Remembering Mike Gatting

Mike Gatting was 18 when he made his First Class debut for Middlesex. He was always going to be a professional sportsman and, once it became clear he wasn’t going to be quite good enough to make a career as a goalkeeper it was time to concentrate on cricket. Younger brother Steve, also a useful cricketer, did make a career in football for Arsenal and Brighton, and Steve’s son Joe played both sports professionally albeit not at the same time, beginning as a striker with Brighton and, when opportunities there were limited, going on to play as a batsman for Sussex and Hampshire without ever suggesting he was as good as his famous uncle.

A powerful forcing right handed batsman Gatting was highly rated from the start. He was called into an England squad for the first time as a twenty year old when he was taken to Pakistan and New Zealand. He played a single Test in each series, achieving nothing of note. Such was his consistency at county level that over the next seven years Gatting played in 30 Tests for England, but with a highest score of just 81 and an average of 23.83. Against the formidable 1980 West Indians he played in four of the five Tests, and then the centenary Test against Australia. He got plenty of starts, and averaged 29.37, but his highest score was 56. In the famous summer of 1981 he reached fifty four times, but never passed 59. A tendency to pad up to balls that were too straight for taking that risk against and to play the then highly unusual reverse sweep could on occasion exasperate.

When he was dismissed twice by Malcolm Marshall for 1 and 29 in the Lord’s Test of 1984 Gatting believed he had run out of chances. A little despondent he spent some time in the nets with a couple of Middlesex legends, Gubby Allen and Don Bennett, and ironed out a few technical issues. An eye-catching 258 against Somerset followed and with England skipper David Gower keen to have him in India he got another chance on the 1984/85 trip. This time Gatting did take his opportunity, and spectacularly so, making a first Test hundred in the first Test, a double in the fourth and averaging 95.83.

The new confident Gatting returned to face Australia in the 1985 Ashes and carried on where he had left off in India. His average dropped, but only slightly to 87.83. As England won a six match series 3-1 Gatting failed to contribute at least a half century in all but the final Test. He was now the finished article as an international batsman and looking forward to taking on the West Indies in the Caribbean the following winter.

Sadly the tour was a difficult one for Gatting and trouble soon found him. Marshall described the pitch as uneven. Ian Botham preferred the word corrugated. Either way the quality of the wicket at Sabina Park in Kingston for the first ODI of the tour left a good deal to be desired and West Indies’ decision to field first after winning the toss was no surprise. Tim Robinson and David Gower were both dismissed without scoring before Graham Gooch and Gatting tried to dig in. Gatting had eked ten runs out of 37 deliveries when disaster struck. Seeing a chance for a hook Gatting went for a Marshall bouncer and missed. The ball went from glove to nose and onto the stumps. A dazed and confused Gatting then trod on his wicket before being helped from the field.

The nose was shattered and surgery required. Doctors at the hospital Gatting was taken to were concerned that slivers of bone may have been pushed into the brain. The man himself was fretting because of the delay, concerned at when he might be able to resume his innings. No one could be bothered to explain to him that he was out anyway. After an hour or so he was able to go back to the ground and, with Gatting’s main property to get back out in the middle only then was the news relayed to him – there followed an expletive or two from a frustrated Gatting.

A few days later a clearly damaged Gatting was back at Heathrow being famously asked by a waiting reporter where the ball had him. His response to one of the most stupid questions ever asked was a model of restraint, something that could not always be said of Gatting. Most men in his position would have sat out the rest of the winter at home, but less than a month later Gatting was back in the Caribbean looking to take his place in the side for the third Test. He started well in the warm up, but then was dismissed for 36. Vibert Greene, not the fastest of West Indian quick bowlers but certainly slippery on his day, broke his finger and he missed the second innings and, of course, the Test.

Surely this time Gatting would give the tour up as a bad job? In fact no. Another month on and Gatting lined up in the side in Antigua. He couldn’t stop England sliding to a second successive 5-0 reverse but did win the psychological battle with Marshall, or perhaps more realistically with himself, when the inevitable bouncer that Maco gave him first up was pulled away for a couple of runs.

Gatting’s reward for his courage was the poisoned chalice of the England captaincy. After defeat in the first Test against India in 1986 the selectors lost patience with Gower and replaced him with Gatting. He lost his first Test in charge, but an unbeaten 183 prevented India winning the third Test, and although the following series against New Zealand was also lost there was another century for Gatting.

The choice of Gatting for the England job was an obvious one. He had been leading Middlesex since 1983 and whilst he may have inherited a strong and successful side from Mike Brearley the fact that in his first three seasons in charge the side were second, third and first in the County Championship showed his credentials, although a slip to twelfth by an aging side in 1986 coupled with England’s problems suggested he may have  been running out of ideas.

