Sporting bygones: Recalling the first Yorkshireman to score a century on Test debut

Leading the way: WG Grace.
Leading the way: WG Grace.
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ASK the average Yorkshire cricket fan today if they have ever heard of Paul Gibb and the chances are you would be met with a blank expression.

Gibb, an opening batsman who played 36 times for Yorkshire between 1935 and 1946, as well as eight Tests for England in a career badly interrupted by the war, belongs to that group of sportsmen who were well-known in their day but are now largely forgotten by modern observers.

Gibb’s reputation was never higher than 80 years ago when he made his Test debut on Christmas Eve, 1938, against South Africa in Johannesburg, marking the occasion with scores of 93 and 106 in the opening game of a five-match series.

He was the first Yorkshireman to score a hundred on Test debut (he also scored a hundred on his Yorkshire debut), and his second and final Test century came in the last match of that South Africa series, the infamous ‘Timeless Test’ in Durban, where England were 654-5 on the 10th day, chasing 696 for victory, when they had to dash off to catch the boat home.

Gibb, who was also an accomplished wicketkeeper, had been selected for the Old Trafford Test earlier that year against Don Bradman’s Australians, but the match was abandoned without a ball bowled.

He appeared in all five Tests in the 1938-39 South Africa series as a batsman and then twice as a batsman/wicketkeeper against India in 1946 and in the opening Test of the 1946-47 Ashes at Brisbane before losing his place to Godfrey Evans.

Balding and bespectacled, with an imperturbable manner and dry sense of humour, Gibb was selected for the South Africa tour on the back of his best season in 1938, which brought him 1,658 runs at an average of 48.76, most of them scored for Cambridge University.

Aged 25 when he made his Test debut, the war robbed him of his prime and he was never the same thereafter, averaging no higher than 30 in the seven seasons he played after the conflict, six of them with Essex, for whom he reverted from amateur to professional status (the first Cambridge Blue to do so).

Born in Acomb, York, in 1913, Gibb had made his first-class debut for Scotland against the Australians at Edinburgh in 1934.

His family had strong Scottish roots – Sir George Gibb, his grandfather, was a prominent transport administrator – and the young Gibb was educated at public school in Oxford before going on to Cambridge, later marrying the daughter of the Lord Mayor of York.

As a batsman, Gibb would have been unlikely to have earned an Indian Premier League contract today, favouring a dour and patient approach.

“He was quite happy to rely on his immensely strong back play and to let the runs come at their own rate,” wrote Wisden. “His patience seemed inexhaustible. Two Gibbs on a side could have been difficult and three intolerable: one often invaluable.”

Such qualities served him well in South Africa in 1938-39, and in the Christmas Eve Test in particular, where, said Wisden, “Gibb made his runs by waiting carefully for the loose ball” as his 93 helped England to a first innings score of 422 after captain Wally Hammond won the toss.

Gibb shared a second-wicket stand of 184 with Lancashire’s Eddie Paynter, who hit two hundreds in the game – 117 in the first innings and 100 in the second.

Of Gibb’s second innings 106, Wisden said only: “On the closing day Gibb and Paynter, for the second time, mastered the attack.

“Paynter drove aggressively and Gibb, less restrained than in the first innings, also brought off hard drives. Their partnership yielded 168 and neither looked in the least trouble.”

Tom Goddard, the Gloucestershire off-spinner, took a hat-trick as South Africa replied with 390, giving England a first innings lead of 32. After Hammond declared with England 291-4 in their second innings, the match petered out as the hosts finished on 108-1.

Gibb struck 58 in the second Test, 38 in the third game in Durban (which produced the only result as England won by an innings and 13 runs), 9 and 45 in the fourth fixture and 4 and 120 in the infamous ‘Timeless Test’, where his hundred was the then slowest in Test cricket, taking just over seven-and-a-half hours.

After finishing his career with Essex, Gibb was a first-class umpire from 1957 to 1966 and famously called Tony Lock, Harold Rhodes and Butch White for throwing.

A quirky character, Gibb travelled around the country in a camper-van, towing it around from venue to venue.

Gibb also had a spell coaching in South Africa, where the great all-rounder Mike Procter was one of his pupils.

In later life, Gibb worked as a bus driver in Guildford, where he died, aged 64, in December, 1977, collapsing after reporting for duty at the town’s bus station.

David Frith, the celebrated cricket historian and resident of that town, made Gibb’s acquaintance shortly before the Yorkshireman’s death.

“He was good company, if rather shy and reticent,” he recalled in Frith’s Encounters.

“Reminiscences came haltingly. I suggested some sittings with the tape recorder. He agreed at length but only if I was willing to do the interview while he drove his bus down the country lanes of Surrey. The background noise would be a problem but I seized at the offer.”

Frith encouraged Gibb to accept an invitation to the 1977 Melbourne Centenary Test, which he was reluctant to attend for fear of the crowds, and offered to drive him to the airport.

“So, ‘trapped’ in my car, he responded to the probing, and I began to see into his troubled mind. He simply did not know where he belonged. He revealed that he had flown Sunderlands for Coastal Command during the war, which left him standing on cricket fields after the war wondering what the devil he was doing there. What was the point of it all? His marriage failed and he lost track of his two sons.”

After the Centenary Test, Gibb returned to his bus duties, and Frith prepared to record his memories in greater detail. Then came the news that he had collapsed and died. The recording, alas, was not meant to be.

Frith traced one of Gibb’s sons, who allowed him to serialise his father’s tour diaries in Wisden Cricket Monthly, which Frith edited.

“They were frank and fascinating… the obsession with ice cream and with clouds (‘ten-tenths layer of altostratus’ – a throwback to his war in the air), his confession that he was bored when surrounded by strangers “unless I have a good deal to drink”.

Such memories shone precious light on one of Yorkshire and England’s long-forgotten sons.