Darren Gough – Good Times, Bad Times

Darren Gough was a man who played a large proportion of his cricket for England in adversity.

In the same way as Atherton, or Thorpe, or Stewart with the bat, he was one of the people who did their level best with the ball to keep a poor side afloat for years, summer and winter.

Like Thorpe he just about made it to the sunlit uplands of the Fletcher era, although I wrote this after watching him leave the field after his last bowling spell in a Test match, at Lord’s in 2003.

Lord’s, late on a hot Saturday afternoon at the start of August, 2003.  South Africa reach their highest total in Test cricket and Graeme Smith declares, leaving England 509 behind and facing defeat.  The England fielders, ravaged by the sun and with exhaustion etched on their faces, trudge through the Long Room.  A few catch my eye – Giles philosophical, Flintoff weary but still looking optimistic as only the young and truly gifted can.  And then there’s Gough.  He looks mentally and physically shattered, on the verge of tears.  As he passes me I notice that he casts a lingering look back at the ground.  The game’s up and he knows it.  A Test career punctuated by moments of the greatest glory and the deepest heartache, is over.

It was a sad moment.  Darren Gough and I went back a long way.  It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time when few people had heard of him, even on the incestuous county circuit where news of incipient potential travels fast.  My first encounter with him came on the third day of a Championship match between Somerset and Yorkshire at Taunton in July 1993. With Somerset set 219 to win and the sunlight fading on a balmy Saturday evening, he opened the innings with three wickets in thirteen deliveries and returned on Monday morning to clean up the tail and finish with 7 for 42.  All his later trademarks were there – a direct, pacy run-up bursting with energy, competitiveness and attitude, and the priceless ability to swing the ball both ways at sharp speed.  I remember making a mental note to keep an eye on his progress.

The following winter he travelled to South Africa with England A, taking twenty-three wickets, and, by the third match of England’s short series against New Zealand in the early summer of 1994, he was making his Test debut.  In those days he was still making something of his substantial batting ability, and he began his Test match career with an innings of 65 at number nine, followed by six wickets in the match.  He held his place throughout the subsequent, difficult series against Kepler Wessels’ South Africans, taking eight wickets in England’s Lord’s thrashing and firing off a further flamboyant salvo with the bat as England levelled at The Oval. I wasn’t at any of those games, but I had a feeling that I might be catching up with him again as I made my first visit to Australia the following winter.  I was right.

England arrived in Sydney two down after capitulating in Brisbane and Melbourne.  Gough, though, had bowled well and earned himself further notoriety as the second victim in Warne’s Melbourne hat-trick.  At the Sydney Cricket Ground, as 1995 dawned, he moved from being a player of unfulfilled promise to one who looked firmly as though he knew (and so did we) that he belonged on the international stage.  My memories of that epic Test are still vivid – a smirking Gough rustically hooking McDermott for six on his way to a rapid half-century before whipping out six Australians, a group of tired and emotional England fans – the prototype Barmy Army – singing about him in a King’s Cross pub, the England players leaving the field in hunched disappointment as the light closed in on the last evening.  When I returned home all people wanted to talk about was Darren Gough.  This was an era when England needed all the quality they could get and Gough appeared to be just what they needed.

The summer of 1995 brought him back to earth.  For the first time in years England managed to stand toe to toe with the West Indies, but Gough, despite taking a memorable catch to dismiss Keith Arthurton at Lord’s, struggled with both fitness and form and headed back to Headingley after the Third Test.  It was the beginning of the first – but not the last – dark and difficult period of his career.

When, in the autumn of 1995, England travelled to South Africa for their first official tour there since the 1960s, Gough was left behind and missed England’s defeat in a strangely inconclusive series.  He returned to the side for the World Cup in the Indian sub-continent in early 1996, failing once again to recall his early glories as a badly-selected England team struggled, and was consigned to the county circuit as England entertained India and Pakistan during the following English summer.  Gough’s still embryonic career was at the first of a series of deeply uncertain pivotal points.  Was he, like so many young Englishmen before him, to enjoy a brief period in the spotlight before fading into obscurity?  Or was he to come again, proving what those of us who had been in Sydney knew?  That here was someone with the talent, confidence and charisma to lead England’s attack for years to come.  He just needed to stay fit and get the chance to prove it.

He stayed fit for Yorkshire in 1996, taking sixty-six Championship wickets and finishing with a surge to ensure his selection for England’s winter tour of Zimbabwe and New Zealand.  He was the leading seam bowler on the tour as a whole, chipping in with regular wickets in both the Tests and One-Day Internationals in Africa and played a key role in England’s ultimately comfortable series win in New Zealand, memorably decimating the Kiwi batting in association with Andrew Caddick on a damp afternoon in Wellington.  In retrospect, this short series marked the birth of perhaps England’s finest new ball partnership since Trueman and Statham. But it was to take a long time to reach maturity.

