June 9, 2003

Tale of a tormented genius

David Foot

West Country boys were weaned on the romance of Harold Gimblett's debut hundred for Somerset. His career began explosively and ended in tragedy. In the June edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly David Foot tells one of cricket's saddest stories

Farmer's son Harold Gimblett was Somerset's finest native batsman. He played from 1935-54 and no one scored more runs for the county or excited more spectators at Taunton by his dazzling strokeplay. Yet he made only a token three appearances for England during a career burdened by mental battles and self-doubt, which ended when he took his own life in 1978.

Gimblett arrived at the county ground at Taunton in May 1935, having made a local reputation as a big hitter in village cricket. He had no cricket bag and only a discoloured bat. After a fortnight working with the professionals in the nets the secretary told him that he was not thought good enough. On the Friday night he was about to catch the bus and head for home when news came through that a Somerset player due to appear the next day was injured. Since no one else was available they just had to play Gimblett. The decision was seen as something of an embarrassment.

A memorable start
Harold Gimblett walked out to the wicket at Frome to score one of the most romantic and publicised maiden centuries in the history of English first-class cricket. West Country schoolboys came to recite the facts and circumstances of Gimblett's magnificent and impudent century of May 18, 1935 with a local vigour never remotely matched in the ritual of the twice-times table. It almost became part of the curriculum.

The century belonged to fiction. The plot was altogether too thrillingly fashioned: a confectioned scenario that mocked credulity. It came from the genre of sporting stories of excessive heroism on the field, written by Victorian and Edwardian clergy, warmed by their imagination as they sat in draughty rectories. Young readers enjoyed but did not need to believe. It was all part of the romance of cricket.

Yet it did happen, at Frome. A village lad from the Quantocks, turned down by his county, was suddenly asked to play because no one else could be found to make up the eleven. For once, not even an extra from Somerset's intermittent band of strolling players, amateurs who appeared from abroad or the pages of Debrett for a jolly game or two between country house parties, could be spirited up at such short notice. So there was John Daniell, the secretary, saying without too much conviction: "Do you know where Frome is, young Gimblett? Can you get there on your own?"

Harold was not too sure that he could. He stammered that perhaps he could catch one very early bus to Bridgwater and then another to Frome. The secretary pondered the geographical complications. "You'll never arrive on time that way. Get to Bridgwater by nine o'clock and I'll ask Luckes to pick you up in his car."

Few centuries have been documented with more detail and loving labour. There have been embellishments at a few thousand cricket dinners since then. The commas and the colour of Harold's pocket handkerchief may have varied slightly but never the joyful spirit of the day's theatre.

It was a dynamic piece of fledgling cricket by a player so unknown that the scorecard could give no initials for him. Yet his reputation was to be established forever by what happened on that bitterly cold May afternoon, where the tents billowed noisily as they do at an early spring point-to-point. White railings encircled the small playing area, adding to the hint of a rural racing scene.

Frome was proud of its one county match a season. The town had a small population but a lively and loyal support for Somerset cricket. Facilities on the ground were modest, with plenty of functional corrugated iron, and wooden benches transported in for the occasion. There was no room on the scoreboard for individual innings. The voices around the boundary were pure, throaty Somerset but different from Taunton, Weston or Yeovil, and different from Bicknoller where he grew up.

On the cassettes he left me, Gimblett talked ramblingly of many things. He chose to give only a brief, factual account of his century. It occupied just a minute of reminiscence. The dismissive attitude was part of him. Gimblett's wife Rita told me: "I kept the cuttings. Harold would have destroyed them."

It would be quite wrong for me also to dismiss his maiden innings for Somerset, although in the ways of folklore, everyone will know that he was up well before 6am on that Saturday morning and narrowly missed the bus to Bridgwater. The next bus was in two hours.

He had a little all-purpose bag within which - you would never have guessed - was his own bruised and discoloured bat and a few sandwiches considerately dropped in by his mother. Maternal kindness had also ensured freshly creased flannels and a clean shirt. He stood, a forlorn figure, on the narrow country road and wondered what he should do now. He started walking, vaguely in the direction of Bridgwater, and then heard a lorry from behind. Harold thumbed it down, something he had never done before. The dialogue that followed had an endearing quality to it.

"Sorry, I've just missed the bus."
"OK, jump in. Where are you going?"
"To Frome."
"To play cricket."
"Who for?"
"Oh, ah!"

