Botham and Gower

I grew up in what, in England anyway, was the era of Botham and Gower.  They were among the best players in the world, they were ours, and, as well as being very good, they were both distinctive in their own way.  Gower had a gift of timing and an insouciant elegance which simply can’t be found today, anywhere in the world.  Botham just attacked everything and everyone with unique abandon.  In his time, and on his day, he was impossible to contain.

In 1993, when they both retired, I wrote this.

For those of us who grew up during the years when Ian Botham and David Gower were first establishing themselves and then growing to maturity together in the England team, the warm rush of nostalgia inspired by the increasingly distant memories of their greatest days can be often be difficult to resist.  When one does let one’s thoughts stray to memories of those days, it’s remarkable how vivid they can be.

It would be nice to be able to say that I remember seeing Ian Botham play on my first visit to Lord’s in 1975, but, although Wisden reminds me that he was a member of the Somerset side which played Middlesex in the John Player League, my memories of the day are limited to the impressiveness of the ground and the torrential rain which interrupted play.  Far clearer in the mind, though, is the way in which he revealed his gifts to the world two years later at Trent Bridge, when, during a compelling series, he marked his first day’s Test cricket by taking five Australian wickets for 74.  In the manner which was later to become so familiar, Greg Chappell, fresh from a coruscating century in his country’s second innings at Old Trafford and once again looking firmly in the mood, played on to a short loosener at the start of Botham’s second spell in Test cricket, a prelude to the further scalps of Walters, Marsh, Walker and Thomson.  The ability to take wickets with poor deliveries was a serendipitous habit which Botham was never to lose, but, in those days, Botham the bowler (his powerful and correct batting was to take a little longer to develop) was so much more: a young man with the strength of an Ox, a dynamic competitive temperament and the valuable ability to move the ball sharply through the air, the product of an action which was a model of technical excellence.  While Botham went on to take five further wickets as England regained the Ashes at Headingley, David Gower, whose name I had first come across in 1976, was still establishing himself as a member of the Leicestershire side under Ray Illingworth.  When they came together in the England side in 1978, an era to savour was about to begin.

In his first season in the England side – which began with a pull for four at Edgbaston and took in a stylish maiden century against New Zealand at The Oval – David Gower often appeared too good to be true.  Never before or since have I seen a batsman stand so still as the young Gower as the bowler approached, and, in spite of the charms of a number of players – among them Larry Gomes, Mohammed Azharuddin and Alec Stewart – who have come to prominence more recently, I still regard Gower as the best timer of the ball that I have ever seen.

At that point in their careers, the players’ characters – closely related to their contrasting backgrounds – made an interesting comparison.  Botham the apparently unsophisticated Somerset boy with the herculean physique and confidence to match, Gower the evidently demure public schoolboy with a transparent sense of poise, both on and off the field.  However, despite their differences, it was clear during that 1978 summer, as they cemented their places in the side, that a profound sense of personal and professional respect, founded on an obvious awareness of each other’s qualities, existed between the two.  A particularly salient memory of that period is of Botham and Gower visiting John Arlott at his home in Alresford for a BBC programme about the events of that summer.  As they strolled together in the garden, exchanging opinions about the season’s cricket, one felt that these were the players with whom the future of English cricket was certain to be most closely intertwined for a decade and more. It was additionally pleasing that they appeared to get on so well.

After leaving Arlott they accompanied each other to Australia, playing integral parts in England’s convincing series victory over a Packer-ravaged Australian side.  Botham was aggressive, damaging and consistent with both bat and ball, Gower distinguished himself chiefly with a beautifully-constructed hundred at Perth, from which the stroke with which he reached his century, a straight drive off Alan Hurst, is still rich in the memory more than eighteen years later.