For the next three or four years Gough was always in contention for a place in the England side, and, when he was fit, he usually delivered.  But after the relative successes of the winter things once again fell away in the summer of 1997.  Although England began and finished the Ashes series with victories, they were still comprehensively defeated and Gough, suffering from the knee trouble which was to cast such a shadow over his later career, lost his place in the side after the Fourth Test and was not selected for England’s tour of the West Indies in early 1998.  His career had stalled once again and questions were being asked about his future. Even those of us who really cared about him doubted his potential to come again.

By the time South Africa visited England again in the summer of 1998, Gough was back and he bowled with his usual virility throughout the series, clinching England’s victory with 6 for 42 on his home ground.  Maintaining his fitness and form he then held his place throughout the following winter’s tour of Australia.  Wickets were slow to come, but Gough played an important role in England’s dramatic victory in Melbourne, before taking a superb hat-trick in a losing cause on his return to Sydney.  But it was all too good to last.  Despite playing a full part in England’s insipid and unsuccessful home World Cup campaign in the spring of 1999, injuries once again prevented him from taking any part in the subsequent abject defeat by New Zealand, a series which preceded the Fletcher-Hussain era which did so much to revive the England team’s fortunes.

Gough was finally fit enough to go on Fletcher’s first tour, to South Africa, in late 1999, and while both his and England’s fortunes fluctuated, the tour served to usher in the most successful, enjoyable and consistent period of his career.  At home, in the summer of 2000, England, with Gough and Caddick finally opening the bowling together again, swept away a poor Zimbabwe side and then ended a thirty-one year drought by beating the West Indies 3-1 to regain the Wisden Trophy.  Gough, rising thirty, had finally played in every Test of an English summer, taking thirty-four wickets.  He’d also played a versatile and vitally important role in one of the seminal performances of modern English Test history, as England bowled the West Indies out for 54 and went on to win by two wickets at Lord’s.  Gough brilliantly caught Sherwin Campbell to begin West Indies’ second innings slide, took a total of six wickets to complement the efforts of Caddick and Dominic Cork, and then kept Cork company as England reached their target on a feverishly exciting Saturday evening.  These appeared to be the best of times for Gough, but they became even better as he and Caddick played vital parts in England’s twin victories in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the winter of 2000-2001.  Gough, in particular, bowled outstandingly well in unhelpful conditions in Sri Lanka, setting himself and England up for another crack at Australia in 2001.

In the spring of 2001 Gough picked up where he had left off in Sri Lanka, ripping through a listless Pakistan side early in the English season.  Then came Australia, and the inevitable heavy defeat, although Gough bowled with persistence to finish with seventeen expensive wickets. His Test career was all but over. He opted out of the Indian leg of England’s winter tour and was denied the opportunity to take part in the first-class section of their subsequent visit to New Zealand.  However, he continued to play One-Day Internationals, and it was towards the end of the series in New Zealand in early 2002 that he sustained the knee injury which was, ultimately, to end his Test career.  Although he managed, against the odds and most people’s expectations, to return to the England side for the first two Tests against Graeme Smith’s South Africans in 2003, it was clear after the Lord’s massacre that his time was up.

When, later in 2003, Gough, despite bowling well in England’s victory in the NatWest Series, was omitted from the England side to play One-day Internationals in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, it seemed certain that his other international career was also coming to a close.  In typical fashion Gough thought otherwise, talking in terms of wanting to play in the 2007 World Cup.  This seemed richly over-confident, even by his standards, but many were forced to think again when he was selected for England’s one day games in the Caribbean, having already elected to move from Yorkshire to Essex.  At the time of writing, with England’s first Test series victory in the West Indies since 1968 firmly clinched but with the ODIs still to come, it’s clear that the Gough story still has some way to run.

While history will not judge Gough to have been a genuinely great fast bowler, he was, at least, a very good one who always gave everything he had and was just what his national team needed in some very tight corners.  Now that England appear to have developed a multi-faceted seam attack with the potential to trouble the world’s best it can be easy to forget that for much of his career Gough was playing in poor sides that found every series an ordeal.  But peripheral considerations like the strength of his team never mattered to him.  Gough was always there for whichever England captain – from Atherton to Stewart to Hussain to Vaughan – was fortunate enough to have him.  Tossing the ball from hand to hand at his mark before sprinting to the crease, the final leap, the reverse-swinging yorker, the broken stumps, the smile and the swagger.

Personally I loved it all – raising the roof of the Bradman Stand as he ran through the Australian batting in 1994, waking up the neighbours as Colin Miller’s stumps were shattered for the Sydney hat-trick, attracting raised eyebrows from MCC members in the Warner Stand as the West Indies unravelled in 2000 and I got a bit too excited.

In the grim nineties charisma and optimism was in short supply in English cricket; Gough had both.

If he’d never existed somebody would have had to invent him.

Cricket Lore, Volume 5, Issue 6, August 2004