The lorry driver did not believe Gimblett. How could he have? Harold, on his own admission, looked like a wide-eyed innocent, in trouble because he was late for work. Wally Luckes was waiting for him at Bridgwater and they reached the ground in good time. Some supporters were already in their place. They recognised the little wicketkeeper and offered a cheery greeting. No one recognised Gimblett.

"Then I met the Essex players. Jack O'Connor ... Laurie Eastman ... Morris Nichols ... Ray and Peter Smith ... Tommy Wade, Tom Pearce ... I realised I was scared stiff. Wally Luckes gave me the only bit of advice: `Peter Smith will always bowl you a googly so be ready for it.' I didn't even know what a googly was - I'd never seen one. Wally patiently explained that it looked like a leg-spinner but went the other way."

Reggie Ingle was the Somerset captain and he put Gimblett at No. 8. He won the toss and was soon regretting it. Nichols was using all his natural speed, as well as a biting wind that was sweeping across the ground. Jack Lee, Ingle and Jack White were all caught at slip and Somerset were 35 for 3. You could hear the groans around the boundary. By lunch Frank Lee and CCC (Box) Case were also out and the score was 105 for 5.

The Bath amateur HD Burrough quickly followed. At 2.20pm 20-year-old Gimblett, head down and already pessimistic about what he imagined was a token appearance in county cricket, meandered to the wicket to join Arthur Wellard. Someone in the crowd shouted: "Leave it to Arthur, son."

During the lunch interval, Wellard had put a friendly hand on Gimblett's shoulder. "Don't think much of your bat, cock. Why don't you borrow my spare one?" And so he did.

Peter Smith sniffed a novice. His third ball to Gimblett was a googly. The young batsman had not spotted it but he pushed it away to midwicket and was off the mark. In his second over from Smith Gimblett straight-drove to the boundary. That felt good. The Frome supporters rather approved of the way he did that. Who was this lad? Gimb-Gimblett or something? Wasn't he the lad who was always whacking sixes in village matches?

The likeable Smith chuckled silently to himself. He summoned up additional wiles. But so much for cunning. His fourth over after lunch cost 15 runs, all of them to Gimblett. When one leg-break was fractionally over-pitched, the young batsman put his left foot down and heaved the spinning ball over mid-off for six. It landed on the top of the beer tent, a marquee temporarily deserted as the rubicund drinkers moved outside to savour this jaunty newcomer.

Gimblett suddenly realised he was enjoying himself. Nichols was by far the fastest bowler he had ever met but the young batsman had the clear eyes and nimble feet to keep him out of trouble. In nine overs Somerset added 69 runs; 48 of them came from Gimblett. He was actually outscoring Wellard, and not many managed that. The ever-bronzed Arthur, jangling the loose change in his flannel trousers, ready for the next poker school, only smiled.

The half-century came with a six. It had taken 28 minutes and he had received 33 balls. By now the spectators had shed their reserve: they were cheering every shot. The beer was left undrunk.

Wellard miscalculated an off-break from Vic Evans and was stumped. But then came his look-alike and inseparable mate, Bill Andrews. In between, Luckes had been bowled by Nichols, back with the new ball.

New ball? You couldn't afford such niceties around the village greens of West Somerset. Gimblett threshed his way on, swinging and sweeping and driving whenever he could. There was hardly a false shot. Essex fielders rued the short boundary; they were generous enough to applaud some of the sixes.

Nichols dug one in short and the Somerset No. 8, with ludicrous time to spare, hooked it for four. Then, oblivious to pace, Gimblett took two more runs through the covers. He had no idea how many he had scored; the scoreboard gave the minimum of information. But the spectators soon told him. The cover drive had brought him his century. It had been scored out of 130 and had taken 63 minutes. As the fastest hundred of the season it earned him the Lawrence Trophy.

"It was, I suppose, one of those days you dream of. I can't work it out. I took all the praise but Bill Andrews, who got 71, was even faster in his scoring. I savoured the moment - but loathed the publicity that followed."

Gimblett gave a simple return catch when he had scored 123 in 79 minutes. Fleet Street was engaged at that time in a circulation battle of ruthless proportions. Pop journalism carried with it gimmicks and ballyhoo in the bid for new readers. Gimblett's triumph had immense human interest. The photographers and the feature writers turned up at the farm. He posed reluctantly and hated the whole thing.

