It was once remarked that in English cricket, the quest is not so much for the Holy Grail as for King Arthur himself. Whereas 46 men have captained Australia in Tests, 80 have taken the England job in the same time. Graham Alan Gooch knows the pitfalls better than anyone: he was one of 16 men to lead England in the 20 years he played Test cricket.
Gooch’s debut Test, the first of England’s doomed 1975 Ashes campaign, was a microcosm of the chaos that stalked English cricket in his time: the home side lost by an innings; Mike Denness was sacked as captain and dropped; Gooch made a pair and was dropped as well; among their replacements was grey-haired debutant David Steele, “the bank clerk who went to war”; somewhat inevitably, Australia secured the urn.
Gooch batted at number five in that Birmingham Test, but he would come to be known as one of England’s finest and most hardworking openers. By the mid-90s, when Gooch peered down the pitch at the world’s fastest bowlers, a luxuriant Zapata moustache was all that protected his face. He looked like the nation’s dad. But in his most dominant seasons, his trusty Stuart Surridge Turbo became cricket’s Excalibur.
The apotheosis of Gooch’s career was the first six months of 1990, when he grabbed the pinless grenade of the captaincy from David Gower and led a gallant England side through the West Indies. Expected to be annihilated, they lost 2-1 to Viv Richards’ wrecking crew, but hacked away at the Caribbean aura so decisively that it seemed like a win. After England’s stirring victory in the first Test at Jamaica, the second was abandoned and the third drawn thanks only to rain and bad sportsmanship from the home side.
Only once Gooch was injured and missing did West Indies strike back and win the decisive fourth and fifth Tests. The opening line of Alan Lee’s Wisden report says it all: “The essential weakness of any statistical record is that it can reflect neither circumstance nor injustice.” Stoic and inscrutable, always leading by example, Gooch’s legend was secured. “He had presided over the return of English cricket’s self-respect,” was Matthew Engel’s verdict.
The English season following was Gooch’s defining glory as a batsman. A week after his 37th birthday, he posted his landmark double of 333 and 123 against India at Lord’s – a record Test match aggregate which helped him towards 1,058 runs at 96.18 in eleven Test innings that summer. Only Kumar Sangakarra has repeated his feat of a century and a triple-century in the same Test. It is impossible for cricket lovers to see the number 333 and not think of Gooch; in bold red numerals, it was added to the face of his signature bat, making it a fetish object.
Overlapping with ‘Gazzamania’, Gooch’s early ’90s fame briefly made him the unlikely advertising sidekick of Paul Gascoigne, but it was a role for which he was unsuited. “I know I look a thoroughly miserable sod on telly but I can’t help it,” was Gooch’s more realistic appraisal of his public image. Miserable? Maybe. Austere? Definitely. But respected. England teammates dubbed Gooch and team manager Micky Stewart, also a hard taskmaster, “the Cockney mafia”.
As critical as Gooch’s presence in England teams of his time was his absence, for reasons which rightly and wrongly shaped perceptions of his career. For his captaincy of the ‘Rebel’ England side to South Africa, he was banned from Tests for three years, and never quite shook the stigma. For putting his young family before cricket and not accepting every official invitation his country offered, he was ridiculed as weak. Yet the Sunday Telegraph also called him cricket’s Thatcher: “forceful, plebeian, undeferential, a winner.”
Which is to say that Graham Gooch was always a hard man to pin down. For decades, he made fools of even the sharpest cricket writers. “Gooch the batsman has become suspicious, careworn and circumspect,” Simon Barnes once wrote. “He is a very tough competitor indeed, but he no longer looks like a batsman about whom one boasts to one’s grandchildren.” Gooch scored another 4176 Test runs from that point. But he was never the boasting type.
Gooch’s legacies are important but not obvious: his ability to play Test cricket into his 40s was not merely a reflection of England’s thin batting stocks in that time, but an endorsement for the punishing physical training regime that underpinned his twilight years. In more recent times, he was the England batting coach who demanded his men score “daddy hundreds”, rather than being satisfied with merely notching three figures. “He doesn’t really count anything under 150,” said Alastair Cook.
For Gooch, the process was simple: “I don’t coach batting, I coach run-making.” With 67,057 professional runs to his name, he certainly spoke from experience. His greatness, neither pre-ordained nor instantly recognisable, had prevailed.