1954

When the game became too much

At the time of year when players call it quits, we look back to one whose retirement came midway through a match

Martin Williamson

September 24, 2011

Comments: 8 | Text size: A | A

Harold Gimblett on the attack, 1936
Harold Gimblett on the attack on his England debut in 1936 © Getty Images
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Probably the hardest decision any professional sportsman has to make is deciding when to retire. Some go too early, others hang on too long, and of those who do, a few can't resist the lure of an all-too-often ill-advised comeback for one last tilt at the windmill. For a handful the pressures of the game prove too much and force their hand. That was what happened in Harold Gimblett's case, and not even at the end of a season - he packed it in halfway through a match.

Gimblett was an outstanding natural talent. His Boys' Own arrival came when as a 20-year-old he was summoned to fill in for Somerset at Frome in 1935, the day after he had been discarded by the county at the end of a one-month a trial as "not being good enough". It was expected that he would field and bowl a few overs of seam.

At the lunch interval, with Somerset reeling at 105 for 5, the legendary hitter Arthur Wellard put a hand on Gimblett's shoulder and said: "I don't think much of your bat, cock. Borrow one of mine." He did, and batting at No. 8, cracked 123 in 80 minutes, his 63-minute century winning him the Lawrence Trophy for the fastest hundred of the season.

But signs of his insecurity came when he said he had "savoured the moment but loathed the publicity that followed".

Within a year he was making his Test debut at Lord's against India, his thrilling 67 not out culminating in five consecutive boundaries off Mohammed Nissar.

Gimblett's unquestionable talent with the bat masked a mental fragility that left him riddled with self-doubt and anxiety, a state of mind not helped by national selectors who consistently overlooked him in favour of more solid but less capable alternatives. He played only three Tests - two against India in 1936 and one against West Indies at Lord's in 1939.

Post-war, Gimblett continued to accumulate runs with little recognition, although he was chosen for the third Test against West Indies in 1950 but was forced to withdraw by illness. In 1950-51 he was picked to tour India with a Commonwealth XI, returning home more troubled than normal - and two stones lighter.

In July 1951 he was advised by doctors that he was run down and needed a rest; he took a month off before returning refreshed with three hundreds in August. In 1952 he had his best summer, making 2134 runs at 39.51, including five hundreds. At the end of that year, aged 38, he took his family to winter in Rhodesia, and he probably would have stayed were it not for the political situation there and his contract with Somerset.

In 1953 rumours started to circulate that Gimblett had lost his appetite for the game, while some went further and said he was suffering a breakdown. The rumour-mongers were closer to the truth than they could ever have realised. "I couldn't take much more," he later recalled. "I was taking sleeping pills to make me sleep and other pills to wake me up." By January 1954 things were so serious that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for electro-convulsant therapy. He stayed there for 16 weeks.

By the start of the 1954 season, it was hoped that Gimblett had regained his enthusiasm. But it was not to be, and away from the security of the mental hospital all his old demons returned. In the first game of the summer, against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, he had to stop the match while he was batting. His partner advised him to go off. "No, I can't," he replied. "If I do I'll never come back." He made a scratchy 29, and after an outburst when he returned to the dressing room, was reported to the secretary for setting a bad example for the other players.

Somerset returned from Nottingham to Taunton to take on Yorkshire, but Gimblett was simply not fit to play. Late on the first day he opened against Fred Trueman and was immediately caught off his gloves for a duck. "I was finished," he admitted. "I knew I shouldn't have played. I packed my bags and went home."

The newspapers had got wind that something was up, but Ben Brocklehurst, Somerset's captain, visited the press box and asked that nothing be written while they tried to resolve the situation. Although Gimblett was persuaded to bat in the second innings - he was lbw to Trueman for 5 - that was it. He never played again.


Harold Gimblett, June 1938
Behind the smile, Gimblett was a deeply unhappy character © Getty Images
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Gimblett returned to hospital, and stayed away from cricket for two months. He eventually returned to Taunton late in July that year, to watch his team-mates play the touring Pakistanis. When the secretary found out Gimblett was present, he summoned him to his office and threw him out of the ground, an act of severance that reflected appallingly on the county.

Gimblett retained links with the game as cricket coach at Millfield public school, a role he fulfilled for more than 20 years before another acrimonious falling out. He never overcame his mental illness, and in March 1978 committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. He was only 63.

"We shall never fathom," wrote David Foot at the end of his excellent biography, Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket, "even those of us who doted on his sublime flights of batsmanship, some of the sweeping contradictions in his make-up."

But for all the agonies he went through playing cricket, Gimblett bore no grudges. "I am so glad that it all happened to me, and if any bowler still thinks evil of me, please don't," he said four years before he died. "The pleasure of just playing cricket is too great to have such thoughts."

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

Bibliography
Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket - David Foot (Fairfield Books 1998)
Wisden Cricket Monthly - Various
The Cricketer - Various
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1979

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (September 27, 2011, 1:41 GMT)

Not only English players. Carl Hooper and Richie Richardson: great West Indies players, had the same problems and took leave from the game at times.

Posted by tfjones1978 on (September 25, 2011, 7:03 GMT)

I think this shows how cricket was once blind to the truth about mental illness. A great player can be more easily undone by mental belief that they cant cope then the physical results of bad form. What he needed was understanding and a way to cope with his problems without redicule by others. The greatest loss to Australia recently was an excellent alrounder whom lost confidence in Cricket Australia and started a career of bad off-field habits. Although I dont think Symonds was performing enough to be in the side, I believe his career was ruined as he say his team mates leave, he had an incident with an Indian player and believed people were calling him a liar. I believe he felt cricket had given up on him so he gave up on it. Symonds like Gimblett or Michael Slater and many others watched their career fall apart due to off-field matters, not onfield. Lets hope cricketing boards find a way to resolve this.

Posted by   on (September 24, 2011, 22:01 GMT)

Moving stuff. Severe depression, which is what he seems to have had, can be terribly debilitating. Thanks for this.

Posted by   on (September 24, 2011, 15:40 GMT)

Why only english players ????

Posted by coolerking on (September 24, 2011, 15:10 GMT)

Terribly sad story but an object lesson in how mental illness was, and to a certain extent still is, misunderstood - particularly in sport. The nature of cricket's link with depression has been speculated about on too many occasions, sadly. As a cricket lover and sufferer of depression myself, my own view is that there is something about the long periods of inactivity - fielding, waiting to bat, waiting after being dismissed, etc - which can lead to deep introspection; and that is where the negative thoughts can begin.

Posted by   on (September 24, 2011, 12:45 GMT)

I remember listening to my father talking about watching Gimblett bat for Somerset at Bath when he was growing up. Gimblett was a real hero of the Somerset faithful and they could never understand why he didn't get more international recognition. Obviously in those days, players' private lives and shortcomings were less well known about as personal problem remained private.

Posted by   on (September 24, 2011, 5:29 GMT)

I remember Trescothik going through the same trauma while he was on Indian tour. He also suffered the same illness- breakdown- a couple of more times in his career but thankfully he carries on with good result

Posted by landl47 on (September 24, 2011, 4:00 GMT)

There's stress in being involved in a competitive occupation and it's not surprising that some cricketers find it too much for them. Recently Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy have been through similar travails and sadly have been lost to the international side, despite their success. Let's hope that they find serenity in a way that Harold Gimblett never did. BTW, it's nice to hear about Arthur Wellard- I was coached by him as a teenager in the 1960s.

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.
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