969, and Gooch sat alongside Len Hutton as one of only two Englishmen to carry their bat through an innings of a home Test - Gooch batting against Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall and Patterson, I’ll have you know.

Wisden uses some extravagant phrases to remember it: “Gooch gloriously confirmed his standing on the world stage”; “careful application”; “unyielding concentration” and “mental toughness enabled him to survive a series of disasters at the other end”. I watched most of it on television and marvelled at his judgement, shot selection and sheer bloody-mindedness. Greatness at 38 years of age, I thought. How good is that?

Soon after our time at Lilleshall, I contracted malaria in Zimbabwe, but the delayed reaction meant that it didn’t properly manifest itself until I reached Barbados for the Hampshire pre-season tour. By chance, England were now in Barbados for the fourth Test and of the nine days I was in hospital, Gooch visited on five. This is a kindness not to be forgotten.

He can be very funny. On a lively pitch at Southend, he survived Marshall for an hour and half before Tim Tremlett’s military-medium pace caused him to edge to slip. “Ninety minutes fendin’ off Maco and then Trooper comes on and gets you with a little floater, stupid game, innit.”

Or when Marshall burst through the Essex top order in a crucial B&H match - 1 for 3 after three overs with Gooch, Mark Waugh and John Stephenson all succumbing. Gooch said later, “Your blokes are very noisy when Maco’s rushin’ in but a whole lot quieter when it’s anyone else. We’ll be having a dust bowl at Chelmsford when you come next month, so feel free to give Maco a rest and crank up Raj Maru.”

And, of course, he tells some good Boycott stories, but who doesn’t. He loves Geoffrey. He should, for the lessons learned in the winter of 1989-90 at Lilleshall, never mind the summer days walking out to bat together.

Gooch began his Test career at Edgbaston, against Australia, with a pair. “I’m the only player to have his debut Test match written into his surname,” he says with lugubrious resignation.

He went through more controversy than a man whose personality was once likened to a wet fish thought he might - banned for three years for the rebel tour to South Africa and blamed for the cancellation of an England tour for those South African connections. And he walked out of the 1992 World Cup final dinner in Melbourne when the republican Australian prime minister made fun of the Queen. He has emerged as the most patriotic of sportsmen, a man almost clichéd by the three lions on his chest.

He has been, and remains, a fanatic for fitness, a passionate lover of work for work’s sake, and a true believer in austerity. Indeed, the older he became the more these aspects of his life mattered. The scores he achieved in the last dances of his career are mighty achievements for young men but near superhuman efforts for one either side of 40. For Gooch, the kingdom of days came late.

The power of shot, the placement; the power of mind, the belief; the relish of opportunity, the hunger; the intimidation factor, the inevitability of success; the longevity, the global acknowledgement - these are all things Gooch. The drives, yes, but the pull, hook, cut and sweep too; the Stuart Surridge bat and then the Fearnley; the white helmet, side pieces only; the knock knees, the nose pick, the arms folded, the forensic shining of the ball, the high-pitched squeak - “well bowled, Fozzie, good string, Suggo” - and the indomitable will to win. These many things remind me of Graham Gooch, an Essex and England cricketer for the ages and a friend for life. 


Graham Gooch and the indomitable will to win