A few months ago, I met a man in Jamaica who told me a story. I remember him as Mr. Sang, and he said that some time in 1959 or so, when he was around 18 and a fearless opening batsman, he fretfully agreed to play in a match. He strode out apprehensively to take first strike against the opposition’s opening bowler. There was good reason for his anxiety, for the man armed with the new ball and raring to charge in to him was none other than the then out of favor West Indies fast bowler, Roy Gilchrist.
Probably the fastest bowler in the world at that time, Gilchrist ran in and delivered what must have been a half-paced loosener, and Mr. Sang was able to gather himself enough to slash it for four through the offside. He was then bombarded by chatter from the close-in fielders who told him (some apparently out of genuine concern for his well-being) that he might have acted unwisely, because Gilchrist was now bound to get riled up, and by disrespecting the notoriously volatile pacer by needlessly hitting his first ball to the boundary, he might have placed his very life in jeopardy.
All of this only served to heighten his state of unease and he decided then and there that he would try to appear unconcerned, though he reserved the right to retreat to square leg should he perceive menace in any particular delivery. He then realized how futile that approach was when neither he nor the wicket-keeper saw anything of the second ball, which had to be retrieved from under the sightscreen.
Still, he managed to bat for a while that day, scoring as he remembers it, some twenty-odd runs. Moreover, he did not fall to Gilchrist. Despite the warnings from the close-in fielders, the famous fast bowler didn’t seem intent on maiming anyone that day, operating, it seemed, mostly just above half-pace. But it was still the most hostile bowling he had ever faced and it was an encounter he would never forget.
Fast-bowler would not be your first guess upon seeing Roy Gilchrist. Standing at just about 5’8” and not sturdily built, he gained propulsion from his unusually long arms and a speedy and rhythmical approach to the wicket. And he was fast. Sobers considers him the fastest bowler he ever played with or against (that would include Wes Hall and Dennis Lillee) and Pakistani great, Hanif Mohammad, admitted that facing Gilchrist was at times terrifying. Legend has it that he once landed a delivery halfway down the pitch that crashed into the sightscreen without bouncing. Wild in his early days he improved to the point where teammate Basil Butcher, in a 1998 interview, said many considered him the best fast bowler in the world in 1958.
But Gilchrist could also be difficult to manage. He played for the West Indies between May 1957 and February 1958, and had a tumultuous relationship with the authorities for the entire time. Former Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, writing in A History of West Indies Cricket said Gilchrist was “burdened by those tensions which so often run like scars across the landscape of the personalities of people who come from poverty.” (p. 138)
Burdened by a short fuse, the Jamaican lacked the self-control that is always necessary to deal with challenging situations. If he felt the least bit slighted he struck out, often resorting to violence. He and his captain, Gerry Alexander, could not have been more different. Alexander, though a decent man, was a Cambridge-educated white Jamaican who did not appreciate Gilchrist’s difficult and complex personality. A disciplinarian, his first instinct was to come down hard on any act of insubordination and this made for a potentially combustible relationship.
Things came to a head on the 1958/59 tour of India and Pakistan. He achieved his best bowling figures in the third Test of the India leg when his 6/55 in the second innings led the West Indies to victory. But in a tour match against North Zone, he responded to some taunting from Swaranjit Singh, a Cambridge schoolmate of Alexander, by trying to remove his head with a few beamers. Ignoring a command to desist he continued his assault. His captain had already put him on notice for refusing to apologize for using a curse word. And there were reports that he even pulled a knife on Alexander. The result of all this is that Gilchrist was sent home after the Indian leg of the tour and never played for the West Indies again, prematurely ending a promising career with 57 wickets at 26 .68 in 13 Tests. He was just 24.
After beating India 3-0 the West Indies went on to lose 1-2 against Pakistan and many were convinced that the result would have been different had Gilchrist made the trip. Realizing his value as the pace spearhead, and recognizing that he “was one of them” according to cricket historian CLR James, there was much outcry for his reinstatement as they felt the pacer would respond to more sensitive handling. Gilchrist adored Frank Worrell. Worrell’s biographer, Ivo Tennant, reports that he would even consult Worrell before buying a shirt, and so the masses felt that the Barbadian would have been able to handle their explosive hero. Worrell, who succeeded Alexander, after a stirring media campaign waged by James, apparently wanted Gilchrist for the 1960/61 Australian tour. But the West Indies cricket board would not budge and Gilchrist had to spend the rest of his cricketing days playing in the leagues in England, where he took a mountain of wickets. And he even had a stint playing in India.
His red-hot temper came to the fore while playing in the leagues too, and there is at least one report of him using a stump to physically reprimand a batsman. His dear wife, Novlyn was not spared either: in 1967 a heated argument ended with him cruelly applying a hot clothing iron to her skin, an offence for which he was given a seemingly light sentence of three months probation. The judge had very harsh words for the pacer: “I hate to think that English sport has sunk so far that brutes will be tolerated because they are good at games.” Gilchrist returned to Jamaica in 1985 after 26 years in England. Stricken with Parkinson’s disease he died in 2001 at the age of 67.
In continuing his story, Mr. Sang said that some years later he had the opportunity of spending some time and sharing a few drinks with the man who had caused him so much worry during that first encounter. Gilchrist, he said, was one of the nicest men he ever met.