CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 1957

Gilbert Langley

The standard of Australian batting and bowling is subject to deep fluctuations, as the gulf between 1948 and 1956 emphasises, but the supply of fine fieldsmen, notably wicket-keepers, seems inexhaustible. Between the wars W. A. Oldfield was esteemed the world's best and in the first two series after World War II D. Tallon supported Australia's bowlers with the quickest glove-play of all.

Their successor, Gilbert Roche Andrews Langley, has none of Oldfield's polish or Tallon's camera-shutter speed; yet in certainty he excels both. Judged by the baseball method of fewest errors, Langley is the safest wicket-keeper in the game. His 19 wickets in the 1956 series set a record for a season's Tests in England, three more than T. G. Evans's 16 in 1953. Injuries denied the thick-set South Australian opportunities to eclipse the all-country Test record of 23 by John Waite for South Africa against New Zealand in 1954. Langley's deputy in the third and fourth Tests, L. V. Maddocks, took six out of eight chances and his substitute for more than an hour in the fifth Test, R. N. Harvey, dropped one leg-side snick.

Langley's appearance gives no hint of his uncommon powers of anticipation. Arriving at the ground, he looks less like a Test wicket-keeper than an electrician come to fix the lights (he can do that, too, as he is an electrical contractor by trade). Behind the stumps his waistband often sags below his ample midriff and his shirt works out at the back. His waiting squat, with his right foot flat and left heel raised, is as informal as a Boy Scout grilling a chop at a campfire. Unlike most English 'keepers his gloves are in front of his knees instead of touching the ground.

His close watch on the bowler's arm and hand unerringly tells him which way the ball will swing or spin. He moves into position with short, quick strides--a reminder that he represented South Australia fifteen times as an Australian Rules football rover during his eleven years with Sturt F. C. Anticipation in the Tallon manner enables him to reach most wide-swinging balls without sprawling, though if necessary he can rope in a distant low catch balanced on one shoulder. Langley's temperament--equable as any the game has known--helps his hands to await the ball without a suspicion of grabbing. These gifts, his concentration on the field and his sociable relaxation off it, contribute toward making him the most faithful ally Australian bowlers ever had, as well as one of cricket's homespun characters, with an open, apple-hued face.

When Langley was born in Adelaide on September 14, 1919, his family's only link with cricket was that one grandfather was an umpire who once stood in a match between Australia and Fiji. From the age of 12, when he began playing cricket for the suburban school at Colonel Light Gardens, Langley was always a wicket-keeper, self-taught except for hints given him by Victor Richardson (1930 Test tour vice-captain) after Gilbert entered Sturt Cricket Club's B Grade eleven at 16. Sturt nominated Langley to the South Australian Colts XI which, led by former Test bowler C. V. Grimmett, played in Adelaide's first-grade competition until the War caused its disbandment in 1940.

Langley became Sturt's wicket-keeper--he is now captain--and the club's coach, Alfred Hodder, helped him develop as a batsman. When Australia resumed first-class cricket in 1945 South Australia first chose Langley as a batsman against New South Wales. After two matches, he was dropped from the State XI when W. R. Hammond's M.C.C. team was touring Australia, but he succeeded R. Vaughton as the State wicket-keeper in 1946-47.

Selection to tour South Africa in 1949-50 came only because Tallon withdrew. Though Langley's left forefinger was broken by a late swinging ball from the fast left-hander, Alan Walker, he took 19 wickets in six matches as reserve 'keeper to Ronald Saggers. As a stopgap in Sagger's absence, Langley was brought into his first Test, against West Indies at Brisbane in 1951. His way of stopping the gap was to set a record of seven wickets for a Test newcomer. His tally for his first series of five Tests was 21. Such a total had been attained only once before--by Herbert Strudwick in South Africa in 1913-14, his third Test series.

Langley has since been Australia's regular wicket-keeper, except for Tallon's appearance at Nottingham in 1953 and two breaks caused by injuries in 1954-55 and 1956. A ball from the left-hand bowler, Jack Wilson, flew from R. G. Archer's bails in an inter-State match and gashed Langley's brow so severely that he had to be replaced by Maddocks for the third Test against Leonard Hutton's English team. Maddocks batted so pluckily against England's fast attack that he was retained for the remainder of the series and Australia's first Test in the West Indies. For all his quickness, Maddocks could not equal Langley's anticipation and deep understanding of the bowlers.

Despite having missed one Test, Langley made a record of 20 wickets in the Indies. He is the only wicket-keeper who twice in a Test series has dismissed batsmen by the score.

Against England at Lord's he became the first to take nine wickets behind the stumps in a Test, surpassing the former record of eight which he had shared in 1955 with J. J. Kelly (Australia) 1902 and L. E. G. Ames (England) in 1933. Langley is the only wicket-keeper who has three times taken five wickets in a Test innings.

He was fielding in the outfield against Glamorgan when he strained some tendons of his left hand and the injury kept him out of the Leeds and Manchester Tests. A gash above the left temple caused his temporary withdrawal from The Oval Test for medical attention.

Langley's 19 wickets in the 1956 series were taken out of 44 wickets lost when he was wicket-keeper, an unprecedented proportion. His only error in those three Tests occurred when, at Lord's, his anticipation was defeated by a ball careering from inside P. B. H. May's bat-handle. His support of Miller and Archer's bowling in that Test was a major factor in Australia's only win of the series. His present average of nearly four wickets per Test--98 in 26 Tests against all countries--sets a record for all first-class cricket. None of the other great wicket-keepers have averaged three per Test. The only two with more victims are Evans 167 in 71 Tests for England, and Oldfield 135 in 54 Tests for Australia. Langley's batting ability never deserted him and he ended his first-class career by hitting 100 in his farewell match at Adelaide against New South Wales last December. -- R. R.

© John Wisden & Co