The news that David Gower will be laying down his microphone – or, rather, unclipping the lapel mic from whatever elegant silk tie he happens to be wearing that day – caused a murmur of sadness in my family. He had retired from international cricket when I started watching the game, so my memories of him were never those of the golden-haired boy of summer. His batting was already being embalmed in nostalgia, a mosquito trapped in amber, its wings spread in an eternally stylish cover drive.
But he had quickly become the honeyed voice of cricket, his oh so slightly crooked smile so regular a part of my life that it was soon entwined with the seasons. As the Bible almost put it: “The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth … and the voice of David Gower is heard in our land.” He was also my mother’s long-term cricket crush, beloved to the extent that a framed picture of him sat proudly on her office desk at her law firm, alongside the much smaller photos of her husband and children.
Gower is, in his own words, “being retired”. Sky Sports has not renewed his contract, and this Ashes series will be his last gig. He did not appear as one of the ICC’s World Cup commentators, so his voice has felt strangely lacking from England’s history-making moment. He has spoken of this unexpected ending with a candour that made it hard not to overanalyse his performance in the Ireland Test last week. Was his delivery lacking a little of its usual joyfulness, or did he just have a cold? Was that panama hat he was wearing some kind of silent call to arms, or a sign of demob happiness?
There are those who would argue his almost careless tone no longer fits with the Sky brand, and perhaps they are right. Gower graduated from the Richie Benaud school of commentary, relaxed enough to let the pictures speak for themselves. He didn’t try to adorn every image with his thoughts, a reserve that more garrulous former players struggle to appreciate (yes, I’m looking at you, Rob Key). Understated responses were often a part of his charm. A purred “wow” from beneath those white-gold curls could cover anything from a nice cover drive to a record-breaking innings from Brian Lara.
The attributes that defined his playing persona – deftness, nonchalance – were always best purposed as an anchor. Gower was the smooth talker, welcoming you to the start of play like a white-suited captain greeting you on board his cruise ship. Taking you into lunch like a walker negotiating an elderly aristocrat around the dance floor, the charm written across his face no less sincere because it was being paid for it.
But the place Gower established, among a TV lineage that stretched from Peter West and Tony Lewis to Benaud and beyond, wasn’t only down to his ability to transmit a twinkle directly through the cathode rays. There has always been a palpable kindness that makes the viewer feel safe in his hands, invited into a sport that can be – especially to the uninitiated – a little intimidating. And, of course, an ability to laugh at himself that made him such a delightful foil for Lee Hurst, Rory McGrath and Nick Hancock on They Think It’s All Over, long before A League of Their Own came along.
His departure from Sky is part of a wider (and not unwelcome) remodelling of its coverage. Sir Ian Botham is also expected to leave, and spend more time with his wine collection. Bob Willis seems to have been put out to the permanent pasture of the Cricket Debate show, where his dour intonation can’t unintentionally bring down the mood. The Sky box has never felt like a locker room but it did, for a long while, resemble a club lounge for England captains with frequent flyer miles. A recent spruce has given it a more contemporary feel. Isa Guha – who served her apprenticeship, it should be noted, at ITV, ESPN and the BBC – has looked a smart signing ever since she became Sky’s first woman to commentate on men’s matches.
Elements that have always been excellent – the deep dives emerging from the third man’s chair, the use of innovative technology – are central to Sky’s offering, and the banter about where everyone ate last night has given way to ever more surgical analysis. Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton, who would easily make an all-time XI of cricket commentators (though they may have to cede the captaincy to Benaud), spot details so minute yet telling it must be tempting to give them their own spin-off crime investigation show.
Their stock only rose during the World Cup, where the ICC’s feed reminded us of the disparity among their collation of on-screen talent. At one end, you had Kumar Sangakkara, Mel Jones and Ian Smith – at the other, Ramiz Raja attempting a pitch report while behaving like someone who has just landed on its surface from Saturn. Whatever you think of so much cricket being hidden behind a paywall, you can’t dispute that Sky’s commentary team offers value for money.
Still, as analysis becomes ever more acute and technical, it’s worth remembering that the serious business of uncovering the nuances of sport can make it appear ever more complicated to those on the outside. With cricket returning to the BBC next year, and the Hundred attempting to draw new viewers, the ability to engage them easily will be crucial.
Just as Clare Balding and Hazel Irvine can walk and talk us through Olympic sports we’ve never before encountered – without making us feel like we’re outsiders, or worse, too stupid to be there – we still need those who can extend a beneficent invitation to a cricketing world we don’t yet know. And that has always been part of Gower’s charm.