Gerry Alexander : The last white captain of the WI

Only 25 Tests and 961 runs at 30.03 and 90 dismissals (85 catches, 5 stumpings). In all, a poor tally of just 3,238 runs at 29.17 and 256 victims with gloves (217 catches, 39 stumpings) in a brief first-class career between 1951 and 1961. Apparently these figures do not make any cricketer great. But then there was much more to Gerry Alexander, who died at Orange Grove, St. Andrew, in Jamaica on April 16, than cold statistics. Importantly, he was the last white captain of the West Indies. (He led the West Indies in 18 of his 25 Tests.) Those who saw him in action behind and before the stumps, as well as leading the West Indies team, were convinced that Alexander was a fine wicketkeeper-batsman and an astute leader of men. Former Australian fast bowler Alan Davidson described him as “a pioneer of the wicketkeeper as batsman trend”. According to Richie Benaud, he was “one of the finest wicketkeeperbatsmen” he had ever seen. “During the famous, firstever tied Test match, he was the man we feared with the bat in the bottom half of the order,” said the former Aussie allrounder and captain. Benaud’s fears were not unfounded. Relieved of the cares of captaincy, Alexander proved a loyal lieutenant to his close friend Frank Worrell, who led the West Indies in that historic series down under in 1960-61, and made vital contributions, not only with the bat. In the first Test at Brisbane, which ended in a tie, he scored 60 and 5. But it was his outstanding wicketkeeping in exciting, tense moments on the final day, 14 December 1960, when the history was made at the Gabba, that was unforgettable. With the last eight-ball over (standard in Australia in those years) remaining, the hosts were 227 for 7, needing only 6 more runs to win. The peerless Wes Hall was on the firing line. Benaud hooked the second ball, mistimed the shot and Alexander caught him. On the sixth ball, with Australia needing three runs from three deliveries, Alexander, facing into the sun, brilliantly collected Conrad Hunte’s throw from the boundary and hurled himself at the stumps to run out Wally Grout, who was trying to sneak a third and winning run. Alexander’s constant encouragement from behind the stumps, Worrell’s inspiring words and his own sublime skills enabled Hall to bowl that controlled, superlative and action-packed final over. On the seventh ball of the dramatic over, with the scores level and Australia needing just one run to win with a solitary wicket in hand, Joe Solomon scooped up a square-leg drive and, with hardly one stump to aim at in a split second from about twelve yards, hit the target and effected the heartstopping run out of Ian Meckiff. Coming back to Alexander’s batting form. In the second Test in Melbourne, which Australia won by 7 wickets, he made 5 and 72. He scored 0 and 108 in the third Test in Sydney. His century, which set up a 222- run West Indies win, was the only three-figure knock of his entire first-class career. In the drawn fourth Test in Adelaide he contributed 63 not out and 87 not out. In the fifth and final Test at Melbourne, which Australia won by 2 wickets, Alexander made 11 and 72. In addition to scoring 484 runs and heading the averages with 60.50, he held 16 catches behind the stumps. (In the previous series, his final as a captain, Alexander had dismissed 23 English batsmen and equalled the world record for most victims in a Test rubber by a wicketkeeper held until then by John Waite of South Africa.) He silenced in style those who had been questioning his credentials as a wicketkeeper, reckoning that there were better stumpers like Alfred Binns, Jackie Hendriks, Andy Ganteaume, Clifford McWatt and Clairmonte Depeiza when he was first picked for the West Indies. The series in Australia was a closely-contested battle between two very powerful cricket teams. It was his best ever series, both as a wicketkeeper and as a batsman, having kept superbly to the likes of Wes Hall, Garfield Sobers, Lance Gibbs and Alf Valentine and batted solidly against Davidson, Benaud and company. But just when he seemed at the pinnacle of his prowess as a player, Alexander, who was only 33 then and had “upheld all the virtues of cricket” on and off the field, called it a day and returned to the Caribbean to pursue his professional career as a veterinary surgeon. (He rose to the position of Chief Veterinary Officer of the Jamaican government.) Franz Copeland Murray Alexander, always known as Gerry, was born on November 2, 1928, at Kingston in Jamaica to a family of European origin long established in the British colony. He attended Wolmer’s Boys School in Kingston, excelling both in football and cricket, and then went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to study medicine. At Cambridge he gained his blue in both sports. At cricket, he was assigned the task of keeping the wickets from the beginning itself. But he never took his batting lightly. Nor did his opponents for that matter. “He played in varsity matches against Oxford at both sports in the early 1950s, and also played for Pegasus, a mixture of players from Oxford and Cambridge who established themselves as one of the leading amateur sides in the country. On 11 April 1953, playing at full-back before a full house at Wembley Stadium he helped Pegasus beat Harwich & Parkeston in the FA Amateur Cup final. With Jamaica still British at the time, he won at least one cap for the English national amateur side,” revealed Phil Davison. Back in the West Indies, he made his first-class debut for Jamaica against the Duke of Norfolk’s XI in March 1957. The same year he was chosen in the West Indies team for the tour of England on the strength of his impressive show in a trial match. Critics claimed his selection was governed by racist considerations as they felt there were better wicketkeepers available. As if to prove his detractors correct, Alexander had problems keeping to the spinners, especially Sonny Ramadhin, in England. 

