Harold Gimblett (left) and Learie Constantine © Getty Images
Harold Gimblett (left) and Learie Constantine © Getty Images

During a match that started August 25, 1945 at Lord’s, an exasperated Harold Gimblett uttered a racist comment at Learie Constantine. As Abhishek Mukherjee elaborates, it ended in good-natured camaraderie, complete with a nice epilogue.

It is unfortunate that the Victory ‘Tests’ did not get Test status. The Australian Cricket Board did not consider the squad representative enough to be a national side. Of course, the cricket was exhilarating, and the matches fiercely contested. The series of 5 ‘Tests’, three-day affairs in 1945 between England and an Australian Services XI, was drawn 2-2.

But there was more to them than that. Few events did more to eradicate the gloom of the World War than the ‘Tests’. Of course, there was football, but they had to wait till winter for that. Wartime cricket was there, of course (Lord’s was nearly bombed in 1944 during one of these matches), but that was amidst fear… people were still getting killed…

The last ‘Test’, at Lord’s, was almost immediately followed by a match between England and Dominions. This was the seventh First-Class match of the season (there was a Roses match after the fourth ‘Test’, at Bradford).

As was expected, several cricketers of the Australian Services XI — Keith Miller, Graham Williams, Jack Pettiford, Bob Cristofani, Cec Pepper, and Reginald Ellis — played for the Dominions. They also included Martin Donnelly, one of the greatest batsmen in New Zealand history.

At the helm was Learie Constantine, then almost 44 but by no means past his prime. He still hit them as hard and bowled, as we will see, very, very fast. But more importantly, Constantine was as revered as a man as any in world cricket. The match demanded a leader of men more than a leader of cricketers.

Led by Wally Hammond, the England team included, among others, Bill Edrich, James Langridge, Eric Hollies, Doug Wright, Jack Robertson, Laurie Fishlock, and Harold Gimblett.

The cricket was bright and attractive, in perfect synchronisation with the purpose of the match. Wright tossed them up the way he always had, enticing batsmen to go for big shots and commit errors. He took 5 for 90 and 5 for 105 with aggressive leg-spin. Hammond painted majestic knocks of 121 and 102, facing 314 balls in the course of the match.

And then there was the opposition. Donnelly’s 133 took him 190 balls. Miller hit 7 sixes in his 189-ball 185. Pepper took 7 wickets in the match. The bowlers aimed for wickets. The batsmen hit in abundance. They obviously played to win, but the result would not have mattered. These were men who had cheated death taking to cricket to bring joy to a war-stricken land.

Gimblett, a farm boy, had made headlines with his fairytale hundred on First-Class debut. He scored runs for Somerset, many of them, and he scored them at breakneck pace. He had a penchant for massive sixes, which made him ideal for the match. He scored 11 and 30 in the match (though he hit a six).

It is not clear in which innings the incident took place. Given that Constantine was bowling to Gimblett, it may be assumed that it was the second innings (where they opened bowling and batting respectively).

The entire incident lasted four balls and three blows. The first hit Gimblett on the inside of his right leg. “It’s a golden rule for batsmen not to flinch when he’s hit on the leg. I did my best not to … I grimaced with pain and did nothing,” Gimblett would later tell David Foot.

But Constantine hit Gimblett on the same spot again. It was agonising, and Gimblett was forced to rub the spot, but left it at that.

And then, Constantine did it again. “The bat flew out of my hand one way and the gloves came off in another. Tears welled up in my eyes,” Gimblett would later confess.

An obviously concerned Constantine approached Gimblett. At this Gimblett lost his cool: “Oh, you… you black man!” he blurted out, and immediately realised what he had done.

It should probably not have gone down well with Constantine, a survivor of racism in England for years. But the great man also understood, empathised with pain. He knew it was not intentional, even for a man as difficult as Gimblett.

And Constantine laughed, much to Gimblett’s surprise and awe.

The story has a sequel, some twenty years later, “in the Sixties”. Gimblett was umpiring a Rothmans match at Taunton. He parked his car and walked inside the ground — when he spotted a familiar figure in front of him, the man’s back towards him.

Sir Learie Constantine, to be Baron Learie Constantine in 1969, often called a “nigger”, a “black bugger”, and worse in his playing days, denied entry at hotels because of his complexion, was unmistakable even from behind.

But this was Gimblett. He yelled “black man!”

Constantine responded, his back still towards Gimblett: “There’s only one man in the world [who] could say that to me.” Then he placed his hands on Gimblett’s shoulders to greet him.

They knew, both Gimblett and Constantine.

Brief scores:

Dominions 307 (Hartley Craig 56, Martin Donnelly 133, Cec Pepper 51; Doug Wright 5 for 90) and 336 (Keith Miller 185; Eric Hollies 3 for 115, Doug Wright 5 for 105) beat England 287 (Wally Hammond 121, Bill Edrich 78; Cec Pepper 4 for 57, Bob Cristofani 3 for 82) and 311 (Wally Hammond 102, Jack Davies 56; Cec Pepper 3 for 67) by 45 runs.