In a newspaper article Jack Hobbs congratulated Harold but tempered his compliments by saying it left the young Somerset batsman with a reputation he might have difficulty sustaining. Gimblett knew that only too well.

A melancholy finish
Gimblett returned from the Commonwealth Tour of India and entered the 1951 season slimmer - he lost two stone while away - and more visibly careworn. After struggling for form he took a complete rest from cricket in the July. The doctors told him: "You're run down - you've been playing too much cricket." It seems that the break helped: he came back and scored three centuries during August.

As senior pro he feared no committee man. He openly questioned their practical knowledge of cricket. The permutation of skippers left his head in a whirl. After the surrealist musical chairs of 1948, when there seemed to be more captains around the county ground than church towers, George Woodhouse, Stuart Rogers and Ben Brocklehurst were appointed in fairly quick succession. Somerset, the lofty grandeur of 1946 - they had finished 4th - behind them, were just about to prop up the whole Championship table for four years.

It was Gimblett's benefit year in 1952. He advertised his handsome wares with a timely flourish. He completed 20,000 runs for Somerset and for a second time topped 2,000 runs in a season. There was a century in each innings against Derbyshire; he failed by five runs to do the same at Worcester.

"I'd hoped to be given the Gloucestershire match for my benefit but was told the county couldn't afford that. Morlands came to my rescue and I had the Northamptonshire fixture on their ground at Glastonbury. Morlands organised an excellent raffle, which brought in nearly £500 - and thank goodness they did. In those days the beneficiary had to defray all the expenses. We played for three full days but my net profit from the match itself was between ... £7 and £8!"

The Glastonbury fixture, now sadly discontinued, was famous for its strawberry teas and hospitality at the mellow George and Pilgrim just round the corner from the ground. Boundary support was always wholesome and vocal. They still talk in central Somerset of all the fine cricket in that benefit match. Freddie Brown began by demoralising the home batsmen with some marvellous seam bowling which earned him 7 for 33. Somerset had a deficit of 164 on the first innings - and then went on to make 413 for 6 declared in the second. Gimblett scored a glorious 104, backed by a remarkably fluent hundred from the blond and sunny Rogers. The only disappointment - apart from the beneficiary's balance sheet - was that such an absorbing game ended in a draw.

At the end of the season Gimblett acted on an invitation and took his family to Rhodesia, as it was, for a six-month holiday. There was the chance of staying permanently but the pending political mood bothered him and, in any case, he had a Somerset contract to honour. He played some cricket out there and coached in two schools but he was ready, however grudgingly, to return for the 1953 season, a summer which reaped him another 1,800 runs and four centuries.

There were recurrent mutterings that he had completely lost his appetite for the game. Some believed the captaincy would be held out to him as a bait, to lift his spirits and rekindle his interest. Rumours were starting that he needed psychiatric treatment. Out in the field he looked preoccupied - though reliable enough still to hold 27 catches in 1953. Gimblett recalled to me a broadcast by John Arlott when, commenting on Somerset's fielding, he is supposed to have said: "And there's Harold Gimblett, studying eternity." If John had only realised, he mused, what was going on inside the head.

At the age of 38 Gimblett was inclined to look an old man. He was still far and away Somerset's best batsman. The straight drive was as potent as ever; the cover was in Hammond's class. But, for reasons which came from within him, his career was almost over. I leave the words to him. They came out in a whisper, adding to their poignancy. "I couldn't take much more. I was taking sleeping pills to make me sleep and others to wake me up. By the end of 1953 the world was closing in on me. I couldn't offer any reason why and I don't think the medical profession knew either. There were moments of the past season that I couldn't remember at all. The Christmas was a complete blank to me. My doctor studied me and said: `I think you ought to see the doctor in charge of Tone Vale' [mental hospital]. He in turn saw me at Musgrove Hospital in Taunton but I had a complete blackout from the moment I sat down in the waiting room until an hour later when my wife came in. The doctor turned to Rita and said: `I think Harold had better come out with us for a few days.'

"I was put on ECT [electro-convulsive therapy] treatment. There were several of us having it twice a week. I felt like death but I remember joking to the others: `Well, I open for Somerset so I may as well go first.' Rita came to see me and couldn't believe the difference. I had some colour back in my cheeks ...