In the English summer of 1979 both went from strength to strength: Gower with a prodigious double century at Edgbaston, Botham achieving the fastest Test ‘double’ in history.  Yet, as England travelled to Australia for the first World Series Cup and three Tests in the latter part of the year, one had the feeling that it was only a matter of time before one or both of them felt the chill wind of failure for the first time in international cricket.  In the case of Gower it came more quickly than to Botham: he had an uneasy tour (thrown into sharper relief by Botham’s continued success, notably in the Indian Golden Jubilee Test in February 1980, when he scored a hundred and took thirteen wickets), and, after playing in England’s First Test defeat by the West Indies at Trent Bridge the following summer – spilling a vital catch and failing twice with the bat – Gower was dropped from the England side for the first, though certainly not the last, time.  It is, with hindsight, instructive to note that the criticisms of Gower that were starting to emerge at this time were exactly those that were to stalk him for the rest of his career.  The late Peter Smith, writing about the 1979-80 tour of Australia in the 1981 Wisden, noted that ‘Gower was another disappointment …the tour management was entitled to demand a more responsible selection of strokes than those that resulted in his dismissal when England were already deep in trouble’.

Despite the runs he had scored and the breathtaking manner in which he had scored them, many were already taking a dim view of the way in which Gower was prone to throw his wicket away with strokes that appeared rash.  This, though, was the essence of a problem which also dogged Gower until 1993: if the shots succeeded they were deemed brilliant, if they failed they were viewed as irresponsible.  One’s own feeling is that throughout his career Gower was guilty of playing many shots which were unsuited to the circumstances in which they were played, but that, when he was playing well (during his 215 against Australia at Edgbaston in 1985, to take just one example) the level of quality which his batting achieved was so high as to make criticism of his flaws irrelevant.

This was an uneasy time for Gower, but Botham was beginning to fail as well.  Most people who followed English cricket at the time will remember his elevation to the captaincy of the England side in 1980, following which his previously impregnable form took a startling dip during the series defeats by the West Indies at home and away.  Botham has always maintained that the captaincy had no material effect on his form and that his loss of touch was coincidental, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that his elevation introduced – albeit perhaps unconsciously – a degree of inhibition which had never previously been a factor in his cricket. Botham had succeeded so remarkably prior to 1980 both because of his talent and the unabashed spontaneity of his play, and the way in which this returned as soon as he lost the captaincy in 1981 tends to indicate that the influence of his period as captain on his form was more malign than he thought.

1981 saw them both rise again to the heights they had previously occupied – Gower by virtue of his heroic innings at Kingston at the end of the West Indies tour, and Botham as a result of his astonishing feats against Australia.  The facts of Botham’s performances in the latter half of that series have been well documented elsewhere, but the significance of what he did and the way in which he did it transcended the ordinary once and for all and made him a player whom those that witnessed the series will always view with reverence.  Even now, many years after the events, I can remember clearly where I was and how I felt as Botham, with assistance from Brearley, Willis and others, transformed the series.  I’ve seen a lot of cricket since, and, as is the lot of anyone who follows sport closely, have experienced every conceivable emotion while watching it, but nothing has ever made the sensory impact on me that Botham’s series did.  I doubt if anything ever will.

The succeeding years were ones in which the levels of success to which English supporters had become accustomed during the late seventies and early eighties began to fall away.  The Ashes retained in 1981 were surrendered in Australia, a first home defeat by New Zealand followed at Headingley in the summer of 1983, and, under Gower’s captaincy, England were defeated by five matches to nil by the West Indies at home in 1984.  Many players came and went during these years and the performances of the national side became a bad joke.  Though often failing to rise above the general air of mediocrity, Botham and Gower remained important members of the side, as much for their now considerable experience as for the quality of their achievements.  Certain gems shone through at the time, and now do so in the memory: Botham’s bombastic yet cultured double-century against India at The Oval in 1982 and eight wickets at Lord’s against the West Indies in 1984, Gower’s brilliant batting in Australia in 1982-83.  But they were now receiving as much attention for their perceived failings (on and off the field) as for their intrinsic merits and past successes, criticisms which were to accompany them both until the end of their careers.  Gower’s detractors were temporarily assuaged by his sublime batting against Australia in 1985, but, when England were blown away by a typhoon of pace in the Caribbean in early 1986, the wolves were once again gathering at his door.  His removal from the England captaincy after defeat by India at Lord’s in June was a foretaste of what was to come, while Botham had been banned from first-class cricket for three months after admitting having smoked cannabis.  Although he returned in triumph against New Zealand to become the world’s leading Test wicket-taker – his first-ball wicket of Bruce Edgar briefly rekindling his greatest days and enhancing his status as someone who could do things no-one else could – Botham, certainly after the 1986-87 tour of Australia, was never really the same player again.

