If you are going to meet David Gower in Edinburgh, then the lounge bar of the plush Caledonian Hotel is as good a place as any, the louche surroundings providing the perfect backdrop for a man whose cricketing exploits led to his name rarely being mentioned without the prefixes “elegant and stylish”.
In town ahead of tomorrow’s one-day international between Scotland and England at The Grange, the former prolific Leicestershire and England batsman turned Sky’s longtime cricket anchorman is poised for an entertaining 144, a phrase which could refer to a gilded innings from his glittering career but, in this case, is the number of guests attending an afternoon of raconteuring in aid of Lord’s Taverners Scotland.
The charity helps young people from deprived areas and those with disabilities to engage in sport and Gower is delighted to be back in a country he holds in great affection.
A quintessential Englishman in many ways, though as he explains later appearances can be deceptive, the now 61-year-old has been a regular visitor to Scotland from his schooldays, to playing for Leicestershire in the old Benson & Hedges Cup and beyond. In August 2014, he was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to the Guardian urging Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom ahead of the following month’s independence referendum.
“I come to Scotland for all sorts of reasons. Somebody says to me ‘would you like to come to Scotland?’ and my answer is always ‘yes, sure’, for whatever reason,” he said. “Could be fishing which I’m not very good at or something like this today with the Lord’s Taverners, it’s a fantastic place to be.
“I signed [the letter] because I felt that we were better together, for the same reason I voted Remain for Europe, too. You have to respect the wishes of those with opposite views to you but at some stage you have to… oh I’ve always been crap at making decisions, probably why I was never a good captain.
“It’s none of my business in a way, it’s up to the Scottish people to make their decisions but I just felt it would have been to the detriment of all of us in the UK if Scotland left.”
As a Scotland team led by Kyle Coetzer, pictured inset, prepare to take on an England side who have stormed to the top of the one-day international world rankings at a sold-out Grange tomorrow, it is cricket not politics more on Gower’s mind and memories are stirred of his own sporting voyages north to an outpost of the sport which could be viewed as exotic if not for weather which, mercifully, seems set fair for the match.
“When the Benson and Hedges was going we’d have our forays up here, playing in Glasgow or Edinburgh,” recalled Gower. “I remember one game in Glasgow which, without wishing to go over the cliches about Scottish weather, was extremely wet, and when we went out to try to get a game it was also extremely dark and I acquitted myself with a first-ball duck. You never forget these things.”
As old rivals Ireland have powered on to Test status, Scotland have been left behind a bit in recent years and Gower laments the fact they won’t be at next year’s World Cup, while acknowledging the need to make a tournament which had taken the word “bloated” to its absolute extremes more compact.
“I’ve covered World Cups and you start on day one and say ‘hello and welcome to the World Cup, only another seven weeks to go’,” he said with a wince. “No other major tournament lasts that long on the sporting calendar. That has been an issue, it’s a long haul. You feel for Scotland not being there next year. You make a decision and half the world’s unhappy. I understand that fully.
“I do think what they should do is get more nations involved but work out a schedule that keeps the whole thing tighter. If you need to play three or four games on one day then do it, use the red button. But the ICC want to keep the TV companies happy and contracts are written to show every game. It would make sense to condense but keep as many people happy as possible.”
Gower admits with a smile that the “Tiger Moth incident” could well make an appearance at some point during the afternoon ahead, but reveals that he was given a fresh perspective on his most fabled anecdote recently.
On the 1990-91 Ashes tour Gower and team-mate John Morris famously got in hot water when, after both being dismissed, they left a match against Queensland to take a biplane trip which ended up buzzing the ground as England continued to bat.
“There is a new line to put on it actually as I did a lunch the other day and one of the speakers was Flight Lieutenant John Peters, the guy who was shot down in the first Gulf War, which was around the same time I was mucking around in a Tiger Moth,” said Gower.
“He was in a parachute after ejecting at high speed, looking at his Tornado in a ball of flame, hitting the deck hard then having the s*** kicked out of him for seven weeks by the Iraqis. He spoke at this lunch, very fascinatingly but with twists of humour. I must say I did find it slightly awkward, and humbling, to then stand up and give the tale of my slightly different experiences with aircraft.
“It does put things in perspective. He [Peters] told me that he is absolutely fine, no PTSD or anything like that. It can be that something like that actually makes you realise that there’s nothing really to fear. Is there anything worse than being shot down 100 feet over enemy territory and falling to earth in a cloud of smoke and fire?”
During his playing career Gower would give off an air of insouciance which added a magical mystique to his free-flowing hundreds but also exasperated viewers of his often seemingly casual dismissals.
Keeping up the aviation theme with reference to the famous quote by the great Australian all-rounder of the late 1940s and 1950s, Keith Miller, who flew for the RAAF in the war and once said “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse”, Gower revealed that his languid appearance at the crease was often hiding the truth.
“There is pressure in sport. I felt it, nerves, anxiety, whatever word you want to use,” he said. “Some of which are good for you, they give you that edge at the start of the day. If you’re too relaxed or apathetic then you’re not going to get anywhere. Equally if you’re too nervous you can’t move and that’s no good either.
“On a good day it didn’t take too much effort to give off that impression. On a bad day it took a lot to look relaxed when you are actually in some inner turmoil. It wasn’t something that was carefully thought out, just sort of evolved as a defence mechanism.
“In any sporting contest if your opponent sees you are nervous or uncomfortable, it gives him an advantage. A fast bowler is thinking I’ve got this one in my sights. If you appear unconcerned and give a shrug of the shoulders it can unsettle them. It was something I used and when it worked it worked.”