A Memorable StartMartin Chandler |
In May 1935 20 year old Harold Gimblett was given a two week trial by Somerset. He was a keen cricketer, albeit not one who had ever thought about a career in the game. He was only there because Billy Penny, the secretary of the club he played for, Watchet in the north of the county, thought him worth a try, and so persistent was Penny that the county eventually agreed to take a look.
The trial was not a success. For whatever reason Gimblett could not reproduce the uninhibited strokeplay that so captivated Penny, and he was told with a couple of days to go that the county would not be pursuing their interest. He was not unduly disappointed.
In those days of the Great Depression Somerset had a professional staff of six. The rest of the side was made up of whichever amateurs were available. A number were schoolteachers, and for that reason it was much easier to raise a side during the school holidays, July and August, than in May and June.
The day after Gimblett’s trial ended the county were due to play Essex at Frome. One of the amateurs originally selected cried off injured and panic ensued as there was no one else available. There were some strictly enforced rules in those days as to who could and could not play for counties. Gimblett, Somerset born and bred, satisfied them all. On the basis therefore that there was no one else available, that he would not let them down in the field, and that it would shut Billy Penny up, Gimblett was offered a one-off First Class appearance.
Having agreed to play Gimblett almost didn’t make it, having to run across a field waving frantically at its driver in order to get on the only available bus that would get him, in time, to a rendezvous with wicketkeeper Wally Luckes, who was to drive him to Frome. He missed it, although thankfully for him a passing lorry driver took pity on him and picked him up. Had he not done so the game would lack what surely remains the cricketing story that, above all others, stretches credibility beyond breaking point.
Somerset won the toss and decided to bat. Gimblett would have expected to go in last, but no doubt with the “shut Billy Penny up” consideration well to the fore skipper Reg Ingle told him he would go in at number eight. The opponents were Essex. Their opening bowlers were Stan Nichols and Ray Smith. Nichols was genuinely quick, and played 14 times for England, and was unlucky not to have been selected more often. Smith was a newcomer, who went on to enjoy a long career with Essex, and was a canny medium pacer. Backing up those two were Peter Smith (Ray’s older cousin), Laurie Eastman and Vic Evans. Smith senior was one of the very best English leg spinners, whose brief post-war Test career is no reflection of his true ability. Eastman was another decent leggie who played throughout the inter-war period. Evans had a rather shorter career, but his overall bowling figures demonstrate that his off spin was not out of place in the county game.
Somerset came out of the blocks alright, but then slipped to 35-3. There was a recovery that took them past the hundred, but shortly after lunch the sixth wicket fell at 107. Nichols, refreshed after the interval, already had five victims. He must have been looking forward to picking up a sixth without too much trouble.
On his way out to the middle his teammates had exhorted Gimblett to hang around and let his partner, Arthur Wellard, do the run-scoring. Wellard was a fine all-round cricketer who played twice for England, and was one of the biggest hitters the game had ever seen. Although it may have seemed like it, what happened next was not Gimblett ignoring the advice that he had been given, it was just that he played his natural game. He didn’t find Peter Smith too testing, and while Nichols was much quicker than anything he had faced before, he soon got used to that, and started to pick up runs from him too.
The seventh wicket pair had put on 69 when Evans had Wellard stumped. He only had 21 to his name, so was comfortably outscored by the debutant. Next man in was Luckes, a capable enough batsman who once scored a First Class century. He scored 7 out of a partnership of 47 before he was bowled by Nichols. The pair were together for just 23 minutes, and half way through their partnership a rested Nichols took the new ball, but by then everything seemed to come easily to Gimblett.
Gimblett was on 86 when he was joined by Bill Andrews, a player much in the same mould as Wellard, and whose autobiography bears what remains the best title ever thought of for such a book The Hand that Bowled Bradman. The scoreboard at Frome was of the most basic type, and did not show the batsman’s score, so shortly afterwards, when a firm push into the covers for two off Nichols took him on to 101, Gimblett was not immediately aware of what all the fuss around the scorebox was about.
That century came up in just 63 minutes, or in new money 71 deliveries. The 101 came out of 130 scored while Gimblett was at the wicket, and for much of that time he had been in the company of two of the biggest hitters in the county game. It was the fastest century of the English season. Fittingly he celebrated by driving Nichols straight back over his head for six, and when he presented Eastman with a return catch ten minutes later he was on 123. There was a late flourish from Andrews and, having lost their early control of the match through Gimblett’s efforts, Essex went on to lose by an innings.
There was, of course, no way that Gimblett was going to be sent back to Watchet after that performance, and less than a week after his rejection he was playing against Middlesex at Lord’s. He top scored with 53 in Somerset’s second innings, although the match was lost. After that there was just one more half century, and plenty of small scores, but Somerset stuck with Gimblett throughout the summer.
