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Hugh Tayfield: a classic, miserly off-spinner

Hugh Tayfield - a classy off-spinner and a noted economist

A haul of 170 wickets from 37 Tests at 25.91 and an economy rate of 1.94 are remarkable numbers by any standards. He picked up 4.59 wickets per Test more than both Jim Laker and Lance Gibbs © Getty Images

Hugh Tayfield, arguably the greatest South African spinner, was born on January 30, 1929. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the legend who was instrumental in defining South African cricket in the 1950s.

It was not South Africa’s series. They had lost the first two Tests to England in the five-Test series. They did claw back in the third Test at Durban, though. They had secured a 65-run lead and, their ace off-spinner, the parsimonious Hugh Tayfield destroyed England with figures of 37.7-14-69-8 (eight-ball overs) in the second innings. Tayfield had bowled 137 consecutive dot-balls, mostly to Trevor Bailey, on the trot spanning over two innings. It’s a First-Class record that still stands. However, chasing 190, they finished at 142 for 6. They were back on track, but only just.

South Africa had secured an 89-run lead in the fourth Test at Johannesburg. Tayfield bowled beautifully, taking 4 for 79, and was well-supported by his teammates. South Africa, however, were bowled out for 142, leaving England 232 to win. Tayfield removed the dour Bailey before stumps in a two-over spell, and England finished day four on 19 for 1.

Tayfield started proceedings that morning. Little did anyone guess what was on the cards on the final day. He removed Peter Richardson after a while, but Doug Insole and Colin Cowdrey kept England on track, and at 147 for 2, it seemed that they would need to do only the formalities. Tayfield, though, bowled on tirelessly, trying his level best to contain the batsmen as well as run through their defenses, probing at them with variations in flight, bowling a nagging line and length. Trevor Goddard was given a break at the other end, but not Tayfield. He bowled on unchanged across sessions, not giving away an inch.

It was then that Tayfield caught Insole off Goddard. As soon as he found an inroad, Tayfield seized the opportunity and removed the two legends – Peter May and Denis Compton – cheaply. He kept on probing, with Goddard for support. There was some resistance, but it turned out to be futile, as though the batsmen managed to hang around, Tayfield did not allow them to score.

Tayfield took two more wickets, and eventually caught the defiant Cowdrey off his own bowling. It was then – at 199 for 8 – that South Africa sensed victory. Tayfield finished off things with the final two wickets, the last batsman, Peter Loader holing out to Tayfield’s brother Arthur, fielding as a substitute in the deep. South Africa won the Test by 17 runs. In a Herculean effort, Tayfield had bowled unchanged for 35 eight-ball overs on the final day, and his final figures read 37-11-113-9. The crowd ran into the ground. Tayfield was airborne within seconds, and was then carried away to the dressing-room on the shoulders of hundreds of strangers.

He was already one of South Africa’s all-time greats. However, his performance in this Test propelled him to the stature of a legend of the sport. He wasn’t finished, though. His services were once again required when England were chasing 189 in the last Test at Port Elizabeth. Once again he took up the challenge, and took 6 for 78 to bowl England out for 130. South Africa’s greatest spinner had helped his country square the series with 37 wickets from five Tests at 17.18 and an economy rate of 1.67. There are only a handful of performances in the history of the sport that can match this phenomenal display.

The career

Tayfield was drafted as an emergency replacement for Athol Rowan to play Australia in the 1949-50 series in South Africa. In only his third Test he picked up 7 for 23 to demolish a strong Australian side for 75 at Kingsmead. Though Rowan came back, Tayfield soon made his way back to the Test side. He was picked for the Australian tour.

He single-handedly won a Test at Melbourne – South Africa’s first on Australian soil after 42 years – picking up 6 for 84 and 7 for 81. South Africa managed to cling on and return from Australia with the series drawn 2-2. Tayfield had picked up 30 wickets on the tour equaling Alec Bedser’s record of most number of wickets in an Australian series, and everyone knew that a new star had arrived on the scene.

It was during the Melbourne Test that he developed his second singular mannerism: he was already nicknamed “Toey” because of his curious habit of stubbing his toe into the ground before he delivered every ball. Now, with Australia on 84 without loss, he kissed the badge on his Test cap before handing it to the umpire. He caught Arthur Morris off his own bowling immediately, and the superstition stuck: the badge continued to be kissed throughout the rest of his career.

He followed this series with another immensely successful tour of England. He took 26 wickets at 21.84 with an economy rate of 1.81, and 143 wickets on the tour. He came into his elements at Headingley, taking 4 for 70 and 5 for 94 as South Africa beat England by 224 runs. Then, in an exemplary display of containing bowling, Tayfield returned figures of 53.4-29-60-5 at The Oval. That year he was nominated a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

His exteriors never suggested that he was a bowler this miserly. Every bit of his tall, dark, handsome appearance seemed to indicate flamboyance; and yet, it was his legendary accuracy singled out Tayfield. However, he was not content to remain the stock bowler: varied his flight, and often trapped the batsman into playing a false shot by making the ball veer away and dip a bit too early for him to comprehend. Yet, despite his entire repertoire, he never compromised on bowling a steady line and length. What was even more astonishing was the fact that he could do so relentlessly, days in and days out, playing on the batsman’s patience, wearing him out and making him play the one false stroke that would eventually lead to his demise.

A haul of 170 wickets from 37 Tests at 25.91 and an economy rate of 1.94 are remarkable numbers by any standards. He sent down 367 balls every Test, and was every bit the dream workhorse for any captain. However, it must also be noted that he picked up 4.59 wickets per Test – more than both Jim Laker and Lance Gibbs. Together with Goddard he put a stranglehold on any opposition that came his way, making it almost impossible to score runs against them.

But, above everything, Tayfield stood out as a singular character in a team of homogeneous individuals. Even during the strict regime of Jack Cheetham and manager Ken Viljoen, Tayfield retained his originality. His habit of kissing the badge on his cap has often been considered as ostentatious; his strange field placements (no fielder between mid-off and point, leaving a huge unprotected domain, and placing two short mid-on fielders so close to each other that their shoulders nearly brushed) were often called eccentric; and his rather infamous image of a playboy off the field (he actually married and divorced five times – a count matched by probably none other than Bill Edrich) did not make the puritans really happy.

And yet, Cheetham knew that it was this man who will end up showing the greatest levels of consistency and discipline imaginable. Whenever South Africa did not seem to be picking up a wicket, Cheetham threw the ball to Tayfield, who would invariably kiss his cap, hand it over to the umpire, place his two short mid-ons, run in from close to the stumps, toss the ball in the air producing an inviting loop, the ball swerving away from the batsman and then come back into him, sometimes sharply, sometimes holding its line, over after over, session after session, throughout the day, throughout a decade…

(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)

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