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Commentators in cricket history 8: Alan Gibson’s genius and other demons

Commentators in cricket history 8: Alan Gibson's genius and other demons

Alan Gibson’s writings for “The Times” have been compiled for the future generations in an edition titled “Of Didcot and Other Demons”

Alan Gibson was perhaps the most learned man ever to hold the microphone as a cricket broadcaster, someone who brought classical knowledge into his reporting. In the eighth part of the series on cricket commentators, Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this man in whom flair and erudition forever battled with whimsy and the bottle.

Lord’s 1963

Wes Hall waited with the ball, sweat glistening on his brow from relentless pace like fire. Derek Shackleton had just been run out at the non-striker’s end and David Allen stood rooted in the batting crease. Confused English supporters feared the worst. The news of Colin Cowdrey’s broken wrist had already reached homes, offices and pubs around the country. Had England lost this fascinating Test match?

And then Alan Gibson’s honeyed voice rang out, “There are two balls to go. England, needing 234 to win, are 228 for nine; with Cowdrey, his left forearm in plaster, coming out to join Allen.”

For those who were at the ground that day, it remains perhaps the greatest Test match ever. And because of the final minutes of Alan Gibson’s commentary, the same can be said for the thousands of pairs of ears that tuned in to the broadcast.

Cricketing orchestra

With his gifted sense of inflection at appropriate moments, expressions sprinkled with wit and wisdom selected to perfection, and the keenness of eye to capture the minutest detail, Gibson was a natural genius when it came to commentary. Even with John Arlott in the box, he was easily the most erudite soul to ever grace the box of Test Match Special. When he teamed up with Arlott, as they often did during Gibson’s brief but brilliant stint, the broadcasts were graced with a double barrel of poetry, lyrical description and razor sharp humour, elevating the commentary to the level of sublime art. It is said that Arlott, Gibson, Brian Johnston and Jim Swanton together formed an inimitable small orchestra that turned cricket into music for many listeners. The finale was performed by Don Mosey’s equally brilliant summing up.

Yet, Gibson always seemed the odd man out, the reluctant virtuoso who portrayed the image of a man who had somehow wandered into the commentary box while the world waited for him to turn his phenomenal talents to more important issues.

Indeed, Gibson was perhaps the most remarkable man to have broadcast cricket, and was way, way more than a commentator. He was an academic phenomenon. A president of Oxford Union, he had gained a first in history without attending a lecture. “I did set out for one in the early days, but could not find my way. This became, before long, a habit; by the end of the year, it had become almost a fetish … I (can) lay my hand on my heart and solemnly swear that I have never once been to a lecture.”

People of his educational background generally ended up responding to callings much higher in importance quotient than commentating and writing on cricket. There is a theory that Gibson never quite managed to forget that. It led to the demons that afflicted him all through his career streaked in equal amounts by flair and fuss. According to David Foot, “He always struck me as the academic who got lost on his way to the cricket ground. He wore his scholarship proudly and at times rather too prominently. He couldn’t resist sprinkling classical allusions into his conversation, match reports and radio commentaries.”

That was in fact the least of his problems. No one, not even the poetic mastery of Arlott, has ever brought the amount of literary references into broadcasts and reports as Gibson. But, like Arlott, the wizardry of words had to wade through an ever increasing flow of liquor. And unlike Arlott, the spirits fast triumphed over the soul.

Pastoral roots

Gibson’s vice can be traced to an overdose of virtue during his formative years. His father was a Durham miner who turned Baptist preacher, and religious tenets were perhaps too strongly impressed on the sensitive soul of the young boy. Some of the lessons might have left it with gaping holes through which evil could creep in unchecked. In his own words, “Their worst effect was probably that when I stopped being moral, I rebounded too far in the other direction.”

Born in 1923, he was a scholar by nature, seeped into poetry, classics and history. He also had a poor constitution which prompted medical boards to reject him for conscription during the Second World War, until a curious cricketing connection saw him drafted. “Bored with repeated medical examinations, I cut one, for what seemed to me the very good reason that I had a chance to meet CB Fry. I omitted to write in advance or apologise later, with the result that one evening I came back to my digs to find two military policemen on the doorstep. The next thing I knew was that I was in the army.”

