Bob Taylor: The Rolls-Royce among wicketkeepers
Bob Taylor’s 1,649 First-Class victims behind the wickets remains a world record © Getty Images
Bob Taylor, born on July 17, 1941, was one of the greatest wicketkeepers of all time. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the career of the man whose best years were lost to Test cricket because he was born in the wrong country at the wrong time.
Bob Taylor was five years older to Alan Knott, who was also the better of the two as a batsman — Taylor averaged 16.28 with the bat in Tests compared to the Knott’s 32.75. Taylor’s career was thus restricted to 57 Tests compared to Knott’s 95: only one of these 57 Tests came before he had turned 36.
Yet Taylor is recognised as one of the greatest wicket-keepers the world has seen. As Bill Frindall had said once, “Such was his [Taylor’s] positioning that he seldom had to dive and was rarely seen sprawled on the ground; his timing was so precise that fielder close to him rarely heard the ball meet the glove.”
That was possibly the greatest attribute about Taylor. Unlike most of the greats, Taylor was seldom noticed on the cricket ground. He did not dive a lot; he moved early enough to anticipate the line and usually gathered the ball while in a lithe gliding movement; he was brilliant against the bouncing ball. And as Frindall had mentioned, his action was so smooth and well-timed that the collection of the ball was almost silent.
The other amazing aspect of Taylor’s wicketkeeping was the fact that he never hesitated to stand up to the stumps — even while ‘keeping to pace. His agility, reflex, and skills were so good that he often dismissed the idea of standing back. “Any decent slip catcher could do it standing back,” he used to say. He used to call standing up his ‘philosophy’.
Wisden called his wicketkeeping “artistry — there is no other word for it — behind the stumps has long illumined even the darkest hours of Derbyshire cricket” and added that Taylor was “without peer in the world for some years and would clearly have graced the England team but for Alan Knott.”
Ranji Trophy winning captain Sambaran Banerjee recalled the same experience about watching Taylor: having played most of his cricket in India, Banerjee made an England tour to play minor matches — an arrangement made by Dilip Doshi. The wicketkeeper was in awe of the performance of his idol — a man he had only read about: the ground was buzzing with the noise made by the spectators, sporadic appeals, thwacks of the willow — but there was no sound of the ball thumping into the larger gloves.
In fact, Taylor was so good a wicketkeeper that when he dropped a rare catch off the tearaway Derbyshire bowler Alan Ward the latter had to check with both the batsman and Taylor himself that the impossible had happened before he could believe it!
Unlike most wicket-keepers (especially those who have kept wickets to quality pace – Knott included) Taylor used minimal padding inside his gloves. He even scraped off the padding inside his gloves, cut the webbings, and used only one pair of inner gloves – that too without wetting them: he basically wanted to feel the ball as much as possible so that gathering the ball would be easy.
This obviously increased the possibility of palm injury: when questioned on this Taylor responded that once he started gathering the ball cleanly there would be no question of a bruise. He never broke a single finger while wicket-keeping in his entire career.
Almost as compensation to his restricted Test career, Taylor ended up taking 1,473 catches and effecting 176 stumpings from 639 First-Class matches. The 1,649 First-Class victims remains a world record — well clear of Middlesex’s John Murray’s 1,527, whose record he went past at Leeds in 1981.
With 1,220 victims (1,085 catches and 135 stumpings) he also tops the County Championship charts. He holds all sorts of records for Derbyshire: he is the only one to take seven victims in an innings for them (he has done it twice); holds the record for the most victims in a match (ten); and is the only one to have gone past the 80-victim mark for them thrice (in 1962, 1963, and 1965).
Despite all that, he would probably have wanted to swap all these records for a longer Test career. At his prime he was probably the best wicketkeeper in the world — but was kept out of the side because of his relatively inferior batting skills.
Taylor had appeared for Shropshire in the Minor Counties Championship before he was 16 — but he did not get the Shropshire cap before 1960. In his early days Taylor had no proper gear — he played in black shoes, gray trousers, and pads that came up to his chest. He did not even know what a ‘box’ was!
After a commendable job for Shropshire he was selected to play for the Minor Counties against the touring South Africans at Stoke-on-Trent in 1960 and ended without a victim. He took three catches on his Championship debut against Sussex at Derby next season, catching Ken Suttle off Ian Buxton to register the first of his world-record tally of First-Class victims. He took two more catches in the match and helped Derbyshire save the match with nine wickets down.
Though he did a commendable job behind the stumps he was generally criticised (even by the bowlers) for standing up to the stumps and missing the occasional edge or two. They had never seen anything like this.