So much so, Rohan Kanhai had been preferred to him for the first three Tests. Alexander finally made his maiden Test appearance in the fourth at Headingley. By then the morale of the West Indies had touched a new low. The fall was complete with defeats inside three days at Headingley and The Oval, in which Alexander’s contributions with the bat were 0 not out, 11, 0 and 0. With John Goddard leaving the scene, there was a desperate need to restore the team’s glory and pride. The selectors turned to Alexander, ignoring a couple of highly experienced cricketers, including Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes (Worrell was reported to have declined the job because of his studies in Economics at Manchester University). Their decision was obviously smacking of racism and it put Alexander in an invidious position. But as the subsequent events were to confirm, he proved to be the right man for the job in given circumstances. He earned love and respect of his players save one and played a key role in making the West Indies a force to reckon with once again. He led the West Indies to victory by three Tests to one in the 1958 home series against Pakistan. He improved his performance as a wicketkeeper, which had come in for a lot of flak in England, and impressed with the bat, too. Success continued to accompany the West Indies under Alexander on the 1958-59 tour of India as well. Though playing without Weekes, Walcott and Worrell since World War II, they won three Tests and drew the other two. The one player with whom Alexander had problem on the Indian tour was Roy Gilchrist, a loose cannon, who had shown wild tendencies on and off the field. It was a daunting task for Alexander to handle Gilchrist, who seemed to bear some sort of animus against his captain, a fellow Jamaican. Why, Gilchrist had allegedly pulled a knife on Alexander. The hostile fast bowler had terrorised the Indian batsmen with his dangerous beamers or full-tosses to the torso or head. The more Alexander told Gilchrist to check his naked aggression, the more fire he spitted with the ball. The situation came to a head in their final engagement of the tour of India – against North Zone at Amritsar – when Gilchrist unleashed a series of brutally devastating beamers at Swaranjit Singh, who was leading the side. Swaranjit and Alexander had been team-mates at Cambridge. It was said that when he was at Cambridge, Swaranjit had written something unfavourable about Gilchrist, which the West Indian had not forgotten. So when Gilchrist came to know that Swaranjit was the same man, he decided to teach him a lesson. Alexander, a strict disciplinarian who always believed in playing the game, was not at all happy with Gilchrist’s missiles and ordered him in no uncertain terms to stop his negative tactics and vicious form of attack immediately. But his commands fell on the unashamedly adamant Gilchrist’s deaf ears. The price had to be paid. Alexander had made up his mind to send the malefactor home. At the lunch break, he himself told Gilchrist without sympathy or ceremony to pack his bags and leave by the next flight. Gilchrist had allegedly pulled a knife on Alexander. Gilchrist was only 24 then. He was never ever picked to represent the West Indies again. It was a sad end to a fast blossoming Test career of a very talented fast bowler. But then any other gentleman cricketer and captain would have taken the same decision as Alexander. The next part of the tour was Pakistan where, without Gilchrist, the West Indies lost the first two Tests before achieving a face-saving victory at Lahore. Incidentally, it was Pakistan’s first ever home defeat in the heavyweight division of cricket. Meanwhile, there was already a growing campaign, led by C.L.R. James, to abolish the policy of only white men leading the West Indies. Shocking defeat at the hands of England at home in 1960 fanned this fire, particularly after the angry riots when the West Indies capitulated in the second Test at Port of Spain in Trinidad, and there was a widespread demand to sack the white Alexander and appoint the black Worrell, who had made 197 not out in the first Test, at the helm. The West Indies cricket authorities finally gave in and appointed Worrell the first black captain of the national team. How Worrell went on to metamorphose the West Indies team into a cohesive and winning unit is a part of world cricket history now. On his part, Alexander took the decision graciously and gave his best to his captain in Australia in 1960-61, as written earlier. It was a pity, though, that this man was not popular among many of his fellow West Indians just because of the colour of his skin.

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