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By Partab Ramchand
Among all visiting captains who have toured India Gerry Alexander who passed away a couple of days ago is remembered with affection even though it is over 50 years since his West Indian steamrollered India into submission becoming the first touring side to win three Tests in a row.
The Indian team then was beset with chaos, there were stories of disunity and jaundiced selections, as many as 24 cricketers played for India in the series and there were four captains in the five Tests. Under the circumstances the West Indies winning the series 3-0 and coming within an hour of making it 4-0 may not be a surprise. All the same it is worth recalling that when the series started they were given little chance of doing well in the contest, let alone winning it. For the first time in a decade the visitors were without any of three W’s and even though they had young stars in Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte and Basil Butcher along with the experience of Jack Holt and Sonny Ramadhin the Indians on paper looked the stronger team with the line-up consisting of Ghulam Ahmed, Subash Gupte, Vinoo Mankad, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Gulabrai Ramchand, Pankaj Roy and Nari Contractor.
What could not be foreseen – other than the disunity and the chaos in the Indian ranks thanks largely to off the field machinations – was the fact that the West Indies possessed two really hostile fast bowlers in Roy Gilchrist and Wesley Hall. Aware of the Indians’ discomfort against pace Alexander used the two fast bowlers judiciously resorting to spin only as a change option. The fast men responded admirably with Hall taking 30 wickets in five games and Gilchrist 26 in four and the series was wrapped up comfortably.
Alexander is remembered not only for his shrewd captaincy but the forthright manner in which he dealt with Gilchrist’s indiscipline. It was during that tour that the fearsome pace bowler played his last Test thanks to Alexander sending him back home after he sent down beamers to Swaranjit Singh the North Zone captain in the last match of the tour. It was a simmering situation that came to boil and the temperamental Gilchrist was asking for trouble following several cases of misbehaviour – to put it mildly - on the tour. Gilchrist was a law unto himself and it required a strong captain like Alexander to deal with him firmly.
His role as a victorious and no-nonsense captain overshadowed Alexander’s double playing role as brilliant wicket keeper and courageous lower order batsman. In the second Test at Kanpur it was the skipper who rescued the team on the opening day after Gupte’s guiles had brought them down to their knees. The master leg spinner had taken all six wickets as West Indies slumped to 88 for six before Alexander played the rescue act to perfection with a timely 70. Such was the impact that the West Indies recovered to win the Test by 203 runs – the first of the three successive wins.
I was just a pre-teen cricket crazy fan when all this happened in 1958-59 but on the tour of 1974-75 I had the good fortune to meet up with Alexander who came as manager of yet another victorious West Indian side. I interviewed him for the newspaper I then worked with and found him to be polite and erudite and his English was perfect as one who had studied at Cambridge in the early fifties. He was not a reporter’s dream in the sense that he did not readily give information but would make sure his replies were succinct. He was always available for comments and made sure that the interviewer went away happy.
Alexander’s deeds as captain and his feats as a wicket keeper and batsman have been well chronicled. He first led West Indies after playing in just two Tests and ended his international career giving full support to Frank Worrell his successor captaining West Indies in 18 of his 25 Tests. His prominent role in the Brisbane tied Test as well as the magical 1960-61 series between West Indies and Australia – arguably the greatest contest of all – has been well documented and in his various roles the polished gentleman cricketer takes his place as among the finest West Indian ambassadors in the game.