David Gower is, I think, the first cricketer whose entire international career I was able to watch. I don't quite recall Botham's debut, but I do Gower's, which began, as no-one needs reminding, with a first ball pull for four off a bowler called Liaqat Ali, whose sole contribution to cricket history this seems to be - an unfortunate quiz-question of a career, that.
All of the rest of that era - Willis, Gooch, Boycott, Knott etc - were already playing, but Gower, yup, I was there for the lot. It came to mind when reading Andrew Miller's piece at cricinfo on how good the current England side are. The general feeling seemed to be that this is a workmanlike team profiting in an era of flat tracks and non-lethal bowling, and it's a valid view to have. How many of those Indian pies would Goochie have gorged himself on? Loads, probably, if he could have got the strike off of Geoffrey and his stick of rhubarb.
But whenever these arguments emerge, two things happen, one obvious and one not quite so. The first is that we are remembering men in their prime, at their best, and sometimes with that lovely, melancholic air of what the Portuguese call 'saudade', which is a kind of nostalgia for something that never really happened. The second is that the older set of men have the advantage of being judged on the whole of their time, rather than the cross-section of the current team.
So taking a kind of composite, early 80s England XI that may never have actually taken the field together [I would check, but, you know...] which of them would have got into the current team? Beginning with the non-arguments: Ian Botham would get into any England side of any era, first name on the sheet. Disregarding the captaincy for now, Boycott would displace Andrew Strauss. As much fun as they were, Mike Gatting and Allan Lamb, with Test averages in the 30s, would not crack this middle order. John Emburey would yield to Graeme Swann; Geoff Miller would make it only as a selector [at which he is very good] and Phil Edmonds could tough it out with Monty Panesar for the non-playing spinner's role. Mike Hendrick, who never took a Test five-fer despite his niggardly ways, and Chris Old, with his legendary propensity for an injury, could not survive in this day of bowling units. Alan Knott and Bob Taylor were sublime glovemen, but this is the modern era, and Matthew Prior is a far superior batsman to both, even Knotty, with his pre-Chanderpaul, crab-like efforts.
Which leaves Willis, Gooch and Gower. The Goose had the one thing that the current attack lacks - out and out pace, and so could displace Bresnan. And Gooch and Gower would walk in, right...?
Er, well... Gooch is a leviathan of English batting, remembered as much for the first-class runs he scored - a figure no current player will approach - as anything else. But his Test match career was one of two halves, and we don't yet have the benefit of Alastair Cook's second half. Cook has played 72 Tests, scoring 5868 runs at 49.72, with 19 hundreds and 26 fifties. After 72 matches, Gooch had 4714 at 37.41 with eight hundreds and 29 fifties.
And would Gower bat at four or five? At four is KP, with 6361 runs from 78 matches at 50.48, with 19 hundreds and 25 fifties. after 78 games, Gower had 5523 runs at 45.27 with 12 hundreds and 26 fifties. Pietersen already has more hundreds than Gower would go on and make.
At five is Ian Bell, with 5027 runs from 69 matches at 49.28 with 16 hundreds and 28 fifties. At a similar moment, Gower had 4543 runs at 42.06 with nine hundreds and 23 fifties.
These are not definitive comparisons but are more even than looking at the completed careers of one set of players against the incomplete records of others. Now the main argument for the records of the older players being reassessed: the quality of bowling. Gooch and Gower, you can argue, faced one of the most daunting attacks of all-time in West Indies. Here, Gooch is impressive, with an average of 44.83 as opposed to his overall mark of 42.58. Gower though averaged considerably less - 32.82 against a career 44.25. Gooch's weak point was against Australia, where he averaged 33.31, having encountered Lillie and Thomson early on.
Now consider Kevin Pietersen, who has played against one of the great Australian sides, plus in Warne and Murali, the two most productive bowlers ever. Against Australia he averages 52.71. His low comes against South Africa, at 'just' 42.71.
Cook and Bell can't claim to have competed as well against the very best around, yet their records are both on a sharp upward curve, and their scoring of hundreds is relentless.
Ultimately, if you're choosing on aesthetics, Gooch would come in for Cook, and Gower for Pietersen. However, Pietersen is, I think, better than Gower, and the rest of his career will prove it. An aesthetic choice between Gower and Bell is tougher, but I would suggest that Gower is the more hardened player. His ratio of hundreds to fifties though, 18 to 39, would weigh against him in the mind of a pragmatist like Andy Flower.
It's a daft argument in the end, but here's another: the real choice should perhaps be between the sides of 2005 and 2011. That would be a far closer contest.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
4 weeks ago