David Gower had warned me it might be difficult to find his new London flat, just off Portobello Road, as it is part of a development in north Kensington to convert Victorian townhouses into residential blocks. Nevertheless, it is a surprise to get halfway down his road and find the rest of the street blocked by construction work.
Yet the real shock comes when the 58-year-old former England cricket captain, and now the main cricket presenter on Sky Television, shows me into his three-bedroom flat. Then the huge contrast between Gower on a cricket field and Gower in his new home becomes obvious.
With a bat in his hand, the Englishman was one of the greatest enchanters the game has ever seen. A Gower innings often emptied bars because spectators knew that however long it lasted it would be full of effortless style and grace. In stark contrast, we walk past a bare wall in the hall to a kitchen-cum-sitting room where, apart from a couple of pictures of his family and a large TV set, there is nothing that catches the eye.
It is almost a relief to see what looks like a bottle of champagne on the breakfast bar for this suggests the Gower we know and love. He once settled a libel action against the journalist Martin Johnson by accepting a case of Krug and then sharing a drink with him. But when I ask about the bottle of champagne he quickly says “it is only Prosecco” in a voice which suggests his flat has not yet reached the standard where champagne would be justified.
In fairness, Gower has not been helped by the developers. “This building was very much delayed — we are still very much setting up. It’s still the furniture from the old flat in Paddington.” And he readily admits that “it is looking a bit sparse at the moment”. So much so that when I ask him about his favourite object he says “it is in Bubble Wrap” and then takes me to his ironing room and cuts open the packaging.
That old London flat was “pure investment. It was let out and just washing its face.” The new London flat is home. He also has a house in Hampshire and, together, they meet both his needs and those of his two daughters, Alex and Sammi, who, he says are “getting to a certain age, 22 and 19. They haven’t really left home, but don’t mind not being at home.”
It is now more than two decades since Gower swapped the England dressing room for the TV studio, one of many high-profile former players to make that journey, and he is well aware of the delicate task of marshalling the varied Sky commentary team of ex-players. Ian Botham, the greatest all-rounder England has ever produced, “can be very populist, very jingoistic”. As well as contemptuous of the reliance of modern players on psychology to improve performance. “It wasn’t there when we played and if you ask Beefy [Botham’s nickname] he will say, ‘What psychology? A cup of tea and a fag and get on with it.’ He’s always had this impregnable self-belief.”
Gower’s worry is that unless modern players express their belief in Test cricket, the longest form of the game played over five days, it might die. “It needs a concerted effort from the players to affirm that playing Tests is what they see as their biggest challenge and their proudest moment. I always felt that Test cricket was the ultimate form of the game and gave me the most satisfaction.” So while at the start of his career Gower liked playing one-day cricket towards the end “there was a sort of boredom. My figures in one day internationals overall were not that great.” During a 14-year Test career for England, in 117 Tests he scored 8,231 runs, averaging 44. Yet over the same period in only three fewer one day internationals he scored 3,170, averaging 30.
However, he says, “we have to accept you cannot change things back”. When Gower toured India in the 1980s it was not uncommon for Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, which then accommodated 100,000, to be packed on all five days of a Test, which would be unheard of today. “That was the height of India watching Test cricket. Then there was no alternative. Now you have 20- and 50-over matches finishing in one day and Indians love watching that sort of cricket. The genie is out of the bottle. At the end of it all, the public buys what they want to buy.”
The buying power of the rising Indian middle class has also meant that, in contrast to Gower’s playing days, India produces 80 per cent of world cricket’s income and controls the game. England and Australia last year joined India in, effectively, taking over the International Cricket Council, the game’s governing body. “It’s hardly egalitarian, it’s hardly democratic. Giles [Clarke, former head of English cricket] said every cricketing nation may not have as much as us but they will end up with more of the pot. But will it work? And what it doesn’t solve is the lack of ability of the ICC to fully control the game.”
The most glaring example of this is India’s refusal to accept the Decision Review System which allows teams two unsuccessful appeals against umpiring decisions in each innings, with TV cameras used to examine on-field decisions.
“The evidence is that with DRS the percentage of correct decisions goes up. So for any nation unilaterally to say, ‘Well we still don’t believe the technology,’ is just bonkers. It’s power mongering by the Indians.” That other countries accept this Indian diktat proves, says Gower, that “the governance of the game is still dubious. Let alone flex a muscle, I would love the ICC to just grow a muscle.”
Indian muscle-growing saw the launch in 2008 of the Indian Premier League, dedicated to the shortest form of the game where each side bats for only 20 overs and a match rarely lasts more than three hours. The IPL has revolutionised the game and provided some cricketers with the sort of money paid to Premier League footballers. “Overall,” says Gower, “it’s good. It has not damaged cricket.” Unlike many ex-players who often moan about the money they have missed out on, he says: “I don’t begrudge opportunities for players with certain specific skills to make good money.”
What worries him is how modern cricketers abuse each other during play. “As broadcasters we listen on stump mics [to the] stuff cricketers say to each other during the play. It cannot be broadcast. I could not repeat it in the Financial Times. When I played there was sledging. The Australians invented the term and some of it was quite funny, clever little digs. But if you got runs it went quiet. Now it’s incessant and has to be asterisked out every time. This might sound old-fashioned but sport is there to set an example.”
Gower feels strongly that Kevin Pietersen, the South African-born England cricketer, has not set a good example with his off-field behaviour. In 2012, as England played South Africa, Pietersen sent less than flattering texts about his captain, Andrew Strauss, to his former compatriots. He followed this up with a book that was very unkind about his England teammates, resulting in Pietersen being excluded from the team.
But did Gower not have similar problems with the England management during his playing career? “I can’t quite see the link”, he says. Gower upset cricket bosses during the 1991 Ashes tour in Australia when, moments after getting out during a warm-up match in Queensland and with play still going on, he went for a joyride in a Tiger Moth biplane. “[It] was a lightbulb moment: instinctive, inoffensive, fun. I paid the fine [£1,000] and whatever the management thought of me, it did not upset the rest of the team.”
In Gower’s eyes, Pietersen clearly has. And, while Gower’s stylish batting set him apart from his teammates as much as Pietersen’s batting does, cricket for Gower remains a team game where everyone has to blend together.
Photographs: Carl Bigmore; Adrian Murrell/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published