England under Gatting were not expected to do well in Australia in 1986/87. They started the tour badly and were beaten by Queensland and struggled against Western Australia on the eve of the first Test, causing journalist Martin Johnson to famously write; There are only three things wrong with this England team. They can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field. They were words which seemed to galvanise the resolve of the team who went on to deservedly win the series 2-1. Gatting would inevitably have played his part in creating the team spirit that all the players recognised played a major role in their success, and his selfless decision to take on the problematic number three berth in the first Test, and his success there after Chris Broad’s early dismissal, was certainly a case of Leading From The Front, the title he chose for an autobiography that was published a couple of years later.

Unfortunately for Gatting that was the end of his success as England’s captain. The following summer Pakistan visited England and, for the first time, won a series in England. The home side did not play well, although Gatting himself, in a five match series, scored 445 runs at an average of 63.57 to lead the England averages by a distance.

The next series for Gatting was in Pakistan and resulted in defeat again. It was a series that might have been squared had so much time not been taken out of the second Test as a result of Gatting’s notorious on field spat with umpire Shakoor Rana. Gatting should of course have turned the other cheek, but as the modest punishment he received for the incident amply demonstrated the incident did no credit to Rana either, and Gatting was at his wit’s end with the undoubtedly poor quality of the umpiring, and his anger at being called a ****ing cheating **** by Rana is understandable.

From Pakistan England travelled to Australia for the one off Bicentennial Test which was followed by a three Test series in New Zealand. All four Tests were drawn and there was continued grumbling about the quality of the umpiring. There were not many runs for Gatting but by the end of the tour he certainly still had the loyalty of his team and, although there were problems in the early part of the trip, he also seemed to have put behind him the spectre of what had happened at Faisalabad.

The test for England in 1988 was as tough as they come, West Indies, and after ten successive defeats against the men in maroon avoiding defeat was the first objective. The series began at Trent Bridge with some optimism of better times ahead for England after Gatting had led them to a 3-0 clean sweep in the ODI series. Gatting had the courage to bat first after winning the toss, but in conceding a first innings deficit of 203 England’s middle order, Gatting included, let the side down.  However there was some intervention by the weather and two excellent innings from Gooch and Gower and a determined one from the captain himself when England went back out made sure a draw was comfortably achieved in the end.

The second Test was, as per tradition, scheduled for Lord’s, but in the end Gatting did not play. After the Trent Bridge match a story appeared in a Sunday newspaper reporting that he had taken a waitress to his room during the Trent Bridge match. With some in the corridors of power no doubt still irked by events in Pakistan there was no sympathy shown for Gatting who lost the captaincy to county teammate John Emburey and his place in the side to Martyn Moxon.

England lost the match at Lord’s and, more importantly, Gooch to injury. For the third Test Moxon moved up the order to open in place of Gooch and Gatting was called back. He scored 0 and 4, England were hammered and Gatting was out of the side again. It is unlikely, given the comprehensive nature of two more defeats, that he was troubled unduly by his omission. On the positive side his fortunes at Middlesex improved as the county, after being sixteenth in 1987, rose up to seventh in the Championship, and lifted the Nat West Bank Trophy, then the showpiece of the List A summer.

In 1988/89 England were due to visit India, a tour that did not happen because the Indian government refused to issue visas to eight of the England side, including skipper Gooch, all of whom were on a UN blacklist because of their past links with South Africa.

In the following summer England welcomed Allan Border’s Australians for the first Ashes series since the Gatting led victory of 1986/87. There was a new broom at the top, Ted Dexter having replaced Peter May as Chairman of Selectors, and his comparison of Gooch to a wet fish made clear his views on the captaincy. He wanted to reinstate Gatting and told him as much in March. In the event a fellow selector, Ossie Wheatley, made it clear to Dexter that Gatting was not an acceptable appointment, and in the end the job went, as a compromise, back to Gower.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world and after a hiatus of three years since the last Australian visit, South Africa were looking to recruit an England side for a rebel tour. For a long time they lacked a captain but, his great loyalty stretched to breaking point by the way he had been treated, in the end Gatting accepted the job and was unveiled as one of the sixteen tourists on the final day of the fourth Test, in which Australia’s superiority over England had been confirmed as they took an unassailable 3-0 lead in a six match series they eventually took 4-0. Gatting had been selected for the second Test, scored 0 and 22 and then withdrew from the third because of a family bereavement. By that time the rules were clear. The tourists would be banned from officially sanctioned international cricket for the duration of their contracts with SACU (two years) and for a further five years after that so, at 32, Gatting was effectively bringing down the curtain on his Test career.

Having played international cricket throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s Gatting could not have been ignorant of the issues at stake, although he might have been surprised at just how strong public opinion in England was against the visit. What he cannot have known at the time he accepted Ali Bacher’s offer, was that the laws in South Africa that criminalised political demonstrations were to be abolished in September of 1989 and that accordingly things would be just as difficult when his side actually arrived. Despite the winds of change blowing through the country and evidenced by that change in the law the anti-apartheid movements were still united in their opposition to the rebel tour going ahead.

