Saturday, 3 December 2011

Black Dog

Tragedy, sadness, depression and madness have long stalked the world of West Country cricket. I'm pretty sure there's no research on the area in isolation (there has of course been research on the wider subject thanks to David Frith) - I wonder what it would show. But anecdotal evidence - oh, there's plenty.

Harold Gimblett was the first Somerset opener to be stalked by the Black Dog. Here he is:

Gimblett lived most of his early life in the West Country, making his runs for Watchet CC in Somerset. The story of his debut is something straight out of Boy's Own. The Wikipedia article on this is so good that I have to cite most of it:

"Having a two-week trial with Somerset, Gimblett had been told, before the period was over, that he had no future as a first-class cricketer. Accounts vary as to how this decision was reached. Gimblett himself, quoted in David Foot's biography, which relies heavily on material taped by Gimblett in the years immediately before his death, said he was told by the county secretary and former captain, John Daniell: "You may as well finish the week. We'll pay you 35 shillings and your bus fare. Afraid you're just not good enough." Daniell's son, quoted in the same book, said that the Somerset professional players had advised against taking Gimblett on to the county staff: "They used to tell my father they thought Harold was far too impulsive." A further factor may have been the almost permanent financial crisis that surrounded Somerset: the county club was probably not able to afford another professional player.

"On the final Friday of Gimblett's trial, Somerset found themselves a player short for the match that started the following day against Essex at Frome when the amateur Laurie Hawkins reported in sick. Gimblett was told to get himself to Frome: Daniell arranged for the wicketkeeper Wally Luckes, who had a car, to pick him up from Bridgwater. Gimblett missed the bus from Taunton, and hitched a lift in a lorry. Somerset won the toss and chose to bat: three batsmen were out for 35, and at lunch the score was 105 for five. Soon after lunch, Dickie Burrough was out and Gimblett came to the wicket with Somerset six wickets down for 107 runs, joining Arthur Wellard.

"Gimblett's first run came off his third ball, and shortly afterwards he was hitting the leg-break and googly bowler Peter Smith for 15 in an over. He raced to his 50 in just 28 minutes, off 33 balls, reaching it with a six. Wellard, unusually for him, was outpaced and was out, followed swiftly by Luckes, but Gimblett was joined by Bill Andrews, who also hit powerfully. Gimblett's century came in just 63 minutes, which proved to be the fastest century of the season, and it was made out of 130 runs added while he had been at the wicket. He finished with 123 out of 175 in 80 minutes, with three sixes and 17 fours. Somerset won the match with an innings to spare."


Gimblett was warned by Jack Hobbs that such a start would be difficult to maintain. In fact, at the start of the 1936 season, he piled on the runs, such that he was called up to face the Indians. He started well in the first Test, knocking off the runs required with 67* in the second Test on a tricky pitch. However, later in the season his form was patchy, and he was dropped from the Test side.

David Foot's biography of Gimblett indicates that this 1936 season, although one of his most successful, also showed early signs of the illness that was to afflict him later. He reacted badly to being criticised for dropping an easy catch in the Old Trafford Test, and when he himself was dropped from the team for the final Test, he responded with relief: "'Thank goodness that's over,' he said to anyone within earshot." Oddly, another supremely talented and attacking Somerset batsman, Mark Lathwell, was reported to feel much the same way when his England career was prematurely closed.

The next three years were relatively barren. Evidently his attacking instincts had become compromised due to his earlier failures, and he struggled to adapt to a more defensive game.

After the war Gimblett became a county stalwart. He was back to his attacking best, but had learnt which balls to attack and played with more nous than in his pre-war years. He never quite managed to play Test cricket again. England called him up to face Ramadhin and Valentine, but a boil manifested itself on his neck As the Wiki has it: "He was dosed with penicillin and travelled to Nottingham. 'A nation's sporting press meticulously documented the carbuncle's throb-rate,' [biographer David] Foot writes. It was to no avail: Gimblett withdrew from the match, and was not picked again."

What makes Gimblett a fascinating character is the dichotomy of his exuberant play and - festering beneath the surface - extremely morose personality. Now, here is where our parallels with yet another Somerset opener become downright creepy. Gimblett toured India and Sri Lanka. Again from the Wiki: "He was homesick and unhappy: 'At first I wondered whether I'd picked up a bug. But it was purely mental,' he said in a tape transcribed in his biography. Lighter by about 12kg, he struggled for runs more than usually in the 1951 season, and took a long break from cricket in July, returning to some form afterwards."

