Andrew Gale, captain of Yorkshire, speaks to Scott Oliver about life at the top.
Yaarkshire! Yaarkshire! Yaarkshire! Yaarkshire! Can you guess the rest? It’s a song that’s been sung a fair bit of late, Yorkshire having won Division 2 in 2012 – Jason Gillespie’s first season at the helm, finishing runners-up in Division 1 a year later, followed by back-to-back Championships.
An affable figure and big-name ex-player for one of the all-time great teams, Gillespie understandably receives plenty of plaudits for his light-touch gravitas, his assiduous signings and old-school, front-up leadership, but a relatively unsung hero in it all has been the skipper these last six seasons, Andrew Gale, a flinty, no-nonsense presence in a lavishly gifted side.
Indeed, after securing that first (or 31st, depending how you look at it) Champo title at Trent Bridge in 2014, Gillespie said: “Galey backs his players in public and private. How he interacts with blokes behind closed doors is just a testament to him. On the field, if in doubt, he always takes the positive option. He sets high standards, with both his preparation and fitness, and lads follow him. He’s inspirational. That’s why he’s our skipper.”
Those closed doors were of course thrown open to the Sky cameras last season, and the fly-on-the-wall documentary Cricketing Yorkshire showed that, while Boycott, Close, Illingworth and Lord Hawke provide stiff competition in the annals of cussed Yorkshire captains, Gale certainly cussed with the best of them when required. He also had that endearing indigenous verbal trait – which should probably be non-negotiable for Yorkshire skippers – of swapping the possessive “our” to “us”, as in: We need to pull us f**kin’ socks up, lads.
Not that Gale’s a ranter and raver. There’s a measured calmness and clarity when he speaks, barely any um-ing, uh-ing or ah-ing, no on-the-spot scurrying for his thoughts, only the occasional pause if he needs to weigh his words. Even the pitch of his voice carries an authoritative timbre. You start looking round for brick walls to run through. Uphill and into the wind, skip? No problemo.
Authority is not something fixed and permanent, though; it ebbs and flows with decision, performance, reputation. It needs buy-in. Early in that 2014 campaign, when Joe Root became available for a game, Kane Williamson had No.3 locked down and with Gary Ballance ensconced at five, Gale took the bold decision to drop himself.
It could easily have backfired. “It worked out well. I was struggling for form at the start of the year, having missed pre-season through injury. Everyone was scoring runs. Lyth and Lees had settled into a really good opening partnership. It’d have been tough to break them up, and would have hit them harder than it would me. They’d have lost a lot of confidence. It was a tough call, but the right one. It made a big statement to the dressing room. A lot of people advised me against it.” Not Gillespie, he says, who “left it up to me and said he’d back me all the way”.
Rather than undermining his authority, it proved an exemplary display of selflessness. “[Root] only played one game. I came back in and got a hundred against Durham. That was the fairytale way for it to work out. It could have gone either way – if I’d come in and gone three games with no runs, they might have been looking for another captain!” Absence indeed made the heart grow fonder. “We actually lost the Middlesex game, and I think the ladssaw the value in my captaincy. Ever since then, whenever I’ve had a lean patch, they have stuck by me and said ‘You’re more than just your batting’. I’ve never had any qualms about selection since.”
It was no doubt a problem Gale’s fellow county captains would love to have, one that goes with the territory of captaining a big club in rude health; a county that, traditionally or stereotypically, doesn’t produce too many wallflowers, with the current crop of feted players seeking their own place in that illustrious story. “When you drive into the ground by the East Stand the first thing you see are the silhouettes of the greats of Yorkshire cricket. I never saw playing for Yorkshire as any sort of burden. It’s something that’s engrained and you’ve got to deal with it. You’re surrounded by it. You’ve just got to embrace it. You’re playing for a big, big county and are expected to win trophies.”
In a club where pecking orders were once all too palpable, nothing symbolised the hierarchy like the two white roses adorning first and second-team caps, one closed, one in bloom. “There’s no massive hierarchy now,” Gale says. “No speak-when-you’re-spoken-to attitude. Whether you’ve had one game or are coming back from Test cricket, you’re allowed to voice your opinions.”
And the cap itself has become a symbol of aspiration rather than rank, about place in history, not place in the dressing room. Where once they were handed out on the whim of the committee, now there are set criteria. “All the years Yorkshire have played cricket, there’s only 170-odd capped players – there’s a list in the dining room now, and you want to join that elite list of players. When Alex Lees was capped, he just burst into tears. He couldn’t stop himself. It showed what it meant to him.”
