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At the time of year when players call it quits, we look back to one whose retirement came midway through a match
September 24, 2011
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.
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.
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 AfricaFeeds: Martin Williamson
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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