And again, as with Marcus Trescothick: "Alan Gibson, the cricket writer who himself suffered from bouts of mental illness, wrote of him: "Most of those who watched him, or even met him, took him for a cheerful extrovert. This was wrong. He thought a lot, worried a lot, fretted a lot, all the more because he struggled to present a calm, bold front to the outer world."

Where Gimblett appears to differ from Trescothick is in the fact that the depression seems to have manifested itself more as a pent-up bitterness and rage. His anger was directed, like a blowtorch, at everything - it manifested itself as class resentment, frustrations about money and his own health. He was furious about how he was treated by Somerset and England, and utterly distraught that his career had not gone quite the way it should have. Many would look at his figures and see a more than successful time in the professional game. Gimblett saw only failure.

He suffered a breakdown in 1953, and undertook electro-shock therapy. He tried to play for Somerset once more but was given time off. According to him, he was then barred from the ground. There then followed an unsuccessful post teaching at Millfield. He ended his life with an overdose of prescription pills in a mobile home near Minehead.


That sense of bitterness and rage, of fury at what seems, on the surface, very little, reminds me more of another Somerset opener. I was saddened, though not necessarily shocked, by Peter Roebuck's death. I don't want to reduce his life, Gimblett's and Trescothick's to a series of universals, though all three clearly suffered depression, and Gimblett and Roebuck were clearly affected by a very similar sense of rage and bitterness at their perceived mistreatment. In the case of three Somerset openers - Lathwell, Gimblett and Trescothick, there's also a clear split between their zestful batting and their nervous, introspective personalities.

But if I were to draw a comparison between Gimblett, Trescothick and Roebuck, and suggest how their background might have a part to play in how they have been tormented, I suppose it would come down to this: their sense of right and wrong. If it's a West Country trait - and I don't know for sure that it is - all three men shared it. No one can claim to have a window into a man's soul, not least in the case of taciturn men like Gimblett and Trescothick. But I've blogged on MT's stern sense of right and wrong before, and for me it's what marked out Roebuck as a great writer.

It's an odd attribute. Most writers who pen things with the blinkers on are flawed because of it. Roebuck turned it into a virtue. There were, of course, the diatribes for which he was best known - and it takes a certain self-confidence to write a piece like this in the Australian press.  It'd be a huge mistake to think that he only criticised. Andy Bull at the Guardian cites this overwhelmingly positive piece on Kumar Sangakkara as one of his greatest. But it's the pieces when he took on the administrators that linger in the memory. Of that last link, Bull is great:

'Both cricket and Sri Lanka deserve better from the governors. Alas, the worst remain in office in so many places, with Ijaz Butt running amok in Pakistan; Givemore Makoni, with terrible inevitability, returning to official ranks in benighted and betrayed Zimbabwe; Gerald Majola still in charge in South Africa; and a mixture of government lackeys and bookmaking families running the show in Sri Lanka. Nor is there any reason to retain faith in Giles Clarke, England's puffed-up principal, or Australia's Jack Clarke, whose limitations have been exposed often enough.'
"There, in the space of a single paragraph, Roebuck made himself more political enemies than many cricket writers do in a lifetime."

How true. And this all leads us to what I consider the best piece he ever wrote. It's on Glenn McGrath. Here it is. From line one, there's no fucking about.

"Glenn McGrath is the subtlest and most patient of fast bowlers."


"He rarely takes wickets with yorkers or bouncers or even bad balls; and he does not involve himself in the marketplace where runs and wickets are exchanged. He is the meanest of opponents, seeks to dismiss batsmen without cost, or at worst for a few runs apiece. In truth he is more accountant than murderer."

What a great pair of metaphors. Neither really true, of course. Roebuck knew that McGrath did actually bowl quite a few short ones, when it suited the situation (Atherton, for example, got them repeatedly, because McGrath knew he liked to hook). But the point is it's true enough to reduce the bowler down to his essential attributes.

"Do not bother sending out an inept opener to face him for he will be devoured like a small fish by a shark. McGrath's bowling requires exceptional control of body and mind. Amongst contemporaries only Anil Kumble bears comparison with him in terms of discipline and intent."

Again - facts. The opener will be devoured. And there's no mention of, say, Murali, Warne, Pollock - all of whom would be reasonable comparisons. Nope, just Kumble.

But Roebuck's ability to reduce the argument to its bare bones is what makes him such a powerful and effective writer. Dare I say it, it's what made his perceived mistreatment at the hands of his employers sting him so painfully. Maybe it was that sense which informed his fatal decision that night in South Africa.