"I stayed there for 16 weeks and then it was spring again. Time for the nets once more. But I'd felt so safe at Tone Vale. No one could get at me. I just knew I wouldn't complete the next season. The first match was at Notts. I just folded up and had to stop the game while I was batting. I desperately tried to pull myself together. Reggie Simpson said: `Go off, Harold.' I looked at Reggie and said: `No, I mustn't go off, I'll never come back again.' Of course, they didn't understand. I struggled to make 29. Back in the dressing room I was at the bottom of the pit ..."

He slumped on the bench and went into a bitter little monologue. "I wanted to get it all out of the system in one go." As a result of that outburst, he claimed, he was reported to the secretary for setting a bad example. Versions vary about what precisely happened during that match at Trent Bridge in early May and the one, immediately afterwards, against Yorkshire at Taunton.

Brocklehurst was starting his second year as captain. Like most others he found Gimblett's moods unpredictable and disconcerting. He had gone out of his way to consult him, as the senior professional, in the previous season. "Harold could be a delightful and helpful companion, and he made some shrewd suggestions." Once he asked Gimblett which roller should be used between innings. The reply, given with a weary grin, was: "That damn pitch has been rolled with heavy and light rollers for a great many years - and it won't make any difference which one is used now!"

There had been much vague talk about how Gimblett walked sullenly out of the ground after making a duck in the Yorkshire match. "I went out to the wicket and tried - I really tried. But I got caught off my gloves when Trueman was bowling. I came in and said I couldn't take any more. I was finished. It was my last game for Somerset. I knew I shouldn't have played. I packed my bags and went home. I moped about the house. Soon I was to return to hospital as a voluntary patient."

It was quite clear to me, having talked to several spectators who watched that match against Yorkshire, that few were aware of Harold's private torment. One who was aware was Jack Endacott, who as a 15-year-old schoolboy had played for his local club against Gimblett. Now here was the Taunton boy Endacott, idolatry undiminished by the perplexing undulations of form, wayward strokes and recent preoccupied expression on the part of Gimblett, anxiously taking a boundary seat and sensing something was wrong. "As he came back to the pavilion, he turned to my dad and said: `It's no good, Les. He was too fast for me. I've had it.' And so, of course, he had, tragically."

This is how Brocklehurst recalls it. "Suddenly Harold was out, changed, packed and walking out of the ground with virtually three days' play still to go. The buzz had got round so I went to the press box and suggested that for Harold's sake as well as the team's, nothing should be written for the moment. I hoped he would have recovered over the weekend and we could carry on as if nothing had happened. When it became clear that he wasn't coming back, I agreed with the secretary that we should ask him to come to the office. Only the three of us would be present. I pointed out to him that as the senior professional he obviously couldn't behave in that way. I suggested that after the match he should take a week or two off and then let us know if he was fit enough to continue. It was an unemotional and low-key meeting." He went back to bat in the second innings. In fact, he never played for the county again. For weeks he distanced himself from the county ground. He rarely checked the scores in the stop press. Now we come to a quite remarkable incident. I relate it again in Gimblett's own words.

"Towards the end of the season Pakistan were playing at Taunton. I suddenly thought I'd like to go and see some cricket. I self-consciously walked along St James Street with Rita. `Nip up to the scorebox and ask Tom Tout if I can sit with him.' Tom agreed and found a chair for me. I didn't want anyone to know I was there but it got around.

"Tom went down to tea and he got the kitchen staff to bring me up a cup of tea and a bun. Believe it or not, they charged me. Soon after, I got a message that the secretary wanted to see me. I went down to his office ... and he ordered me out of the ground. I was speechless. I just turned and went back to collect my wife. On the way I bumped into Ron Roberts, in those days a cricket writer covering Somerset. `If you want a story, Ron, here's one for you. I've just been ordered out of the Somerset county ground.'

"That had to be the final severance with the county I had joined in 1935. They even produced a story against me. It's possible that at some time I mentioned in conversation that I wished the club had shown more concern about my problems, more love even. I may have referred to the possibility of a cruise. The committee turned this round and let it be known publicly that the only condition I would play was if they sent me on a six-week cruise.

"It was unthinkable that I could ever bat for Somerset again."

Harold Gimblett was found dead on March 31, 1978, aged 63. He had taken an overdose of tablets. At his memorial service Alan Gibson, the cricket writer and radio commentator, said: "He was concerned with many social problems, especially with the care of the old and lonely. If you want a picture of him to carry in your mind, think of him first, not driving Larwood or Miller through the covers but chugging round, often in pain, taking old folk their hot lunches."