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Harold Gimblett’s incredible debut for Somerset

Harold Gimblett was first rejected at a trial for Somerset, before being included in the County side due to an emergency © Getty Images
Harold Gimblett was first rejected at a trial for Somerset, before being included in the County side due to an emergency © Getty Images

May 18, 1935. Harold Gimblett, the 20-year-old farm lad from Bicknoller, recently rejected at a trial for Somerset, was included in the county side due to an emergency. He went on to play an innings that has entered the folklore of cricket. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day that saw action that was out of romantic fiction, mocked credulity, and was simply unbelievable.

The lad who was rejected

He was not supposed to be there at all.

The electrifying strokes that enthralled all and sundry and echoed around the village and club cricket grounds of West Somerset had failed to impress the county side selectors.

When young Harold Gimblett turned out for WG Penny’s XI — after some serious persuasion — he hit Jack White’s left arm slows out of the ground three times during his 61. The then Somerset captain White, who had played for England 15 times, shook his head in approval. Perhaps he identified with the young man, who, like him hailed from the farming folk. But, then, village cricket was way different from the high echelons where one was branded with First-Class stamp. No one suggested Gimblett would make it to the county side.

Well, almost no one. There was WG Penny himself, master tailor and highly influential supporter of Somerset. He loved the way Gimblett struck the ball. In fact, he viewed the broad shouldered young lad as his protégé. He winked at his friends, “I’ll have this lad in the Somerset side before long.”

The county cricket club selectors were far from convinced. Gimblett had neither technique, nor temperament — they said. But, supposedly Penny spent more time in canvassing for a trial for Gimblett than he did in measuring for suits. Ultimately, professional all-rounder Tom Young grudgingly agreed to take a look, although in the end he voiced, “I’m not too sure he’s quite good enough.”

But Penny pressed on. It was more due to his persistence than conviction about Gimblett’s ability that saw the county selectors agree to call him for a trial of two weeks.

The country boy arrived, with no cricket bag, carrying a bat thoroughly discoloured, particularly in the middle. The willow looked old enough to be a heirloom. When he stumbled his way into the professionals’ dressing room, there were his heroes changing into their suits of battle. There was Arthur Wellard, the mighty hitter and swing bowler. There was Bill Andrews. There were the Lee brothers, Frank and Jack. There was the rotund form of Horace Hazell. Gimblett did not know how to react. A helpful voice guided him. From inside this constellation of Somerset stars someone pointed at two pegs — “That’s where you change. Speak when you’re spoken to.”

Only Arthur Wellard said that he looked like a cricketer. And then he and Andrews, two big men almost identical in appearance, proceeded to knock his stumps out of the ground. Gimblett, bred on the fare of club and the village, found the First-Class standard far too hot.

John Daniell, juggling his roles of selector, secretary, and several other portfolios, approached the young man once the team had left to play Surrey. “You may as well finish the week. We’ll pay you 35 shillings and your bus fare.” Daniell paused and added, “Afraid you’re just not good enough.” Gimblett was too fascinated to sulk. Those were days when the shadows of mental problems were still far down the line for his young mind. He responded, “This had been one of the most wonderful weeks of my life, sir. I’ve met all my heroes.”

We’ll just have to play this bloke

He helped with the grass and wickets, was made the 12th man both sides. And he was about to get on the bus and head back home. It was then that the news filtered in. Laurie Hawkins had taken a knock on his thumb and would be unable to play Essex at Frome on Saturday. Somerset, a club running on the scarcest possible resources, did not have a full team. None of the wandering band of part time players were available. No amateur stepped out of Debrett for a good old day’s play. Rumours are that JC White said, “We’ll just have to play this bloke, Gimblett. He won’t give anything away in the field, and it’ll keep old Billy Penny quiet.”

True, WG Penny had been fuming after hearing about Gimblett’s rejection. “He’s not the kind of player to judge in the nets,” he voiced.

Now on the county ground there were a couple of words of congratulations, but Gimblett was more embarrassed than elated. Daniell asked him, “Do you know where Frome is? Can you get there on your own?” Gimblett was not sure. He was asked to get to Bridgewater by nine from where wicketkeeper Wally Luckes would pick him up.

That evening he met his fiancée Rita and told her he would be playing against Essex at Frome. Impulsively, Rita gave him a kiss. Neither was used to demonstrations. The bashful Gimblett grinned. “I’ll be all right now,” he said.

He was up at dawn, and set out with his old bat in an all-purpose bag. The other contents were freshly creased flannels, a clean shirt and a few sandwiches, and he had his mother to thank for all these.

In spite of his early start he managed to miss the bus to Bridgewater. He was uncertain what to do and started walking in the direction of the town. Luckily there was a lorry he spotted and was able to flag down.

In his excellent biography of Gimblett, David Foot recreated the dialogue that followed.

“Sorry, I’ve just missed the bus.”

“Okay, jump in, where are you going?”

“To Frome.”

“Why?”

“To play cricket.”

“Who for?”

“Somerset.”

“Oh, ah!”

The lorry driver did not believe Gimblett. He took him for a youth late for work with wild imagination. But, he drove him to Bridgewater. Wally Luckes picked him up and warned him about the googlies of Peter Smith. Gimblett had never seen a googly. Luckes patiently explained that it looked like a leg-break but went the other way.

When he reached the ground, he met the Essex players and was scared stiff. There was Jack O’Connor, Laurie Eastman, Peter Smith, Tom Pearce and the England fast-bowler Maurice Nichols. Captain Reggie Ingle slotted Gimblett at No 8, and he was thankful.

Harold Gimblett scored 123 runs in his first-ever First-Class match © Getty Images
Harold Gimblett scored 123 runs in his first-ever First-Class match © Getty Images

Boy’s Own Hero

Somerset batted. On that cold day, a biting wind swept all across the agricultural ground. Nichols bowled fast and made serious dents. Jack Lee, Inge and White were all caught in the slips. By lunch, he had also trapped Frank Lee leg before and the score was 105 for five.

During the interval, Wellard sought him out. “Don’t think much of your bat, cock. Why don’t you borrow my spare one?” Gimblett did.

Just after the break HD Burroughs was bowled by a Nichols express. At 107 for six, Gimblett walked out on what he and many others thought was a token appearance. Wellard’s massive frame loomed at the other end. “Leave it to Arthur, son,” suggested some Somerset supporters.

He did not pick Smith’s googly, but managed to push it to mid-wicket to get off the mark. In the next over from the leg-spinner, he straight drove him with the crack of a rifle-shot. Some in the crowd vaguely remembered a lad with the reputation for whacking everything for sixes back in village cricket.

In the fourth over bowled by Peter Smith after lunch, the canny spinner was sure to get his young adversary. The orthodox leg-break was fractionally over-pitched. The left foot was plonked forward and the bat swung with the abandon of the green fields of Quantocks. The ball sailed over mid-off for six. It finally landed on top of the beer tent. The marquee emptied out, not because of the sudden thud of a ball on its top, but because of the foreboding of more. No amber guzzling soul wanted to miss out on what promised to be some riveting action.

Wellard, the man who hit many a mile, who hit five sixes in an over twice in his career, was actually outscored. In nine overs, they added 69, and Gimblett scored 48 of those. But, Wellard was enjoying it as much as the crowd. He stepped out at this point to the off-break of Vic Evans and was stumped.

Luckes walked out, jaw hanging at the exploits of the greenhorn he had driven to the ground. And Gimblett smote a mighty six to reach fifty in 28 minutes off 33 balls. No one was drinking any more beer.

Nichols returned, brandishing a new ball, and bowled Luckes. Gimblett had never had the luxury of playing against a new ball in the middle of an innings. In the hinterlands of West Somerset, they could not afford multiple balls. He did not know the dangers, and therefore did not care. The boundary was short, and his swings and drives cleared it often.

Nichols had had enough. Charging in at full throttle he bounced. The farm boy seemed to have an eternity in his hands as he hooked it for four. The next ball was pitched up and he drove it through the covers and ran two. The spectators broke into a tumult of ovation. The scoreboard showed nothing but the team tally. But, the reaction of the enthralled crowd left no doubt that the youngster had passed his century. It had taken 63 minutes, and had been scored out of 130. It earned him the Lawrence Trophy of the fastest hundred of the season.

There was plenty to cheer about at the other end as well. Andrews was heaving away, scoring at the rate of knots, in an innings which amounted to 71.

Eventually Gimblett hit a tame catch back to Eastman. His 123 had come in 79 minutes. The total reached 337. Peter Smith’s leg-breaks and devious googlies earned him one for 89 in 13 overs.

What followed

Essex did not manage to recover from the murderous assault. They could only manage 141 and 147, as Gimblett stood in the outfield returning underarm with casual flicks of the wrist.

The reporters thronged in, turning up at the Gimblett farm, scripting ballads about the boy who walked into the cricket field in rags and came out swathed in riches. An uneasy, reluctant Gimblett posed in front of the ancestral house and hated it. But, he had become a legend in Somerset and he was to stay one through his troubled life.

Brief scores:

Somerset 337 (Frank Lee 41, Harold Gimblett 123, Bill Andrews 71; Maurice Nichols 6 for 87) beat Essex 141 (Frank Rist 41; Arthur Wellard 5 for 66, Jack Lee 4 for 26) and 147 (Jack Lee 5 for 67) by an innings and 49 runs.

(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)

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