His military career was brief, unheroic and almost entirely spent in the hospital. After leaving Oxford, he found a job on the extra-mural stuff of University College, Exeter, lecturing to groups of adult students in the South Devon area. He was also in demand as a lay preacher, especially in Methodist chapels.

After his marriage to Olwen Thomas, Gibson found himself too poorly paid to start a family. This led to his writing to Frank Gillard, the Head of West Regional Programmes of BBC, and suggesting himself as a broadcaster, specifying fields of cricket commentary and poetry reading.

From broadcasting everything to the Test Match Special

His first test broadcast involved reading a short story from Bristol. And his second for Sport in the West – a short account of the cricket between the Australians and Somerset at Taunton. The same day, he also had an audition for cricket commentary where Arlott was broadcasting live. Later, Gibson remembered Arlott with immense gratitude, who always shared his ideas with younger men others would have considered competitors. Perhaps it was this early introduction to Arlott which made him genuinely sympathetic to young commentators down the years.

His long stint in BBC thus started from 1948, and saw him take up a variety of programmes. He did everything, from parochial features and religious programmes to voice-overs and unscripted editions of Good Morning, a show full of dreadful jokes and charming banter with fellow compère Derek Jones – a forerunner of the modern day stuff hosted by disc-jockeys.

It was punctuated by broadcasts of rugby and cricket, from Plymouth and later Bristol, for regional programmes like Sport in the West and Sportspage. He would arrive straight from the ground, scribbling notes in a taxi, and rattle off his report. He excelled off script as well, and spoke in short sentences, the diction remaining ever excellent, never hurrying or failing to gain the maximum nuance from a particular adjective.

He was elevated to Test Match Special only in 1962, 14 years after he started with BBC. The years that followed provided him the platform for the world to savour his insights, technical knowledge, exemplary use of phrases and dry wit.

Even in moments of mirth, the academic in him sought out the appropriate word at length. Brian Johnston was the recipient of the following: “Oh, no, Brian, I wouldn’t say you have a large nose. You’re just a trifle proboscal.”

And when during a Saturday afternoon sports programme, Neil Durden-Smith apologised for being late informing that he had been having tea with the Bishop of Leicester, Gibson began his commentary stint with: “No episcopal visitations here.”

The rebel with a thirst

The academic in Gibson also had a touch of a rebel. He recalled belonging to no study group during his Oxford days. “I liked working alone and at hours to suit myself. I would have hated the seminarial system of a group of students working together.”

Some of this attitude was taken into the commentary box. Instructions were meant to be defied. Once, during a commentary stint, he said that he would give the complete scorecard at the end of the over. The producer, Peter Baxter, hastily passed him a card suggesting that he might wait another minute for the World Service to join the commentary. His response floated into the air, “My producer thinks I should wait until the World Service joins us, but I don’t think we want to wait, do we, dear listener?”  World Service joined the commentary when he was in the middle of the scores, and he had to start over again.

When John Arlott decided that he would broadcast during the first half of the day and write for The Guardian after that, Gibson, Henry Blofeld and Durden-Smith had to increase their workload, each one of them having the opportunity of taking over the second half. For Gibson, the main problem of reporting for duty after three in the afternoon lay in the attractions of the bar. His weakness for the amber became embarrassingly public.

It led to Don Mosey, when producing commentary at Headingley, to issue an edict, “No more pints of bitter in the commentary box.” Arlott did carry his customary suitcase with its characteristic bottle of claret, but he was infinitely more adroit in drowning the wine with words. For Gibson it was often the other way around, although he reacted to the restriction with an exasperated, “Are you being pompous, dear boy?”

Mosey repeated the order, and was incensed when Gibson arrived in the box with a pint mug of liquid. “I said no more pints of bitter,” Mosey is supposed to have thundered, to which Gibson replied that it was not a pint of bitter. Sniffing the liquid, Mosey found it to be neat whisky.

While it seems funny in retrospect, for BBC producers responsible for the cricket programme aired live, it was rather difficult to treat it as such.