There would inevitably have been doubts about how Gimblett would fare in 1936 after the marked tailing off that followed his explosive debut, but in the event he had a remarkable start to the new campaign. His first match, promoted to opener, saw him score 103 and 46* as the touring Indians were beaten. Next up were Lancashire at Old Trafford. The Red Rose county had been champions five times in the previous decade and would have expected a comfortable win. Without Gimblett they would have had it but he top scored with 93 out of his side’s first innings of 257. A Lancashire declaration left Somerset to either bat out time or score an impossible 374 to win. When the match ended they were 295-9, with Gimblett unbeaten on 160.
Two days later Somerset were in London, where they lost to Surrey by an innings. Gimblett still emerged with credit though, as he top scored with 51 in the second innings. Not surprisingly the newspapers were full of Gimblett and the England selectors went to Kettering for Somerset’s fourth game of the season so they could see what all the fuss was about. Northamptonshire were the whipping boys of the County Championship in the 1930s, taking the wooden spoon on seven occasions, so despite the presence in the home side of an international class, and very excitable left arm quick, “Nobby” Clark, Gimblett had a great opportunity. The first day being lost to rain he was then given a free rein when the game got underway on day two, and his century before lunch was the perfect advertisement for his talents.
Given that a team to tour Australia that winter had to be chosen it is, perhaps, not surprising that the selectors were prepared to be adventurous with their selections for the three match series against the Indians and Gimblett found himself included in the side for the first Test. His reaction was unusual; I was terrified ……. I just wanted to go away and get lost. I didn’t want to play for England.
The Lord’s test was a low scoring one that England won by nine wickets. In the first innings Gimblett, unable to master the inswing of Amar Singh, was out for 11. He told a story of how, after his dismissal, he got changed and went for a walk around Lord’s. As he did so he bumped into Jack Hobbs, who took the trouble to give him an impromptu lesson on how to play inswing. The result was an unbeaten 67 for Gimblett in the second innings as England cantered home. It was the highest individual score of the match. The Times described the innings as glorious, and told the selectors that Gimblett must always play for England.
The second Test was at Old Trafford. For Gimblett there were two fours through the covers almost before the crowd had settled down for England’s innings, but he was out for 9, and his teammates went on to pile up 571. A straightforward catch went down as well and Gimblett was happy to get back to Somerset, and in no way disappointed when he was dropped for the third Test. He must have figured in the discussions that the selectors had over the winter’s Ashes party, but it is unlikely that he was ever seriously considered. The simultaneous rejection of the claims of Len Hutton and Denis Compton clearly indicated an unwillingness to give youth its head against Australia, and in addition Gimblett’s season had been something of a disappointment after his magnificent start.
In 1937 and 1938 Gimblett’s career rumbled along. He comfortably exceeded his 1,000 runs in each summer, but there was a lack of consistency, not very many big scores, and too many complaints that his swashbuckling methods were hampering his progress. But 1939 was different. There was a solid start in Somerset’s first two matches, and after that a run of five centuries in consecutive games. The outcome was a recall to England colours for the first Test against West Indies at Lord’s, where he opened the batting with Hutton. He must have been trying to temper his natural aggression, as it took him over an hour to put together the 22 he was out for, and he had not outscored Hutton either. When he got in again England only needed 99 to win, and he took a four and a six from Les Hylton’s first two deliveries, but any hopes of a repeat of his effort against the Indians at the same ground three years previously were thwarted when he was bowled by Manny Martindale for 20.
Hutton’s opening partner was not a charmed role that series. For the second Test Gimblett was replaced by Kent’s Arthur Fagg, who in turn was replaced for the third by Nottinghamshire’s Walter Keeton. None of them ever played for England again. Of couse no one did for the best part of seven years, as the Second World War all but closed down the First Class game, but all three men picked up their careers once peace returned, and both Fagg and Gimblett were only 31 in that first post-war season.
When the county game resumed in 1946 Gimblett enjoyed his best season ever, in a slightly shorter county programme than normal only just failing to score 2,000 runs, and averaging just a tick under 50. He was still the same player he had always been, but with maturity came just a little more circumspection, however the entertainment value never wavered. As was the case throughout his career he carried the Somerset batting, but there was a bit more help in 1946 than in years past and to come and as a result the West Country side were genuinely competitive for once, going on a long unbeaten run in mid-season, and ending up as high as fourth in the table.
In 1946/47 Walter Hammond took what proved to be a poor England side to Australia. There was no Harold Gimblett in the party despite his fine season. England had a settled opening pair in Hutton and Cyril Washbrook but the reserve batsmen were Laurie Fishlock of Surrey and Lancashire’s Jack Ikin. Fishlock had had a fine season in 1946, but he celebrated his fortieth birthday during the tour, and had had a hugely disappointing visit to Australia with Gubby Allen’s side ten years previously. As for Ikin he was three years younger than Gimblett, but had not shone in two Tests against the 1946 Indians, and overall his average for the season was 13 points below Gimblett’s.