For Gower, the years that followed were to be even more unsettled – a roller-coaster mixture of sporadic brilliance at county and Test level and many missed, and denied, opportunities, the culmination of which was his final exclusion from the England side before the 1992-93 tour of India.  While his resumption and subsequent loss of the England captaincy in 1989 largely confirmed what many had felt earlier – that he was fundamentally unsuited to international captaincy – the criticisms which finally drove Gower out of the England side were based on a perceived inability to apply himself in every situation and to assimilate with the squad which Mickey Stewart and Graham Gooch presided over.  Such criticisms missed the point.  One of the chief reasons Gower was always such a marvellous player to watch was the fact that he never lost the desire to treat each ball on its merits which he brought into Test cricket in 1978, while batting with a grace which no other England player of his generation could match, let alone surpass.

True, Gower never quite got over a weakness outside the off-stump, particularly against the ball slanting across him (hardly unique amongst left-handers), and was frequently guilty of playing shots which were ill-judged, but reference to these flaws tells but a fraction of the complete story.  Gower was always a player who responded best to the adrenalin provided by the big occasion – something he and Botham held firmly in common – and, when his excellent Test record is taken into account, the contention that he was a luxury player whose inclusion was a liability is exposed to ridicule.  Because he was so talented, and, unlike the majority of people he was playing with in the England sides of the late eighties and early nineties had actually proved himself, again and again, in Test cricket, Gower need not necessarily have been expected to conform to the routines that were imposed on lesser mortals by the side’s stubbornly inflexible management.

This said, the memories which most of us will retain of David Gower will be from the years when he was unchallenged as the country’s greatest international batsman – from effortlessly lofting Steve Boock for six at The Oval in 1978 to creaming Jeff Thomson through the covers to reach his hundred at Edgbaston in 1985, a stroke which left one of the most ferociously competitive fast bowlers in history vainly applauding in the middle of the pitch – he did almost everything with an elegant sense of style, the like of which we will not see again for a very long time.

Botham is a different case in that there was rarely anything particularly graceful about the way he moved or acted on the field, but, while his qualities were more prosaic than Gower’s, they were also more diverse.  First there was the Botham of 1977 to 1979: a devilishly gifted swing bowler who also excelled as a batsman of power and timing and, as is often ignored, a brilliant fielder, especially in the slips.  Then there was the second Botham, lacking his previous consistency with the ball, but making up for it with the ability to remove a batsman through sheer force of personality, a brutal but much more technically correct player with the bat, still a marvellous fielder.  The third Botham was the Botham of 1985 and later; a player who, while still possessing the innate talents which took him to the heights, found it harder to reconcile the need to achieve on the field with his burgeoning commitments off it.  By then, though, he could be excused any minor failings; he had done it all – and more – many times before.

At the end of the 1981 Ashes series Botham was little short of a folk hero, perhaps the first person from his profession to make a significant impact on the wider consciousness of the country since Denis Compton.  Despite everything that followed in his turbulent career and personal life, it is a status which he has never really lost, certainly for those that were of an impressionable age when he attained it.  After Botham had played his final match, in 1993, Simon Hughes quoted his fellow Durham player, the former Nottinghamshire wicket-keeper Chris Scott, as saying that with Botham’s retirementpart of his childhood had disappeared. The remark struck a chord with me, as it summed up exactly how I felt at the time, and still do.

There’ll never be another 1981 series and there’ll certainly never be another Ian Botham.

The Journal of the Cricket Society, Volume 18, Number 3, Autumn 1997