He finished the season with 47 catches and six stumpings and won a Derbyshire cap next season. The next two seasons were phenomenal for Taylor. In 61 matches in 1962 and 1963 Taylor picked up 158 catches and five stumpings along with scoring 711 runs.
Taylor picked up his first major injury in 1964 when he injured his ankle while playing football for Port Vale (though he told the authorities that he had picked it up on an escalator at Lewis’s in Hanley). He was replaced by Laurie Johnson who did a commendable job, with the gloves and especially with the bat.
Derbyshire had contemplated leaving out Taylor for good and play Johnson instead — mainly because of his superior batting skills. Common sense prevailed, though, and Taylor came back after missing seven Championship matches in the season.
The incident changed Taylor’s approach towards fitness. He now took the extra step to motivate himself to practise harder — both towards fitness and towards honing his skills behind the stumps. Elsewhere, Knott had been making giant strides and his superior batting abilities made him a better contender than Taylor for the Test side.
Taylor had to wait till the age of 30 to make his Test debut — against New Zealand at Christchurch on their way back after their triumphant Ashes campaign. Despite not having played a single Test in Australia he had picked up 16 victims from four tour matches Down Under.
On his debut Taylor caught Bruce Murray and Bevan Congdon, and stumped Hedley Howarth in the first innings as England won the Test comfortably. Knott was back for the next Test at Auckland.
Thereafter Taylor kept on touring with the England side for several seasons but Knott always got the nod ahead of him in Tests. He kept on playing for Derbyshire with a lot of success, though. He had his first benefit season in 1973 which yielded £6,672. He also succeeded Brian Bolus as Derbyshire captain in 1975 and 1976.
The major break
Kerry Packer came to Taylor’s rescue when his career seemed to be over: Tony Greig managed to rope Knott into World Series Cricket. Taylor was automatically drafted into the Test side for the Pakistan tour of 1977-78. The fact that his performance with the gloves had earned him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1977 helped.
Taylor was both magnanimous and resentful when he was nominated: “There are about 300 county cricketers and we can’t all play for England. Cricket has taken me to many places I would not otherwise have seen and I’m grateful for that. I am a pro and try to behave like one, but I will admit that I don’t enjoy people coming up to me on tour and asking who I am. That’s when it really hurts.”
In a few months he was playing Test cricket. He scored 32, adding 89 with Geoff Miller in his comeback match at Lahore: he also picked up three victims. In the third Test he scored 36, adding 82 with Graham Roope.
His first five-victim haul came at Trent Bridge against New Zealand in 1978. After England had piled up 458 Taylor picked up five catches – all of them off seamers — and added one more to his tally in the second innings. Four of these six catches had come off Ian Botham.
The Test marked the beginning of their partnership: he would eventually take 60 catches off Botham in 51 Tests. The tally of 60 victims is still an England record. Additionally, his 38 catches off Bob Willis stands third on the English list (Matt Prior’s 56 off James Anderson comes second).
He had another reason to be grateful to Botham: “I was fortunate enough to be around when Ian Botham was at his peak, batting at six. He was such a great all-rounder that they could afford to have me at seven and play four front-line bowlers, in addition to Botham. That, to me, is the ideal balance for a side.”
Earlier in the year Taylor had been played his part his first major partnership with Botham. Coming out to bat at 128 for five Taylor hung around with grit to add 160 with Botham before the latter ran him out trying to take a single to bring up his hundred. The all-rounder apologised to the wicketkeeper — a gesture he did not show when he ran out Geoff Boycott deliberately in the second innings.
Bob Taylor was seldom noticed on the cricket ground. He did not dive a lot; he moved early enough to anticipate the line and usually gathered the ball while in a lithe gliding movement; he was brilliant against the bouncing ball © Getty Images
The 1978-79 Ashes
Taylor’s role was as significant as anyone else in the England’s triumph in the 1978-79 Ashes: he picked up five catches at Gabba and six more at WACA. In the fifth Test at Adelaide England were down at 132 for six in the second innings before Taylor added 135 with Miller and 69 more with John Emburey.
Then, with his maiden First-Class century in sight, he had a faint edge off Rodney Hogg to Kevin Wright – and walked. The 97 would remain his highest Test score. The two partnerships turned out to be crucial as Australia lost the Test by 205 runs, thereby relinquishing the Ashes.
Taylor finished the series with 18 catches from six Tests to go with his 208 runs at 26.00 (though they were scored at a snail’s pace of 25 runs per hundred balls).
The Jubilee Test
India played a one-off Test to mark the Silver Jubilee of BCCI at Bombay in 1980. India were unbeaten for 15 Tests, and seemed virtually unbeatable at home. The pitch was unusually green, and Gundappa Viswanath had probably erred by deciding to bat first.
As things turned out, Botham took six for 58 to bowl India out for 242. Not a single Indian had scored fifty. Taylor, however, equalled Wasim Bari’s world record by picking up seven catches in the innings — five of which came off Botham. The feat has subsequently been levelled by Ian Smith and Ridley Jacobs, but not beaten.
The Indian seamers struck back, reducing England to 58 for five when Taylor walked out to join Botham. With the team score on 141 for five Kapil Dev took one past Taylor’s edge and Hanumantha Rao declared Taylor out. Viswanath, in a gesture of sportsmanship towards another genuine sportsman, recalled Taylor after the wicketkeeper had protested — and famously ended up losing the match.
The partnership went past David Gower and Miller’s unbroken partnership of 165 at Edgbaston in 1979 and still remains the highest sixth-wicket partnership for England against India. Taylor scored 43 and ended up batting 275 minutes. The duo added 171 to take England out of danger and the tail wagged enough to help England reach 296.
Botham skittled out India again, picking up seven for 48 to bowl out the hosts for 149. In the process he became the first all-rounder to score a hundred and take ten wickets in a Test. Taylor took three more catches – all of them off Botham — which gave him a world record ten victims in the Test, going past Gil Langley’s eight catches and a stumping in the Ashes Test at Lord’s in 1956.
[The record has subsequently been emulated by Adam Gilchrist and has been surpassed by Jack Russell and AB de Villiers, both of whom took 11 catches in a Test.]
Taylor scored his only First-Class hundred against Yorkshire at Sheffield in 1981. Up against Chris Old and Arnie Sidebottom Taylor helped Andy Hill add 179 for the seventh wicket, eventually scoring a round 100. He was awarded an MBE the same year. It was also his second benefit season — one in which he acquired £54,000.
Meanwhile, Knott had come back from World Series Cup and was up for contention again, having served his ‘sentence’. Taylor was picked only sporadically since then and ended his Test career in 1983-84 at Lahore — the same place where his comeback had taken off over six years back.
He played the 1984 season for Derbyshire and retired at the end of it, scoring 303 runs at 20.20 and effecting 32 dismissals (he did not keep wickets in all matches) from 18 matches. He retired thereafter at the age of 43.
The tale of the four wicketkeepers
As far as the record-books are concerned there has been only Test where a side has used four wicketkeepers. The often-repeated incident took place in the New Zealand Test at Lord’s in 1986.
To quote Taylor, “the wicketkeeper, Bruce French, had been hit on the head and severely concussed.” Taylor had been working for Cornhill and was in London. Mike Gatting sought Jeremy Coney’s permission and called up the 45-year old Taylor, asking him to come over to Lord’s to keep wickets.
Taylor had agreed. He had a kit of sorts in his bag — kept mainly for the purpose of playing charity matches. England went out to field just when he reached Lord’s, and Bill Athey was asked to keep wickets. Taylor changed quickly into French’s attire and ran out. Athey greeted him with the words “thank goodness you’ve come”. Taylor later mentioned that “As I got to him [Athey] he was kneeling down, and he looked up at me and he was shaking like a leaf.”
Taylor did a sound job with the gloves throughout the rest of Day Two. Wisden called his performance ‘unblemished’. French had apparently recovered the next morning, but as Taylor entered Lord’s with a newspaper folded under his arms he was summoned by Gatting again: French’s concussions had recurred.
Taylor kept wickets till lunch after which Hampshire’s Bobby Parks adorned the gloves, thereby becoming the fourth wicketkeeper to do so for England in the Test. Taylor later said: “It was ridiculous, having four wicketkeepers in one Test, but I must say I enjoyed it.”
Taylor made another comeback against the tourists later that season, turning up for Brian Close’s XI in the Scarborough Festival match. Two years later he played his last First-Class match — once again at Scarborough — for Michael Parkinson’s XI against MCC.
Nicknamed ‘Chat’ due to his ability to be involved in amicable, patient conversations in the England and Derbyshire dressing-rooms Taylor made a reputation as a congenial personality. He remained popular even after cricket and eventually became President of the Derbyshire Cricket Club in 2009.
Taylor had subsequently been vocal against the exclusion of the quality wicketkeepers (Jack Russell and Chris Read) and the inclusion of the likes of Alec Stewart and Matt Prior at their expense. It is probably an example of the frustration Taylor had been through during his career, up against the same folly.
Indeed, Taylor’s tale would have sounded a lot merrier had the selectors preferred wicketkeeping over batting in the designated wicketkeeper.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42