The tour, which began in January 1990, was a mistake and in the end a second ‘Test’ match was cancelled. The cricket was of no consequence but, if it were needed, there was one very vivid demonstration of Gatting’s courage. The third fixture of the tour was a three day match in Pietermaritzburg. There was a demonstration and those protesting wanted to present Gatting with a petition. He could, naturally, have stayed put in the pavilion and gone nowhere near the baying crowd. Instead he decided to go out and accept the petition, walking about 150 yards through the throng and back again in order to do so. Facing Marshall on a dodgy track at Sabina Park must, for once, have seemed like the proverbial walk in the park.

Of the seventeen days of ‘International’ cricket that were scheduled for the trip only seven were played before the cancellation, there being real concerns for the safety of the tourists in the febrile atmosphere in the country. The physical danger might not have been present back in England but the hostility was undimmed ,the Daily Mirror greeting the tourists with; Mike Gatting and his jackals of cricket are coming home early with their bats between their legs. Having disgraced their country and their sport it is only fitting that they should be abandoned by the South Africa to which they sold their reputations. Behind them in South Africa the pace of change was such that in a little over a year’s time the country was readmitted to the ICC.

The ban on Gatting stood until 1992 when it was relaxed in time for him to be chosen to tour India under Gooch’s leadership. In his three summers away from the game he had scored heavily and consistently for Middlesex and in 1991 and 1992 reached 2,000 runs. In the first of those summers he was the leading Englishman in the averages, and second only to Gooch in 1992, so on form alone his selection was fully merited.

The tour was not a happy one. England were well beaten in all three Tests in India and also managed to lose the only Test in Sri Lanka. There was an outcry in England when the party was chosen, not because of the inclusion of Gatting, but because of the omission of Gower, supposedly on grounds of age notwithstanding that he was the same age as Gatting and four years younger than Gooch or Emburey. Gatting did not excel with the bat in India but, averaging 36.50, only Graeme Hick headed him in the averages.

A winter such as they had just had was far from ideal preparation for another visit from the powerful Australian side of 1993 and it is perhaps a little unfortunate for Gatting that the best remembered moment of his career came in the first innings of the first Test when he became the victim of Shane Warne’s ball of the century, his first delivery in the Ashes and a superb leg break that pitched outside Gatting’s leg stump before hitting the top of the non-plussed batsman’s off stump. At the time he had scored just four, and he made only 23 second time round, but it was enough to keep his place.

In the second innings at Lord’s Gatting scored 59, so was perhaps unlucky not to get another chance but he was 36 and not so mobile as he once had been. His reputation as a fine player of spin had also been tarnished by Warne’s delivery and, perhaps, the more so in the first innings at Lord’s when he was bowled ‘through the gate’ for five by off spinner Tim May. There was no Gatting in the West Indies that winter or against South Africa or New Zealand in 1994 and it seemed his international career must be over.

England were now led by Michael Atherton, no fan of the old guard whose verdict on Gatting was; Too old, liability in the field, recent Test record not good, another left hander needed to counter Warne. It was therefore a major surprise when, even though they had been the second and third placed Englishmen in the First Class averages in 1994, both Gooch and Gatting (41 and 37 respectively) were included in the party for Australia in 1994/95, the more so that they were the only two in a party that suffered more than most with injury that played in all five Tests.

There is no doubt that Gatting struggled and in the two heavy defeats that England suffered in the first two Tests he scored 10,13,9, and 25. England’s fortunes picked up in the third match and they had much the better of a draw but, out for nought in his only innings, Gatting was told his tour was done. He only played in the fourth Test because England were down to just eleven fit men, something which made their subsequent victory all the more surprising.

Atherton won the toss and chose to bat and Gatting came in on Gooch’s dismissal at 93. He was last out almost seven hours later for 117, his tenth and last Test century, seven and a half years after the ninth. It was far from the flowing stroke play of Gatting at his belligerent best, but was absolutely crucial. He was not without luck, bowled by Craig McDermott from a no ball on 19, and his anxiety was such that it took him 77 minutes to get through the nineties. No doubt drained Gatting was out for a duck in the second innings, but he had made his contribution . Before the final match of the series at the WACA Gatting and Gooch both announced their retirements from Test cricket. It was a heavy defeat and, with 0 and 8, Gatting left the international arena quietly. His final record was a total of 4,409 runs in 79 Tests at 35.55, figures that were not a true reflection of his ability.

By now a veteran Gatting played on for Middlesex for another four summers before finally retiring at the end of the 1998 season. He remained a force and even in that last summer comfortably made his 1,000 runs. Against Essex at Southgate at the end of June he scored 241, in the course of which he and Justin Langer added a record Middlesex opening stand of 372 prompting the Australian to observe; Without exception he still works as hard as anyone in the team, his technique is outstanding and he obviously has a great love and passion for the game of cricket.

After retirement from playing Gatting, now 63, has stayed in the world of cricket. He has served in various coaching and administrative capacities as well as working in the media. In 2013 he was President of the MCC and, by all accounts, remains one of the great trenchermen the game has produced. Langer’s account in his most recent autobiography of a day he took on Gatting in an eating contest is the best illustration of his talents in that respect, as well as demonstrating Langer’s willingness to take on a challenge even when victory is clearly beyond him.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler