Roy Gilchrist    Getty Images
Roy Gilchrist Getty Images

The volatile Roy Gilchrist was born June 28, 1934. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back one of the most controversial characters in the history of the sport.

“Ah! Gilchrist! He is the most dangerous cricketer I ever played with.” Garry Sobers.

Roy Gilchrist was fast. He often got furious when he could not remove a batsman, but it was when he got clobbered that brought out the worst in him. He resorted to bouncers, and even beamers, at club level. If he could not get that foe with the wooden plank in front of the stumps out, he never hesitated to hit him out of the way.

It cannot be denied that Gilchrist had the potential to become an intimidating world-class fast bowler. By the time Charlie Griffith had joined Wes Hall to form one of the most feared new ball attacks in the world Gilchrist s Test career was already over at the age of 24. His First-Class career was over before he had turned 29.

It was certainly not meant to be like that. In the 13 Tests he played he had picked up 57 wickets at 26.68 and a strike-rate of 56.6. In 42 First-Class matches, he picked up 167 wickets at 26.00 and a strike-rate of 50.2. These are excellent numbers by any standards.

Gilchrist s career seems to be a pr cis of Hall s, who picked up 192 wickets from 48 Tests at 26.38 with a strike-rate of 54.2. The numbers are stunningly similar, though Hall lasted longer: he was the more dedicated and calmer of the two. Griffith s numbers were 94 wickets from 28 Tests at 28.54 with a strike rate of 59.9, and there was hardly anything to pick from the three other than longevity.

Chandu Borde, who had played both Hall and Gilchrist, compared the two: “Hall was fast in patches and used to mix his pace cleverly. Gilchrist was fast all the time and had tremendous stamina.” It should be kept in mind that Hall was known for both his pace stamina even during the middle and later stages of his career.

So what went wrong with Gilchrist s career? Why did it come to a premature end? Why do people never talk of Gilchrist in the same breath as they do of Hall and Griffith despite the strikingly similar numbers?

Early days

“Gilchrist was difficult, insufferably so at times. He was also potentially, a very great bowler.” Michael Manley.

The Great Depression of the 1930s had affected Jamaica along with several other countries leading to a drop in sugar price. This led to unemployment, low wages, and a steep rise in prices. The mood was not the very best. It was during this era that Gilchrist saw the light of the world.

Born in impoverishment and brought up in a sugar plantation Gilchrist was roughed up even by the time he was a teenager. The rough environment did little to soften down his personality. He was easily annoyed, snarled at the smallest opportunity, but above everything, he could bowl seriously fast. Manley had mentioned that Gilchrist was “burdened by those tensions which so often run like scars across the landscape of the personalities of people who come from poverty.”

In his autobiography, Gilchrist acknowledges his brother John and “a Jamaican white called W. A. Stuart (he may have Christian names to go with the W. and the A., but to me he is always plain Mr Stuart)” as his mentors. Gilchrist worked for Stuart, who also the youngster in his team. This was no ordinary side, for it included Test cricketer Easton McMorris as well as the Bonitto brothers, Neville and Arthur, both First-Class cricketers.

He never grew past 5 8″ hardly the ideal height for a fast bowler. However, he had long, dangling arms, a very fast run-up, a characteristic high leap, and a high-arm action which, when combined together, made up for his lack of height. He had speed but little sense of direction and sprayed the ball all over. However, the Jamaican selectors saw potential and drafted him for a match against British Guiana in 1956-57.

Gilchrist had to toil hard on a featherbed track: he bowled furiously fast and he bowled all day but had little impact. Even then, he picked up 3 for 129 in an innings where the hosts declared at 601 for 5 as the match petered out to a high-scoring draw.

His next match was against the visiting Duke of Norfolk s XI. The tourists had stars like Roy Marshall and Tom Graveney playing for them, but it was against this outfit that the 22-year old picked up 5 for 93 his first five-for. He did little more that season, but his raw pace was enough for the selectors to pick him for the 1957 England tour after he played just 4 First-Class matches.

Test debut

“Menacing by virtue of his genuine pace and his ability to produce a bouncer as venomous as any sent down by the opposition.” Wisden.

Gilchrist picked up a solitary wicket from the first three tour matches, but his pace won the favour of the selectors once again: he was picked for the historic first Test at Edgbaston where Peter May and Colin Cowdrey turned the tides by thwarting Sonny Ramadhin by putting up a 411-run partnership.

Despite that supreme stand Gilchrist shone on debut. Though his figures did not show it, he bowled splendidly picking up 3 wickets not getting to bowl as long as he wanted to, largely because of John Goddard s over-dependence on his spinners, Ramadhin and Denis Atkinson.

There is a story that in the first innings of the Test, Gilchrist hit the sightscreen, behind the batsman first-bounce with his first ball in Test cricket and the ball came back 30 yards after the impact. This, however, may have been an urban legend, given that there were only 3 byes in the innings. Nevertheless, it was evident that he was alarmingly fast.

He picked up 4 for 115 in his second Test at Lord s, dismissing both Graveney and Peter May for ducks. However, he received little support and West Indies lost by an innings. He did not do much of note for the remainder of the series, though he picked up five-fors against Derbyshire and Somerset.

Gilchrist returned home with a satisfactory tour, but rumours of his ill temperament and mild tussles with the management came through. Goddard, however, was not as strict and disciplinarian as his successor Gerry Alexander, and the issues were nipped at the bud.

Roy Gilchrist was a terror with the ball    Getty Images
Roy Gilchrist was a terror with the ball Getty Images

Traumatising Hanif at home

“I still live to this day the fear of a thunderbolt from Roy Gilchrist during that much-celebrated visit to the West Indies in 1958.” Hanif Mohammad.

Playing his first home Test at Kensington Oval in 1957-58, Gilchrist was once again up against a superlative batting performance. He took 4 for 32 to bowl out Pakistan easily for 106, but Hanif produced arguably the greatest rearguard action of all time, batting for 970 minutes to score 337.

Not one to be demoralised, he picked up 7 for 128 in the next Test at Queen s Park Oval to lead West Indies to a victory. It was here that he had his famous encounter with Hanif. Hanif, fresh and supremely confident from his 337, was advised by Clyde Walcott not to hook Gilchrist.

Hanif decided not to listen to Walcott: he was a compulsive hooker, and was prepared to give it back to the fast bowler if he asked for it. In Hanif s own words: “I was never a ducker so I started to sway in and out of line before I saw a short delivery head for that space between my eyes. I instinctively bent myself in an arch to the extent that my head nearly knocked off the bails! The ball whistled past the upturned nose. I still made 80 but that delivery still sends the shiver down my spine.”

Gilchrist finished the series with 21 wickets from 5 Tests at 30.28. West Indies won the series 3-1, their only defeat coming when Gilchrist had hobbled out after bowling just 7 overs in the final Test at Queen s Park Oval.

That fatal 1958-59 India tour

“He was the fastest bowler I played against, a real terror. We had never played that kind of bowling before. His motto was to hit the batsman so that he would be scared and get out … A lot of batsmen were out before going onto the field.” Borde.

The Indians in the late 1950s were certainly not great players of fast bowling. To make things worse, Gilchrist had a partner-in-crime on that tour the 21-year old Hall. Gilchrist picked up 4 for 39, supported by Hall s debut haul of 3 for 35, but as it had happened with Gilchrist, there was another fighting performance.

It is possibly a coincidence that Gilchrist had played only three series; West Indies had outplayed the opposition in the first Test of each of the series; and each of the Tests had slipped away due to a fightback. At Edgbaston May and Cowdrey had demolished a 288-run lead; at Kensington Oval it was Hanif facing a 473-run deficit; and this time at Bombay West Indies ran into Pankaj Roy, who fought for 444 minutes to save a Test as India batted 132 overs to save the Test. Gilchrist, however, bowled 41 overs in the second innings: in Borde s words, “in the Bombay Test he bowled virtually through the final day.”

Gilchrist’s version of Roy’s rearguard action was significantly different: “I think poor Pankaj must still be having nightmares about that innings. He just never knew where the ball was coming to him; he did not know which side to run to, to escape the our bowling. Snick after snick went into the slip, but they just did not stick … Roy went on ducking and dodging a bombardment that would have opened up Cassino! The way he did his ‘dance’ sure did not make the other Indian batsmen keen to race out to face us.”

But then, his approach towards bowling also peeped through: “Those Indians were really on a ‘hop’. I sprinkled a lot of bouncers in my bowling, and a beamer or two for good luck … Real little Indian rubber men, those batsmen, the way they bounced about.” The glee was unmistakable.

Gilchrist missed the Kanpur Test (that India lost) but was back at Calcutta after a spell of 6 for 16 against Indian Universities. After West Indies scored 614 for 5 Gilchrist uncharacteristically cut down his pace on the green-top at Eden Gardens; he picked up 3 for 18 (from 23 overs) and 6 for 55 (the only five-for of his career) to lead his side to a victory by a massive innings and 336 runs.

Behind the scenes, though, things were getting murky in both camps. The Indian selection policy eventually led to the home team having four captains in five Tests. The tourists, however, had a problem of a different nature.

Both Hall and Gilchrist had been bouncing abundantly at the Indians. The Cambridge-educated Alexander did not approve of this, but did not step in till the matter got out of hand. While Hall typically aimed at intimidating the batsmen into submission, Gilchrist seemed to be going a bit further perhaps relishing the spectacle of physical injuries to the batsmen. Not content with bouncers, Gilchrist resorted to beamers even against the lesser batsmen in the tour matches. It was then that Alexander decided to intervene, and rightly so.

The fourth Test at Madras was also a one-sided affair: both Gilchrist and Hall picked up 5 wickets apiece, and West Indies triumphed easily once again. But, more significantly, Gilchrist had not abstained from bowling bouncers and beamers. When Kripal Singh hit him for 3 boundaries and somewhat foolishly had the audacity to taunt Gilchrist, the fast bowler overstepped intentionally, bounced from a distance of 18 yards, and dislodged Kripal s turban.

In fact, he took particular glee: “Those batsmen the way they bounced about.” He later said: “I have searched the rule books and there is not a word in any of them that says a fellow cannot bowl a fast full-toss at a batsman a batsman has got a bat and they should get the treatment they deserve unless he hasn’t got the technique or the courage.”

His own description of Vinoo Mankad’s approach does not look good for the great man: “I gave Mankad a real dirty look, and I saw him out of the corner of my eye talking to the slips and smiling a bit. I know that Mankad was trying to ‘read’ me, and what he ‘read’ was a six-letter word bumper. So I started off my run from twenty-two yards and all the while as I came in at him I saw Mankad drifting, drifting, drifting towards leg slip to keep out of the way of that bumper he was so sure was coming. And all the time I kept getting a better view of those three lovely stumps with no one in front. So I just let that off peg have it like a bomb and sent it flying into the slips. And that was the end of Vinoo Mankad. And his mind-reading!”

Alexander, however, was far from impressed. He openly criticised Gilchrist s bowling as ‘too dangerous , which added fuel to the fire. The Indian media had already been after Gilchrist for what they called ‘terror tactics , and suddenly the fast bowler was the most unpopular man in India. Gilchrist (and his supporters, however few in number) dismissed these accusations as an Oxbridge-educated man s snobbish attitude towards a man from an underprivileged background.

The final Test at Delhi is remembered for Borde s courage more than anything else. Up against some of the fiercest of bowling Borde scored 109 and 96 to save the Test. Gilchrist broke Vijay Manjrekar s arm with a snorter. Borde later mentioned: “Gilchrist s bouncer was very dangerous. It used to skid onto you and the aim was unerring. He often bowled four bouncers in an over.”

Gilchrist ended the series with 26 wickets from 4 Tests at 16.11. With Hall picking up 30 wickets from 5 Tests at 17.67, the Indians were simply blown away, losing the series 0-3.

Then came the fatal match against North Zone. North Zone was led by the all-rounder Swaranjit Singh, who was Alexander s friend at Cambridge. There was more to it, though. To quote Borde, “When Swaranjit was at Cambridge University, he had written something nasty about Gilchrist who had not forgotten it. The moment he came to know it was the same chap, Gilchrist was keen to pay him back.”

Things began normally. Dattu Phadkar and Venkatraman Narain Swamy shot out the tourists for 76 on a difficult pitch; Gilchrist (4 for 33) and Lance Gibbs (5 for 22) then bowled out North Zone for 59. Swaranjit was clean bowled by Gilchrist for one. So far so good.

The West Indians did better next time, scoring 228, asking the hosts to score 246 for a victory. North Zone began Day Three at 77 for 4 with their captain on 30. Swaranjit batted confidently, and Alexander asked Gilchrist to bowl the last over before lunch.

Gilchrist attempted a yorker in the second ball which was slightly overpitched: Swaranjit drove it straight past Gilchrist for four and (one has to admit that the man had guts) mocked Gilchrist with the words “You like that one? Beautiful, wasn t it?”

Gilchrist later described the next ball as the fastest he had ever bowled. The beamer whistled past Swaranjit. Thus softening him up, Gilchrist pitched up the next delivery, Swaranjit edged it, and the catch was dropped by of all people Alexander himself. Had he caught it a lot of things might have been different.

There was no stopping Gilchrist now. The next delivery was obviously another lethal beamer which the batsman was fortunate to survive. Alexander walked up to his bowler and commanded him to stop what he was doing. Gilchrist did not bother, and bowled another beamer as dangerous as the previous ones.

The teams dispersed for lunch. The selectors met and the decision was unanimous. Alexander was curt: “You leave by the next flight. Good afternoon.” He was replaced mid-match, and was kept out of the Pakistan tour. There were also rumours that Gilchrist had pulled a knife at Alexander.

His Test career was over. West Indies lost the series in Pakistan 1-2. Several cricket fans felt that the result could have been reversed had Gilchrist toured with them.

There have been speculations that Frank Worrell, who captained West Indies subsequently, might have handled his mercurial temper better. Gilchrist virtually hero-worshipped Worrell: Worrell s biographer Ivo Tennant had mentioned that Gilchrist used to consult Worrell even while purchasing a shirt. Worrell had apparently asked for Gilchrist for the historic 1960-61 tour of Australia but in vain. The selectors would not budge.

Back in India

“I have a reputation for hitting batsmen. That comes from being the kind of fellow who really wants to get batsmen out; and that is what every bowler should do hate the other guy on the field. It is the only way to see them off.” Gilchrist.

Gilchrist was allowed to play a solitary match on his return over two-and-a-half years after the North Zone match in India. Playing against Barbados, Gilchrist was hammered by a high-quality batting line-up, and he ended up conceding 2 for 177 in 40 overs. That was his last match on West Indian soil.

Somewhat ironically, Gilchrist s final taste of First-Class cricket came on Indian soil. To improve the performance of Indians against quality fast bowling, BCCI invited four West Indian fast bowlers to play Indian domestic cricket in 1962-63. Charlie Stayers played for Bombay, Lester King for Bengal, Chester Watson for Delhi, and Gilchrist for Hyderabad.

As things turned out, Gilchrist played only one Ranji Trophy match the quarterfinal against Bengal. He took 9 wickets in the match but could not go past Bengal thanks to Roy s 112 and 118. During the match Roy hooked Gilchrist for 3 consecutive boundaries. A distraught Gilchrist surrendered meekly by finishing the over bowling underarm.

He played a few side matches, intimidating the lesser batsmen to submission, but his First-Class career ended after being tamed by the Indian Starlets. He ended up conceding 121 runs from 22 overs in that match.

Lancashire League

“Tales of atrocity, some perhaps arising from the proverbial tendency to give a dog a bad name, continued to emerge about his violently over-reactive attitude to batsmen and his unsparing use of the bouncer.” Wisden.

With no chance of making a comeback even to the Jamaica side Gilchrist continued to play league cricket in Lancashire for Bacup (1958 to 1963), Lowerhouse (1964), and a solitary match for Todmorden (1965). The league batsmen were nowhere close to his class and pace and succumbed meekly.

Gilchrist picked up 460 wickets from 113 matches 10.78 in League cricket. Playing for Bacup against Church in 1962 he picked up 10 for 75 in an innings; he bettered that two years later when he demolished Ramsbottom; playing for Lowerhouse he picked up 10 for 41 in an innings.

His temper, however, did not improve: he kept on bowling beamers, often overstepping intentionally; after a tussle of sorts he uprooted a stump and hit an Australian batsman on his head; in a match at Werneth he got an earful of the choicest expletives from Cec Pepper during a confrontation. He refused to budge, though. He was even known to have carried the confrontations outside the field.

Personal life

Gilchrist stayed in England for 26 years before returning to Jamaica in 1985. Gilchrist married his girlfriend Novlyn (Lynn) and they went on to have seven children. On June 2, 1967, however, there was a heated argument between the couple over going to a party. Gilchrist grabbed Novlyn s throat with his left hand, pushed her against a wall, and branded her face with a hot iron.

Despite the ferocity of the crime Gilchrist was subjected to a surprisingly short probation that lasted only three months. While delivering the verdict the judge said “I hate to think English sport has sunk so far that brutes will be tolerated because they are good at games.”

He suffered from Parkinson s Disease and eventually passed away on July 18, 2001. Hall, a Reverend by then and the President of WICB, delivered the sermon at his funeral. Hall later called Gilchrist his mentor, and “one of the early legends of West Indies fast bowling”.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components cricket and literature though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42.)