Gerry Alexander: The last white captain of the West Indies cricket team, famed for his part in the first tied Test match
Wednesday 20 April 2011
Franz Alexander, always known as Gerry, was described in Jamaican media tributes as "the last white captain of the West Indies cricket team." Perhaps they should have said "the last white captain to date," for, despite the overwhelming black majority in the Caribbean, it would go against Alexander's staunch stance against racial prejudice to assume that a white man will never captain the West Indies again.
Jamaica-born and bred, thougheducated at Cambridge, Alexander was captain of the Windies at theend of the 1950s and start of the1960s, playing alongside such greats as Gary Sobers and against the likes of Richie Benaud, Colin Cowdrey and Freddie Trueman. But it was also a time when the Caribbean wasburning with the sense of inevitable black emancipation from the British and other colonial powers. Jamaica would gain its independence from Britain in 1962, by which time Alexander had gladly handed over the Windies captaincy to Frank Worrell – the first black captain to take the team on tour – while continuing to serve him loyally as vice-captain.
Gerry Alexander was one of that small but influential and better-off minority in Jamaica, which would later include the Air Jamaica boss Butch Stewart and the Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, described by black Jamaicans, the descendants of African slaves, as "the high browns." By birth, they were as Jamaican as the next man – they spoke the same patois – but young Jamaicans such as Bob Marley were beginning to heed the black nationalist and pan-African ideas of their hero, the Jamaican publisher Marcus Garvey. To be white no longer meant automatically to rule.
Back to the cricket, though, and Alexander was described yesterday by Richie Benaud as "one of the finest wicketkeeper-batsmen I have ever seen. During the famous, first-ever tied Test match [in Brisbane in 1960], he was the man we feared with the bat in the bottom half of the order." Another Alexander peer, the Australian all-rounder Alan Davidson, described the Jamaican as "a pioneer of the wicketkeeper-as-batsman trend."
Alexander, a Cambridge Blue in both cricket and football, played 25 Tests as wicketkeeper for the West Indies from 1957-61, scoring 961 runs,making 85 catches and stumping out five batsmen. His highest Test score was 108 in the third Test in Sydney during the Windies' 1960-61 tour of Australia, widely regarded as one of the best Test series of all time, and as reviving Test cricket after a period in the doldrums. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which covered the entire series for the first time, later described the tour as "the Calypso Summer" and "the renaissance of Australian cricket." Alexander and his team were mobbed and cheered by Australian cricket fans after the tour was over.
Although he scored his first and only century in the third Test of that series, it was the first Test – at the Gabba in Brisbane – that Alexander, the Australian captain Benaud and audiences around the world remember most. It turned out to be the first tie in Test cricket (there has been one since, between India and Australia in Madras in 1986). Whereas a Test-match draw is fairly common, when play concludes without either team victorious, a tie is considerably less likely, with the two sides' innings, runs and wickets exactly equal at the close of play.
Alexander had scored 60 runs in the first innings and would go on to knock up a total of 484 runs during the series, a record tally for a wicketkeeper at the time. But it was on the final day of the first Test, on 14 December 1960, that history was made at The Gabba. With one eight-ball over remaining (standard in Australia at the time), the home side were on 227 for 7, needing six runs to win with three wickets in hand. With Wes Hall about to bowl, the Aussies looked favourites, but any result was possible – a home win, a visitors' win, a draw or a tie.
On the second ball of the over, Alexander caught a hook shot by Benaud. On the sixth ball, with Australia needing three runs from three balls to win, a brilliant throw from close to the boundary by the Windies' fielder Conrad Hunte allowed Alexander to stump the Aussie batsman Wally Grout. On the seventh ball, withAustralia needing one run to win, the West Indies' Joe Solomon scoopedup a square-leg drive and, with barely one wicket to aim at from 12 yards, hit the target to run out Ian Meckiff. Game over.
The Aussie all-rounder Davidson recalled bowling to Alexander earlier in that Test: "He played it just to the offside of the wicket and took off for a single. I picked it up and, from five or 10 yards, I'd knock the stumps down 100 times out of 100. But just as my arm was coming through to throw it, guess who ran into my arm. Gerry Alexander. It went for four overthrows. I appealed: 'He knocked my arm, ump!' but of course Gerry said, 'you were in my running line, too, don't forget.'"
Alexander had previously hit the headlines as the West Indies captain on the 1958-59 tour of India when he sent home the fast bowler Roy Gilchrist, a fellow Jamaican, for indiscipline. That brought criticisms of racism but Gilchrist had shown wild tendencies on and off the field; he had terrorised Indian batsmen with his beamers, or full tosses to the torso or head, and he allegedly pulled a knife on his captain.
Franz Copeland Murray Alexander was born in the Jamaican capital, Kingston, in 1928 to a family of European origin long established in the British colony. He became a Wolmerian – a student at the historic Wolmer's Boys' School in the city – where he played both cricket and football, as he did after gaining a place at Cambridge University to study medicine.
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.
After retiring from cricket Alexander became a vet, rising to the post of Chief Veterinary Officer for the Jamaican government. In 1982 he was awarded one of Jamaica's highest honours, the Order of Distinction, for his "outstanding contribution to sports" both in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. He died in Kingston on 16 April. His wife Barbara died in March this year.
Franz "Gerry" Alexander, cricketer and veterinarian: born Kingston, Jamaica 2 November 1928; married Barbara (died 2011; two children); died Orange Grove, Jamaica 16 April 2011.
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