Since that memorable day at Frome in May 1935, when he hit a century on his first appearance in first-class cricket, Harold Gimblett, the Somerset opening batsman, has been one of the personalities of our summer game. In an age when individuality even in cricket has to a large extent disappeared, he remains among the few who draw the crowd because people know that provided he stays at the crease, they will be entertained. Always a true cricketer, Gimblett has never lost his natural ability. That is the secret of his magnetic power.
They still tell the story in the West Country of when the Somerset Stragglers arrived at Wellington School in June 1932 with ten men. One of these caused surprise by his unusual punctuality, but he had a mission to fulfil. He had brought a schoolboy to fill the vacant place. The substitute wore a red and black school cap, went in at number six, and coolly hit 142 in seventy-five minutes.
A year later Somerset Stragglers themselves suffered similar treatment when they went to Watchet. The locals batted first and four wickets had fallen for 33. Then came this youngster, and he proceeded to belabour the bowlers as they had never been dealt with before. Huge hits sent the ball soaring over the hedges, but when it seemed he would never stop he calmly walked into the pavilion. Only the insistence of the fielding captain brought him back. The next ball, whether by accident or design, provided short-leg with a simple catch. Gimblett had scored 168 in eighty minutes; the next best individual score was 30, and Watchet's total was 278.
Few of those who took part ion that match appreciated they had seen the arrival of a new star in Somerset cricket. They were enlightened twelve months later when Gimblett, having joined the County Club as a professional only four weeks previously, was chosen for the match against Essex at Frome. He was given a place on the strength of his medium-place bowling, capable fielding, and because Somerset desired to discipline another member of the side whom they dropped because of his casual fielding.
Possibly the setting itself inspired Gimblett. The rustic field at Frome was like his own cricket meadow at Watchet. When he reached the crease six Somerset wickets had gone for 107, and Nichols, the England and Essex fast bowler, was then at the height of his powers. Immediately Gimblett met all the bowling confidently and never seemed lost for the most suitable stroke. He used the cut, hook and drive as he pleased. Within twenty-eight minutes he reached 50, completed his 100 in sixty-three minutes, and, when out to a return catch by LC Eastman, he had made 123 out of 175 in eighty minutes, with three 6's and seventeen 4's as his principal strokes. That performance was one of the sensations of the 1935 season, and Gimblett was not yet 21. It won him the Lawrence Trophy for the fastest hundred of the year and Punch immortalised it thus:
"How come it that this agricultural youth
Can meet the wiliest ball and feetly scotch it?
Simple and elementary is the truth
His Gimblett eye enables him to Watchet."
Harold Gimblett was born of Yeoman stock at Bicknoller, near Taunton, on October 19, 1914. His family have been farmers for generations and from infancy he played cricket with his two elder brothers, Lewis and Dennis. They made a pitch at home in the orchard. He went to school at Williton, and later to West Buckland School, Barnstaple, 1926-31, finishing as captain. He says he has been much indebted to the coaching he received at West Buckland from E Ross, and later to EJ Freeman, the former Essex cricketer, who was engaged at Sherborne School. WG Penny, secretary of the Watchet Club, which he joined in 1931, introduced him to Somerset. He was keen to do well at cricket and made a point of seeing the Australians when they played at Taunton in 1926, 1930 and 1934.
In assessing Gimblett's qualities one must remember that for the greater part of his career he has been Somerset's main batting hope. He might well have made more than only three appearances for England if he had been attached to a more fashionable county. The way the MCC have passed him over when choosing touring teams is past comprehension to many people, including notable Australians. I well remember when WR Hammond's team were doing badly in Australia in 1946-47 CG Macartney asking why stroke-makers like Gimblett and Barnett had been left at home.
A glance at the batting figures on page 526 for all first-class matches in which Gimblett has taken part reveals his consistency, and also show that at the age of 38 he is in his prime, for last season his aggregate of 2,134 runs was his best and also constituted a Somerset record. His 310 against Sussex at Eastbourne in 1948 stands as Somerset's best individual score, surpassing 292 by the prince of stylists, LCH Palariet, against Hampshire at Southampton, 1896.
Twice Gimblett has hit two hundreds in a match, both times at Taunton: 115 and 127 not out v Hampshire, 1949; 146 and 116 v Derbyshire, 1952. Of his 46 hundreds, the one which probably gave him most pleasure, after the original 123, was his 104 against Northamptonshire in his benefit match last season at Glastonbury, where first-class cricket was staged for the first time.
For Gimblett, cricket is a game to be enjoyed. Of medium height and possessing broad shoulders, he invests his forcing strokes with great power. He has a splendid range of drives from the one which sizzles wide of cover's left hand to that which goes to the right of mid-off. In addition, he excels with the hook and cut. In recent years he has strengthened his defence and he can suit his mood to the position of the game, experience having ripened his judgement in distinguishing the ball that demands respect from the one that can be punished.
As an opening batsman he stands alone in having hit 232 sixes in first-class matches. In 1937 on the small ground at Wells he set the example for a feast of big hitting by punishing the Hampshire bowling for nine sixes in the first innings when he scored 141 in two and a half hours.
His frame has always befitted a man brought up in farm life. Two years ago, when the scales showed a weight of 15 st 4 ½ lbs, and he was finding difficulty in fielding the ball on the ground, he disciplined his diet in the same way as he had disciplined his inclination to hit every ball out of sight. He avoided everything which made fat and, denying himself butter, bread, potatoes and cakes, he reduced to 12 ½ st and has remained there. He found he could run about more easily and, despite the warnings of the pessimists, he not only went through last summer without injury, but scored 669 more runs than in 1951.