Cricket and A Wild Elephant? TM promises you it will all make perfect sense.
Cricinfo is carrying an article by Christian Ryan. A Touch of Gower describes an eight year old’s reaction to the first Friday of a Test series in Australia, his efforts to ‘skive’ off school, his frustrations at the noise and interference in the family home that morning, the temporary let down of watching Chris Tavare and Geoff Cook opening the England innings and then the unfolding of a Gower innings.
The memory of that innings stayed with the author through life, but when he came to write the article for The Best I’ve Watched series, Ryan was surprised by the results of his research …
“Yesterday I looked up Scyld Berry’s book from that summer, Train to Julia Creek. Magnificent – but not much cricket in it, and no Gower. I went to the newspaper archives room. No Gower until Wilkins’ 22nd paragraph in the Australian; none in the Herald till the 23rd. McFarline in the Age mentions Gower’s “sensible strokeplay” and Casellas in the West Australian his “enterprise”.
It seemed almost a begrudging afterthought when Casellas eventually concluded, that these runs were “richly deserved”.
Regrettably the comments for this article have been closed because Third Man would very much like to thank Mr Ryan for sharing this intimate recollection. We are taken right there with him to his family’s bare living room in Anula, Northern Territory, Australia: broken furniture, no air-conditioning, twin baby sisters wailing, TV on when, “in a blue helmet, no visor or chinstrap, blond curls crushing against his earguards, appeared David Ivon Gower.”
Ryan’s implicit question remains in the air, why was this wonderful batsman so poorly appreciated in his own time? We know why he should invoke such loyalty among so many, but why did so many of his special innings hardly rate a word, when every ‘failure’ brought down on his head a pile of invective?
Thinking about it over the years Third Man has concluded that, because Gower made batting look easy, it jarred with the belief that sporting achievement has to result from a disciplined work ethic. We loved to watch Gower but could never forgive him for making us enjoy the guilty pleasure of this illicit ‘unnatural’ bounty from cricket. Third Man has written about it here.
This kind of thing might have affected Dexter but it did not, not to the same degree. It affected Gower because Britain had moved out of the Sixties and through the Seventies. With a growing emphasis on individualism came a greater self-responsibility for doing well. This found its expression in cricket with the work ethic and training regimes of Mikey Stewart and the utilitarianism of Graham ‘Heavy Bat’ Gooch.
It was Roundhead against Cavalier and even though the culture of the Eighties became a time of ‘Boli’ and excess, it was excess based on ‘working hard, playing hard’. Nothing came for free.
Yet Gower’s batting appeared to do just that. No effort, no work, no practice, no sweat – just indulgence. That way of life was fine to fantasize about when watching ITV’s sumptious and lethargic portrayal of Brideshead life, but literally unconscionable on the cricket field.
Lamb and Gower might get into the same scrapes but for one it was considered the natural reaction to a hard innings or a hard tour. For the other it was the sin of wasted talent. The very impression of indolence triggered the guilt infused righteousness of the zealot.
Was it Orwell who said that there was no greater enemy of a wild elephant than a tame elephant?
It has taken years of gradual change to create the licence for self-expression and a truly bright form of cricket measured by more than just run rate. Perhaps as we enter an age of austerity we shall once more demand of a our heroes ‘gay abandon’, pleasure without effort and success without limit so that, through them, we may access these heights vicariously.
Then Gatesby will take guard and the wheel will turn further. But that is going too far into the future, even for Third Man’s Time Machine.