A voice from the dark
Until 1982, when this book was published, cricket books were usually written and read through rose-tinted spectacles. The romantic school prevailed: cricketers were all heroes without flaws, not normal men, and every moment of every game was fun.
Foot's biography of Gimblett was the dose of realism cricket-writing needed. The book grew out of tapes the Somerset and England batsman recorded in his retirement. Gimblett was the Gilchrist, the Sehwag, of his time: on his first-class debut in 1935 he scored a century in 63 minutes. He was the most dashing opening batsman before limited-overs cricket. But beneath the surface his was not the romantic story it appeared to be.
Gimblett, like other Somerset players selected for England, was shy. "I savoured the moment," he said after his famous debut, "but loathed the publicity that followed." He scored more first-class centuries for Somerset than anyone - more than any of the big-name imports the county has had. But he didn't want to play for England after a couple of Tests, and he withdrew into his shell even more as he aged.
Foot's achievement is that he records for posterity, without varnishing, without rose-coloured spectacles, exactly what Gimblett went through. Foot writes:
"Like few other sports of the field, cricket is played very much with the mind. Only the unimaginative player escapes the tensions. Many, whatever their seeming unconcern, retreat into caverns of introspection. I long ago discovered that for the professional cricketers, particularly the sensitive ones, the match-winning cheers and bar-room bonhomie are outweighed by collective self-doubt and dressing-room silences. Harold Gimblett knew all about that."
In retirement, if not before, Gimblett became depressed. In the end he killed himself. As the darkness closed in on him, he talked on tapes and recorded his feelings - tapes that were passed on to Foot by Gimblett's widow. Plenty of cricketers have committed suicide, of course, especially English ones. He speaks for them, to us, like no other has done:
"I'm in a tunnel that has no end - and no light. There is no point in continuing to struggle against the odds ... The psychiatrists don't know what is wrong with me and there is nothing they can do in any case. Now I know what my father went through - I inherited it from him. The only thing I could do was play cricket and they threw me back into the first-class game, after my earliest breakdown, before I was ready... I get more and more depressed. The only peace of mind is when I go to bed with a very heavy dose of tablets."
Do read it.
Harold Gimblett, Tormented Genius of Cricket
by David Foot
Scyld Berry is the editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2008 and cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph