Don Tallon, born February 17, 1916, was considered by Don Bradman to be the greatest wicketkeeper he had ever seen. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the stumper who kept to the pace of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller and the spin of Colin McCool and Bill O’Reilly with equal aplomb.
Two great Yorkshire openers dismissed
As a 16-year old, he stumped the great England and Yorkshire opener Herbert Sutcliffe off Hunter Poon. It was in his first international match, turning out for Queensland Country XII against the Englishmen of Bodyline fame.
By the summer of 1948 he had doubled his spent time on earth, when a spectacular piece of work against another supreme England and Yorkshire opener established his place as one of the finest ’keepers in the history of the game. At The Oval, England was in the final phase of the humiliation suffered during the farewell series of Don Bradman. On the first day, caught on a sodden wicket against a rampaging Ray Lindwall, the home team collapsed to 52 all out. Len Hutton, who had batted with excellent composure and peerless technique,was the last man out for 30. The Lindwall delivery was fast and down the leg side. Hutton’s leg-glance was an authentic stroke and well connected. The ball was taken with the left glove, at full stretch of a spectacular dive. “A great finish to Australia’s splendid performance,” wrote Wisden.
It was not for nothing that Don Tallon was regarded the best wicketkeeper ever by men of the stature of Bradman, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. The Don even included him as wicketkeeper in his All-time XI – a team that stretched across time from Clarrie Grimmett to Sachin Tendulkar.
Tallon kept with equal brilliance against the fiery pace of Lindwall and Miller and the varieties of spin sent down by Bill O’Reilly, Ian Johnson, Doug Ring and Colin McCool. And though his flying catch of Hutton is engraved in cricketing immortality, acrobatics and flamboyance were reserved only for urgent occasions.Over after over his wicket-keeping would remain unnoticed — the signature of the best in his trade.
Unusually tall for a stumper, Tallon crouched nearly double as the bowler started out on his run-up and remained motionless till he had seen all that he needed to know from the delivery – pace, flight, spin and swerve. His keeping was characterised by neat and unhurried work, alert and agile, especially superlative on the leg side. Ground was covered with easy movements, catches were made with perfect technique and little fuss, stumpings were carried out with subtle, surgical precision. Indeed, his 131 stumpings in First-Class cricket hardly saw the removal of anything but a dignifiedly flicked single bail.
Lead up to greatness
Tallon was born in Bundaburg, a coastal town laced with sugar and rum, some 400 km north of Brisbane. His family played often enough in their backyard for cricket to be a way of life. Father Les Tallon was an iron moulder at the local foundry and a decent slow bowler in local cricket. Young Donald had three brothers equally enthusiastic about the game. One of them — William — later represented Queensland as a leg-break bowler.
Tallon himself took to wicket-keeping naturally. According to him, ’keeping ensured: “You are never out of the game, and that suits me fine.”
As mentioned, at the age of 16 he turned out for Queensland Country XII against the touring Englishmen. Apart from stumping Sutcliffe, he conceded just five byes in a total of 376. Some excellent keeping to the aboriginal fast bowler Eddie Gilbert in the country carnival games soon saw him pitchforked into the Queensland First-Class team the following season.
Tallon quickly established himself as a top class ’keeper, and in 1935-36 was the top batsman of the side as well. This season saw his top score of 193 in First-Class cricket, along with some classy work behind the stumps.
By the time the 1938 Ashes tour came along, Bert Oldfield, who had donned the gloves with distinction for years, was finally showing signs of age. Tallon was largely expected to take his place, especially since the Australian captain, Don Bradman, had openly voiced his admiration of his abilities. In the selection meeting, however, Bradman was outvoted by the two other selectors, Chappie Dwyer and Bill Johnson. Victoria’s Ken Barnett was chosen instead to sail to England.
And that is how Tallon did not manage to play Test cricket before the Second World War. During the next domestic season, he created the record of twelve dismissals in a single First-Class match, scalping six in each innings against New South Wales. But, soon his best years were to be spent on the battlefields, moving away to a greater game. Tallon joined the Australian Army in 1940 and was discharged three years later, afflicted with painful stomach ulcers.
By the time cricket was resumed after the war, Tallon was a clear leader in the race for the wicket-keeping spot in the Australian team. Oldfield had long retired. Barnett had been a prisoner of the Japanese at Changi in Singapore for four years, which had left him weak and emaciated. Even as his health recovered, he was pushing forty and not really in the running. The other potential candidate, Charlie Walker, had been killed by Nazi pilots over Soltau in Germany.