The 22-year-old Lees will this coming season take over the white-ball captaincy – with Gale’s full blessing – having quickly been elevated to seniority. Getting his feet under the table was a very different story for Gale, who concedes he didn’t come from a cricketing background. “It was something I fell into really. I wanted to be a footballer with Huddersfield Town. It never quite happened – I was probably too fat and too slow, and you can be a bit fat and a bit slow at cricket.”
Although his talent with the willow was evident, he had a habit of making flighty 30-odds and can remember, tellingly and charmingly, receiving a pep-talk from his cricket-playing granddad: “He sat me down and said, ‘Look, you’re not doing yourself any favours here. People take time off work to come and watch you, spend a lot of money on your kit and what-have-you. You need to start knuckling down.’ The penny dropped at that point. I didn’t get less than 50 over the next eight innings.”
He was given an academy contract, then signed professional terms shortly after his 18th birthday, played for England under 19s, but was still struggling to break into the Yorkshire first team. On his days off, he would go and see the former Yorkshire left-hander Kevin Sharp, coaching at Leeds-Bradford University in the days before there was a specialist batting coach at Headingley. “Back then you had to really knock the door down to get a chance. I got the best part of 20 second XI hundreds. I was very, very frustrated. I lost a bit of belief, and even put the word out about moving counties. I probably wasn’t ready to be consistent at first-class cricket, and I probably got my hunger from that time waiting in the wings”.
Gale cemented a place in the team and by the end of 2009, when Anthony McGrath announced he was resigning the captaincy, he was ready to step up, helped in part by having captained an England Lions team containing the likes of Ian Bell. “When you get offered the Yorkshire captaincy you don’t give it two thoughts. I wasn’t overawed by it. I was becoming a dominant voice in the dressing room and the players respected my opinion.”
For all the recent successes, it hasn’t been an unbroken upward curve. Yorkshire were relegated in 2011, made all the worse for Lancashire winning a first Championship in 77 years, while a particularly sparky Roses clash in September 2014, after which he was reported for abusing Ashwell Prince, led to one of the toughest moments of his career. “What was disappointing was not the two-game ban. I did cross a line. But being told 20 minutes before you’re going to lift a trophy that you can’t – I thought that was appalling, really. I’d represented the county since I was 10 years old and worked so hard for that moment. It was a massive motivation for 2015, and to lift it at Lord’s, with all my family there, was really special.”
Given the early-season absence of Root, Lyth, Rashid, Plunkett, Ballance and Bairstow, away with England in the Caribbean, not to mention his own suspension and the swirling speculation around Gillespie and the vacant England job, last year’s success was all the more commendable. Nothing was left to chance. “The senior players sat down, without the coaches, and spoke at length about how it was going to be a really tough start, how to go about things. Ryan Sidebottom talked about winning the Championship at Notts, and the following year being relegated by mid-August. So we made a pact and all bought into it. We wanted to make sure the work ethic was on it, every session, and there was no slacking in timekeeping or presentation.”
With all those England stars to handle, as well as World T20 winners in Bresnan and Sidebottom, strong leadership is required. The trick, admits Gale, is being inclusive. “At team meetings I try and keep my mouth shut as much as I can. If the plan comes from the players then they’ll stick with it, because it’s their idea. I use them a lot as a sounding board. I’m not too stubborn. I’ll admit if I’m wrong. But these guys know their games inside-out. It’s only occasionally that I’ll get a hunch about things and change it up. Sometimes they don’t agree but they respect my decisions and know where to draw the line.”
Gale says his style has changed down the years, with a lot more delegation and less emotion. Fatherhood has brought perspective. He is mellowing. “I used to be 24/7 with it, and wanted to be involved in everything. I struggled to switch off. I’d take things personally if we didn’t win. I’ve learned that less is more.” Key to that transformation has been the arrival of Gillespie. “With Martyn [Moxon, director of cricket], I ran the show, including what we were doing at training, selection, making calls on my day off to disgruntled players. Dizzy said he’d do all that. Obviously, he gives me my head with selection, but he takes the pressure off me, telling lads they’re missing out, which has allowed me to get closer to the players again.”
The late-career success of Adam Voges and Chris Rogers offers all veterans hope of an international call, but Gale won’t be quitting the captaincy to achieve it. “I found that captaincy’s always helped my batting. I’ve played more games with it than without. Stepping down would hinder more than help. Although sometimes I could be a bit more selfish.” So says the man who once dropped himself for the cause.