For Somerset supporters the answer was straightforward enough, Surrey and Lancashire were fashionable whereas their county were not, but it probably wasn’t that simple. While The Cricketer mentioned Gimblett briefly as a possible tourist its editor also noted that the press generally were in agreement with the players that Hammond was given. A more forthright view was expressed by Clif Cary in his account of the tour, Cricket Controversy. He thought the England selectors had made a number of poor choices, but he did not mention Gimblett, preferring to champion the causes of Warwickshire’s Tom Dollery, Jack Robertson of Middlesex and, from unfashionable Northamptonshire, Dennis Brookes. There was doubtless a perception still that Gimblett was not suited to five day cricket, but perhaps too his lack of real desire to play for his country had become evident at Lord’s.
The vintage summer of 1947, when Denis Compton and Bill Edrich swept all before them, was a disappointment for Gimblett and Somerset, but the following year was a memorable one, for good reasons and bad. At the crease Gimblett once again came close to 2,000 runs, and at Eastbourne he became the first Somerset player to score a triple century, 310 against Sussex. The bad was the lack of support from his teammates as he recorded the only four centuries scored for the county that season, and from the Somerset club, whose refusal to countenance Wellard’s suggestion that there should be a collection for him in the next home game after his triple hurt Gimblett badly.
In 1949 Gimblett finally crossed the threshold of 2,000 runs and while the following season was a little less successful he hit form at the right time and, with Hutton injured, found himself called up for England duty for the third Test against West Indies. The decision was almost universally popular, but there was a problem, and for a few days the “Gimblett neck” was as newsworthy as the “Compton knee”. In the event the carbuncle responsible did not permit him to take his place. That winter England went to Australia, without Gimblett of course, but he too went on tour for the only time in his career, with a strong Commonwealth XI to the sub-continent. His returns were acceptable if modest, but it was not a happy time for Gimblett, who lost two stone in weight, and stopped enjoying his cricket.
Perhaps understandably in light of his Indian experience Gimblett was not quite himself in 1951, but the following season, his benefit year, he was back to over 2,000 runs and the Queen’s coronation year of 1953, his last full season, was almost as successful in terms of runs scored. But the dark clouds that had been gathering for some time were now right overhead. In 1954 Gimblett was 38, a veteran certainly, but in those days, and given that he was still his county’s leading bat by a distance, he would have been expected to have a few seasons left. As it was he played in Somerset’s first two County Championship fixtures of the summer, and then dropped out of the game for good.
Never an ebullient character Gimblett had become increasingly introspective as 1953 wore on. He was taking sleeping pills and later said By the end of 1953 the world was closing in on me. After Christmas of that year he spent 16 weeks in a psychiatric hospital undergoing electro-convulsive therapy. He was discharged just in time for the start of the new season but, clearly unwell, could not continue beyond those two matches. One of the sadder features of his story is that by the end of July he had improved sufficiently to feel like watching a bit of cricket, and he spoke to the Somerset scorer who agreed he could sit in the scorebox during the match with the touring Pakistanis. News got round that Gimblett was on the ground, and the Club Secretary let it be known that he was required in his office. Gimblett duly attended, and was unceremoniously ordered to leave the ground. It was, unsurprisingly, to be the last straw for a relationship between master and servant that had never been entirely straightforward.
The following year Gimblett moved to South Wales, where he got a job in a steel works as well as a professional contract with Ebbw Vale CC. He scored a century on debut for them as well, but the move was not a happy one, and he soon returned to Somerset where he was given a job at Millfield School by his old skipper Jack Meyer. There was even talk of a return to Somerset colours, but despite Meyer’s best efforts he couldn’t persuade the committee. Gimblett stayed at Millfield for twenty years, and played a part in the bringing on of a number of First Class cricketers, but there was a sad end again when Gimblett felt obliged to medically retire. His body was beginning to let him down, but the physical problems could doubtless have been overcome. It was the inner demons that necessitated a further course of electro-convulsive therapy that were so damaging.
Harold Gimblett died by his own hand on 30 March 1978. He was 63. In the preceding weeks and months he had recorded many of his innermost thoughts on an old-fashioned cassette recorder. Gimblett left those tapes to his friend, West Country journalist and writer David Foot, who fashioned them into one of the finest cricketing biographies ever written. Harold Gimblett: Tortured Genius of Cricket was published first by Heinemann in 1982, and then again in a revised edition by Stephen Chalke’s Fairfield Books in 2003. Superb as Foot’s prose is even he however must defer, in terms of the quality of the telling of the story of that magical day at Frome, to an essay written by Ralph Barker and published by Chatto and Windus in a 1964 book, Ten Great Innings. Both books are highly recommended.