However, a younger generation, represented by Gil Langley and Ron Saggers, was already knocking on the doors. But, Tallon secured his selection with the first match against New South Wales. He made eight dismissals, including three stumpings and three catches off the leg-spinners of Colin McCool. This was followed by a steady 74 to guide Queensland to win in the final innings.
He finally made his Test debut against New Zealand at Wellington in 1946, but it would be a couple of years before he would know it. It was only in 1948 that the match was given Test status. His first dismissal was an “exceptionally smart piece of stumping” off O’Reilly, the great leg-spinner appearing his final Test.
It was when Wally Hammond’s Englishmen visited Australia the following season, for what was largely touted to be the Goodwill Series, that Tallon established himself in the side as a regular ’keeper. He was brilliant against both the pace of Lindwall and Miller and the spin of McCool, George Tribe and Ian Johnson. And in the third Test at Melbourne, he hit 92 in just 87 minutes, adding 154 with Ray Lindwall.
In the fourth Test match of the series, Tallon stumped Denis Compton, but the batsman was given not out because the glare off the pitch had made it difficult for the umpireto see the popping crease. Compton went on to make a hundred. In the second innings, Tallon missed a stumping chance to allow Godfrey Evans a life, and this enabled England to escape with a draw. However, the wicketkeeper made amends in the next Test, stumping Bill Edrich, Jack Ikin and Alec Bedser — all off McCool. He ended the series with 20 dismissals.
The following season, Indian skipper Lala Amarnath singled him out as the greatest wicketkeeper he had ever seen.
On the tour with the Invincibles, Tallon played four of the five Tests, missing the incredible win at Leeds due to a swollen little finger. In one of the best sides the world has ever witnessed, and with a batting line up filled with heavy weights, Tallon had little to do with the willow. However, he did show a glimpse of his batting abilities at Lord’s with a well compiled 53, the second and last of his Test half-centuries. His keeping was brilliant enough for Wisden to name him as one of the “Five cricketers of the year”.
While he became immortal with that oft described catch of Hutton, Tallon signed off the year with a flashing display of attacking batsmanship. Back in Australia, he turned out for Bradman’s XI against Hassett XI in Don Bradman’s Testimonial match, and scored a whirlwind 146 not out in two hours. He added an unbeaten100 for the last wicket in the second innings with Geoff Noblett, in which the latter’s contribution was nine. The effort ensured a tie, which under current rules would have gone down as a draw with the scores of the sides tied.
Tallon, unfortunately, could not reproduce his brilliance with the bat in Test matches. His keeping remained exceptional, but the runs dried up to a trickle. After missing the series against South Africa due to stomach ulcers and a bout of unemployment, Tallon was selected for all the Tests at home against England. While few could dispute his supremacy with the gloves, there was the commencement of some curious problems. Tallon was fast losing his hearing. In one of the Test matches, captain Lindsay Hassett sent him in to bat during the final stages of the day with the instruction, “Go for the light.” Tallon heard it as “Go for the lash,” and was dismissed trying to belt English bowlers. This did not please the skipper too much.
The next year was spent in wilderness, as he battled with health problems and increasing deafness. Additionally, some ill-advised comments to the media had prompted the Australian board to ban him from selection — a decision that did not come to light for another half a century.
Tallon did make it to the tour of England in 1953, and was selected for the first Test at Trent Bridge. He took two catches while making zero and 15 with the bat. Following this, Lindsay Hassett replaced him with Gil Langley for the remaining Tests. Tallon never played for Australia again.
Tallon retirement from First-Class cricket was dramatic. During the first match of the 1953-54 Sheffied Shield season against New South Wales, he suddenly took his gloves off and handed the keeping duties to Peter Burge.
Bradman of wicketkeepers
Tallon’s 21 Tests brought him 50 catches and eight stumpings. While he scored over 6000 runs and made nine hundreds in First-Class cricket, his returns with the bat in Test matches were more modest — a mere 394 runs at 17.13.
Even at the end of nearly two decades of First-Class cricket, Tallon’s excellent catching and gathering technique ensured that his hands bore little evidence of the wear and tear associated with the job of a wicket-keeper. Well maintained and long fingered, they could easily be mistaken for those of a professional pianist. Bradman wrote that “all his fine, long fingers were intact.” This was all the more commendable given that financial constraints forced Tallon to use an old fashioned iron-coated pair of gloves for most of his career.
According to the English wicket-keeping great, Godfrey Evans, Tallon was the “best and most nimble keeper ever”.
The greatest tribute was perhaps paid by the legendary Australian all-rounder Alan Davidson who called him the “Bradman of ’keepers”.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)