DateLine: 9th July 2018
Howie Gardiner, as he was popularly known, was a prominent wicketkeeper-batsman for Rhodesia, as the country was then known, between 1964 and 1975, and until recently held the record for the most wicketkeeping dismissals in first-class cricket in this country.
He died in South Africa on 10 June 2108 at the age of 74 after suffering from leukaemia for eighteen years.
Gardiner, who was almost two metres in height, was every schoolboy’s hero during his career, mainly on account of his attacking batting and effortless drives for six, especially on his small home ground of Alexandra Sports Club in Harare.
He grew up in Bulawayo, attending Christian Brothers College, and played in the national schools team in the South African Nuffield Week in 1962, before moving to Salisbury (now Harare), where he quickly made a name for himself as a wicketkeeper and brilliant attacking batsman in club cricket, especially against spin bowling.
He made his first-class début to the national team in 1964/65 as wicketkeeper against the touring English county team Worcestershire, and played a Currie Cup match the following season against Eastern Province.
He first achieved fame, though, for his performances against the Australian team touring South Africa in 1966/67, under the captaincy of Bob Simpson. In a two-day match for a Matabeleland Invitation XI in Bulawayo he scored 86 in 58 minutes, including five sixes and ten fours.
This earned him selection for the full national side that played the Australians in a first-class match at the Police Ground in Harare, where he scored 81 in 83 minutes in the second innings this time, with six sixes and seven fours, which for local cricket fans was the highlight of the day the match and a great talking point.
Significantly, much of the Australian bowling in these matches was done by their spinners: Simpson himself, Tom Veivers, Johnny Martin, Bob Cowper, Keith Stackpole and Ian Chappell all having the doubtful pleasure of bowling at Gardiner in full flight.
Unfortunately for Gardiner, the incumbent national wicketkeeper at that time was Tony de Caila, one of the finest keepers this country has ever had and at that stage much superior to Gardiner with the gloves. It was not until the 1969/70 season that the national selectors, perhaps under much pressure from public opinion which favoured the spectacular batting of Gardiner, replaced de Caila permanently with Gardiner.
The South African provincial teams soon worked out Gardiner’s batting, though, and the message was clear: “Don’t bowl your spinners to Howie; don’t pitch the ball up to him.” Thus Gardiner found his favourite strokes severely restricted by pace bowlers keeping him on the back foot all the time, and runs were much harder to come by for him.
Rarely in Currie Cup cricket was he able to play the free-flowing, devastating innings that had made him famous, but he did develop his batting so that over the years he was able to play a number of very valuable innings for his country, usually at about number eight or even nine in a batting order which contained such superb all-rounders as Mike Procter, Jack du Preez and Duncan Fletcher.
He missed the 1973/74 season due to a university course he undertook in South Africa, and no adequate replacement could be found for him in the national team, so he regained his place on his return and almost immediately made his highest score, 99, in a losing cause against Western Province at the Police Ground. It was a sad moment when, just a single short of three figures, he was brilliantly stumped by his counterpart Gavin Pfuhl.
One of his most valuable innings was in 1970/71, in the friendly match against Western Province on the same ground, when Procter scored his legendary 254. No other batsman in the team reached 20, except Gardiner, who came in at 93 for five and scored 69 in a partnership of 166 for the sixth wicket.
He often reserved his best batting for the second innings, and three times in Bulawayo matches at Queens Sports Club he played innings that played a vital part in securing victory for his country.
In 1971/72 a poor top-order performance in the second innings seemed to condemn the team to defeat against Natal, but Gardiner with 38, highest score of the innings, and later Richie Kaschula, gave Fletcher just enough support to set Natal a target of 210, which they just failed to attain.
The following season he came in at 97 for six against Transvaal, scored 64 to Procter’s 65 in a partnership of 108, and this rescued the team who then bowled out their opponents to win the match.
Only three weeks later came the infamous Wilmot walk-off match, when the umpires awarded the game to Rhodesia when Eastern Province under the captaincy of Lorrie Wilmot refused to play the final over of the match, only for their decision to be arbitrarily overturned by the South African Cricket Union. But Gardiner’s innings was crucial in what SHOULD have been a superb victory, as he came in at number six and scored a powerful 54.
In his final season, 1975/76, he made little impact with the bat, perhaps affected by back trouble, which was his reason for his decision to retire at the end of it. In 54 matches for his country he had taken 137 catches and 19 stumpings, a total of 156 victims.
His batting record was 1700 runs at an average of 22.97, so it can be said that in this department he did not do justice to his talents. He was very much a confidence player, and when that confidence was missing he would look indecisive and a totally different batsman from the upstanding destroyer of bowlers, as he might try to be too defensive or technically correct instead of relying on his natural gifts. He probably also felt at times the burden of expectation on him as a devastating hitter, while sometimes also he would lose concentration too easily.
When in full flight, though, he was devastating, and he had the natural timing to hit the biggest sixes, usually between long-on and long-off, with seemingly little effort and perfect timing. If he hit the ball too early, he might send up gigantic skyers so high that the fieldsmen found them very difficult to judge and catch when they finally returned to earth. Some talked of him as another Paul Winslow, and there were certainly similarities in their style. As mentioned, he was particularly destructive to spinners, but rarely came down the pitch to them. His 99 against Western Province was the only occasion on which he was stumped in 90 first-class innings.
There were two misconceptions about Gardiner. One was that he was a slogger, but on the contrary he was a strong driver of the ball who rarely hit across the line.
The other falsehood was the view that he was never in the top class as a wicketkeeper. Certainly at the start of his career he was much inferior to de Caila behind the stumps, but he worked hard at his keeping and by about 1970 had become a fine keeper in his own right, especially standing up to spinners, which should have been particularly difficult for such a tall man. The country had a strong spin attack in those days, frequently playing three out of du Preez, Kaschula, Traicos and Jimmy Mitchell.
For his height he was remarkably agile, and a good keeper also to Procter, where his height enabled him to take high edges that a shorter man would have been unable to reach. He was reliable rather than showy or spectacular, and missed very little; John Traicos said that at his peak he was every bit as good as de Caila.
His contribution to the side also extended to a keen tactical awareness, as he could read a game very well and was often able to advise his captains and the bowlers astutely.
On rare occasions, though never in a first-class match, he could bowl very usefully at a brisk medium-pace and on one occasion took eight wickets in an innings in a club match.
After his retirement he briefly umpired in club cricket, and also became a very good administrator, acting as a selector, sitting on the Zimbabwe Cricket Union board and serving as an ICC match referee between 1996 and 1998.
In his youth he was also an excellent hockey player: according to Mark Manolios, he played for his country as a brilliant centre-half between 1966 and 1968, but then gave up that sport as it interfered with his cricket.
As a man he was quiet and modest, although some did not find him a particularly positive personality. Outside cricket he earned an economics degree, became a chartered accountant and finished his career as chief executive of the British Oxygen Company in Zimbabwe.
(Article: Copyright © 2018 John Ward)