1959 March 18, 2005

Beamed into exile

By their very nature, fast bowlers are an aggressive breed

Roy Gilchrist ready to unleash ... but would it pitch? © The Cricketer
By their very nature, fast bowlers are an aggressive breed. West Indies have had their fair share, from Herman Griffith in the 1930s, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in the `50s and `60s, the infamous and varied four-prong pace attacks of the 1980s, right through to Curtly Ambrose in more recent times. But one of the fastest, and almost certainly the meanest of them all, was Roy Gilchrist. And in 1959, that malicious streak cost him his international career.

Gilchrist was the loosest of cannons, often surly and almost impossible to handle. "He was difficult, insufferably so at times," wrote Michael Manley. "He was also potentially, a very great bowler." On the field he was relentlessly aggressive and he considered the beamer to be a legitimate weapon. "I have searched the rule books," he once said, "and there is not a word in any of them that says a fellow cannot bowl a fast full-toss at a batsman ... a batsman has got a bat and they should get the treatment they deserve. Unless he hasn't got the technique or the courage ..."

When West Indies toured India in 1958-59, they did so with a formidable pace attack of Gilchrist, Hall, Garry Sobers, Eric Atkinson and Jaswick Taylor. But, for the first time since the war, they were playing without any of the three Ws.

India drew the first Test thanks to a superb rearguard led by Pankaj Roy and some poor slip catching from West Indies. Unsurprisingly, faced with a resolute batsman Gilchrist was not sparing with bouncers or the occasional beamer. "Real India rubber men," he wrote. "Those batsmen ... the way they bounced about." Gerry Alexander, Gilchrist's captain, was less impressed and made it clear there were to be no more beamers as they were "too dangerous".

In between matches, there was an incident during a net session when Gilchrist swore and Alexander demanded an apology. Gilchrist refused, and Alexander said he was going to be thrown off the tour. In the end, a delegation of younger players pleaded his case and he was reinstated, albeit with a warning he would go if anything else happened. Gilchrist missed the second Test, the media officially being told that he had pulled a muscle. He returned in the next tour match with 6 for 16 against Combined Universities, and in the Calcutta Test cut his pace down on a green wicket to grab 9 for 73 in 44 overs in West Indies' innings victory.

By the fourth Test India were in chaos. Two days after their side was named, Ghulam Ahmed, the captain, retired from first-class cricket. Polly Umrigar was asked to take over, but on the morning of the match he had a row over who should be left out of the 12 and also quit, leaving Vinoo Mankad in charge. Gilchrist picked up another five wickets as West Indies cruised to a 295-run victory. But some of the media were unhappy with the pace battery and condemned what they described as "terror tactics".

Gilchrist in action in the Lancashire leagues where he ended his career © The Cricketer
After a draw in the final Test, West Indies had a last match against North Zone at Amritsar before starting the Pakistan leg of the tour. It was there the wheels really came off.

North Zone were led by Swaranjit Singh, a colleague of Alexander's at Cambridge University. On the eve of the match Gilchrist claimed that he had been told that Singh was boasting how he would deal with him. To make such bold statements about any fast bowler is brave verging on foolhardy. To do so about a character as volatile as Gilchrist could be interpreted as bordering on insanity.

In the first innings Gilchrist bowled Singh first ball. In the second innings, Singh made a start and had reached 15 when, in the over before lunch, Gilchrist sent down a brute of a bouncer. The next ball was pitched up and driven for four. But as batsman passed bowler, Singh said: "You like that one? Beautiful wasn't it?"

If Singh didn't know what was coming next, everyone who knew Gilchrist did. It was the beamer - "the fastest ball I had ever let rip in my life" - and, softened up, Singh edged the next ball to Alexander at short leg who dropped it. That tipped Gilchrist over the edge and two more potentially lethal beamers followed that "must almost have singed his beard." In between those two balls Alexander made it clear that there were to be no more beamers. That was a red rag to an already enraged bull.

As the sides trooped off the field for lunch, Alexander quietly came up to Gilchrist and told him that he had bowled his last ball on tour. Furthermore, he had asked North Zone if they would allow a substitute, which they readily agreed to, and so Gilchrist sat out the game.

In the aftermath, the selectors met and unanimously decided to send Gilchrist home while the rest of the squad went on to Pakistan. "You leave by the next flight," Alexander said curtly. "Good afternoon." In the coming years the circumstances surrounding Gilchrist's expulsion became more clouded with stories circulating that he had pulled a knife on Alexander.

If Gilchrist thought that his antics would soon be forgotten, he was sadly mistaken. He never played another Test. In 1960-61 Frank Worrell, by then leading West Indies, asked for Gilchrist to be included in the side to tour Australia but the selectors refused point blank. That was it. Gilchrist, only 24, was to play in just seven more first-class matches - ironically, six of them were in India where he was on an exchange aimed at giving Indian batsmen more exposure to fast bowling.

Gilchrist settled in Lancashire where he played league cricket for a variety of clubs until 1979, never taking less than 100 wickets in a season. He was successful, but always fiery both on and off the field. "Tales of atrocity ... continued to emerge about his violently over-reactive attitude to batsmen and his unsparing use of the bouncer," recalled his obituary in Wisden. "Even charity matches were not free from his ferocious assaults: on one such occasion, at Werneth, that resolute Australian Cec Pepper luridly but successfully remonstrated with Gilchrist in terms not suitable to print."

It was sad end to what could have been a remarkable career. But he appeared to have been on a course of self-destruction from the off, and it was more a question of when rather than if.

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Hit Me For Six Roy Gilchrist (Stanley Paul, 1963)
A History of West Indies Cricket Michael Manley (Guild, 1988)
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2002