FT Masterclass: Batting with Mike Gatting

Mike Gatting remembers the ball that wrecked his face, in a feisty one-day international in Jamaica. It was a 90mph missile, hurtled down the wicket by West Indian paceman Malcolm Marshall. A fragment of bone was later found lodged in the ball. Gatting’s shattered nose made front-page news in 1986. He flew home for treatment and returned to the Caribbean two weeks later, only to have his thumb broken in a fresh bowling assault.

Batting can be downright dangerous and Gatting, now 55, has the scars to prove it. I’ve joined the former England captain at Rokeby School in Newham, east London, where he is coaching youngsters on behalf of the Lord’s Taverners cricket charity. “When you get bashed in the face like that, it knocks you backwards. I had two black eyes, a big gash on my nose and bandages all over the place. The newspapers said I was lucky to be alive,” he says.

England’s first Test match against New Zealand starts at Lord’s on Thursday and will bring the memories flooding back for Gatting. “I broke my nose the first time playing against them in Auckland, in 1978. I was fielding and the ball ricocheted off my hand, then struck me in the face. I also fell over running in to bowl and landed up on my backside. It was so comical, a sweet company used the TV footage in a commercial.”

Gatting scored more than 4,400 runs for England in 79 Tests and was famed for his dogged batting style. He clocked up 10 centuries and 21 fifties at international level, with a highest score of 207 against India in Madras. He captained his country on 23 occasions, including an Ashes victory over Australia in 1987. Gatting was a decent bowler too, taking 158 first-class wickets. By comparison, I have a highest score of 10 and played for a village side in Somerset.

Today, unfortunately, Gatting is looking a little hassled. His car got a flat tyre on the way in, and a tight schedule means he is doomed to drive back home to Enfield in the rush hour. We’ve had to come inside to the school gym because of bad weather and dozens of excited children are asking for his autograph. Is he going to take it out on me, firing what cricketers call a “perfume ball” – one that whistles so close past my nose that I can smell the leather?

“It’s vital you keep your head still and follow the ball right on to the bat. People are often adamant that they are watching the delivery – then suddenly they lift their head at the last moment,” explains Gatting. “If you follow the ball on to your bat, more often than not you will hit it. It’s the most common mistake I see in a novice and difficult to master. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, taking your eye off the ball is bad news.”

Batting for Middlesex, 1990

Gatting himself fell foul of one such delivery in the first test of the 1993 Ashes series, an incredible ball from the Australian spinner Shane Warne. Nicknamed the Ball of the Century, it has its own Wikipedia entry and was generally regarded as unplayable. “It pitched outside my leg stump, then spun dramatically across my body and hit my off stump. It was Warne’s first ball in a Test match in England and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve watched the video time and time again and I’m still out every time!”

I stride down the wicket to the crease, where I will take my stand against Gatting’s awkward medium pace. It’s hardly the same as walking out at Lord’s for England but this is as close as I am going to get. Gatting was president of the Lord’s Taverners for three years and has coached thousands of children – teaching me the basics should be simple, although I haven’t picked up a bat in almost 20 years. “Remember, just watch the ball from the moment it leaves my hand. Your feet will instinctively move towards where it pitches, so you don’t overstretch or lose your balance,” he says. As Gatting rolls up his sleeves to bowl, I can’t help noticing that he has the most enormous forearms, bigger than Popeye’s.

I watch the first delivery closely, gripping the bat tight and waiting for the ball to come to me. So by the time it does, my bat is still lifting backwards and preparing to swing through with my shot. The ball bounces over the top of the middle stump, missing by a whisker. “You should be lifting the bat behind you as I let go of the ball, then you are ready to strike the ball just after it bounces!” yells Gatting. As the second delivery is released, I lunge forward enthusiastically, and pull a hamstring in the process. It’s painful but then I remember that smashed nose, bite my bottom lip and prepare for the next ball.

Gatting first played cricket when he was three years old, in the back garden with his father. Later, he scored a century at his primary school and realised he had a natural talent with bat and ball. He joined Brondesbury Cricket Club in Middlesex and captained the Colts squad as a teenager, while developing his own, rather stubborn style at the crease. “I was often described as pugnacious. I fought tooth and nail to keep my wicket and really hated being given out.”

Jeremy Taylor acquits himself honourably in the face of a Gatting delivery

I’m feeling quite pugnacious too. Ball after ball is coming down the wicket and, slowly but surely, my batting is improving. The gym isn’t hot but sweat is pouring down my forehead. How did Gatting cope against the West Indian pace attack in 1986, batting in the Caribbean heat for hours on end, against legendary bowlers like Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Marshall?

“Concentration is key to good batting, so facing a hostile bowling attack is mentally and physically draining. You have to be alert and ready for every delivery, especially if the pitch is uneven and you aren’t 100 per cent certain where the ball is going to bounce.”

Gatting tells me that captaining his country was the proudest moment of his life. Right now, I would be happy to make the Rokeby School team. At least I’m striking the ball with confidence, cracking a few full-length deliveries back down the wicket and sending the photographer scampering for cover. It’s too good to last, of course, and just as I think I can return home to captain the village team, Gatting sends down a ball that fizzes between bat and pad, knocking out the middle wicket.

It was hardly the ball of the century, but at least I can hold my head high. Gatting seems to concur. “Watch the ball, wait for it to come to you and concentrate. You have improved enormously just by following those rules. I’m not sure you’re ready to face a Malcolm Marshall delivery but you should make the team.” Once my leg is back in shape, I might even return to the crease.

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