At Headingley, in 1975, Peter Baxter’s patience ran out. Phil Edmonds was making his debut, and capturing five for 28, had skittled the Australians out for 135. Gibson was the commentator for all five dismissals, but the descriptions became thinner and thinner with each fall of wicket, and there was little doubt that the diluting agent had been alcohol. Duly, Cliff Morgan, the Head of Sport, was informed and he tuned in for Gibson’s commentary spell. Soon after, it was decided that he was too risky to be on air live. Nothing was officially communicated, no letter was sent. It was a conscious decision on the part of the BBC management.

When he brutally looked into his soul, Gibson did confess, at least to himself, that the fault had been his own. Yet, there was a grudge that he continued to nurse. “But the umpire’s finger went up too quickly,” he complained. The next time he encountered Baxter was on a train leaving Cardiff after a rugby international, and he unleashed a torrent of drunken abuse.

Thus ended a gilt edged career with the potential to soar much higher. Gibson’s rugby broadcasts had already ended when he had stood down from a commentary assignment involving the Springboks in 1969-70, as a protest against apartheid. By now, well into his second failed marriage, he turned his attention to occasional county broadcasts for HTV and day- by-day reporting of county cricket.

Of Didcot and other demons

Apart from writing sporadically for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph, from 1967 Gibson had been a cricket correspondent of The Times. His style had for long been both cultured and entertaining. In his charming autobiography A Mingled Yarn he confessed, “Few delights in life compare with the rare and difficult achievement of writing a sound piece of English prose.”

However, at this late stage of his career, his writing turned whimsical and idiosyncratic, distinctive and peculiar if considered as cricket reporting, but nevertheless quaint and delightful, earning him a huge following and bestowing him with an almost cult status. David Foot writes: “He began his match reports in late afternoon. Out would come the expensive fountain pen, when he could find it. Usually he had his back to the play, and his glass was never empty. He might, oddly, tell readers who had won the toss: then he was off, in a discursive and peripheral account of his daily thoughts. They must often have confused and irritated sub-editors, pragmatically obsessed with matters of space, rather than erudition and eccentricity.”

After tangential references to the day’s play, or even before it, Gibson would branch off to curious anecdotes dealing with his travel to the county ground, invariably changing trains at the little known Didcot junction. Then there were several descriptions of the mysterious GRIP (Glorious Red-headed Imperturbable Pamela), barmaid at the Hammond Bar in Bristol. He would casually write about lack of ice in his Scotch at Gloucester or the primitive plumbing at the Gents’ in Chentleham, and studies of all the attractive barmaids to be encountered in pubs littered around county grounds; while ignoring some insignificant events like a century or a hat-trick. Slowly, with the passing of years, humorously-challenged sub-editors lost patience.

However, his writings for The Times have been compiled for the future generations in an edition titled Of Didcot and Other Demons. He also wrote a minor classic published in 1979 and revised in 1989 – The Cricket Captains of England.

In spite of enjoying his drink, he was not a social man. He abhorred press-boxes, preferring the corner of a bar, cleverly diluting whisky to make it look like lager. He steered clear of the bores who frequented county grounds, and cricket correspondents who tried to ambush him for conversations. The only ones he allowed in his presence and treated with kindness seemed to be much younger reporters and commentators.

The journey kept progressing steadily downhill. After the failure of his second marriage, he found himself losing the battle with his own demons. He spent a spell in a psychiatric home, which he wrote about in A Mingled Yarn. He also contemplated suicide more than once.

He passed away in 1997 in a Taunton nursing home, having spent much of his last days battling shadows of the past.

Summing up the wordsmith

Gibson was chosen to speak at Sir Neville Cardus’s memorial service in 1975 – which is a measure of the esteem with which he was regarded by his peers. During this occasion, he read from William Blake the following lines which could have been written specifically for Gibson himself:

Joy and woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine.

Under every grief and pine

Runs a thread of silken twine.

The greatest tribute to him was perhaps paid by his colleague in the commentary box, E.W. Swanton, who wrote of him: “If Crusoe (R.C. Robertson Glasgow) can be said to have a successor it is Alan Gibson, whose reports gladden my summer.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

Earlier Parts:

1.  Alan McGilvray

2.  Howard Marshall

3.  Rex Alston

4. John Arlott

5. Brian Johnston

6. EW “Jim” Swanton

7. Robert Hudson

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