Maurice Tate Sussex England
Maurice Tate © Getty Images

“He was born, and he died, in that part of the weald where the marriage of leather and twine called a cricket ball was first made; so he inherited native sympathy with the tool of his greatness.”
— John Arlott on Maurice Tate

As has already been described in exquisite details in these columns, the story of Maurice Tate and his exceptional cricket career may well be said to have been launched on the July 26, 1902, as the players were coming in on an overcast afternoon in one of the rainiest summers on record till then, with Australia having just won the fourth Test of the series at Old Trafford by a mere 3 runs.

The 35-year old Fred Tate of Sussex, having made his Test debut two days previously on his 35th birthday in the company of Lionel Palairet of Somerset, had been heckled on his way back to pavilion, being the last man dismissed in the Test. As it transpired, the booing and the choice epithets thrown in his direction had as much to do with the catch that the unfortunate man had dropped at square-leg from a mishit by the left-handed Joe Darling on his individual score of 17, as for his dismissal with England only 4 runs away from victory.

The poignant story of the devastated Fred breaking into tears once he was back in the dressing-room is now part of the folklore of cricket, as is his remark to Len Braund, off whose bowling he had dropped that infamous catch: “I’ve got a little boy who’ll make this up for me.”

That “little boy,” Maurice, had turned 7 years old just about two months previously, and, by all accounts, was already exhibiting a precocious talent for cricket. Fred Tate never played for England again.

Maurice Tate was born May 30, 1895 at 28, Warleigh Road, Preston, Sussex. He turned out to be the eldest child of a family comprising three sons and seven daughters born to Fred Tate and his wife Gertrude née Beach. The father being a professional cricketer of stature, the children grew up in an atmosphere of cricket, Maurice and his two brothers being inculcated in the game’s mantra at an early age. In later life, Maurice and his brother Cecil would play First-Class cricket for Sussex and Derbyshire (and Warwickshire) respectively.

In 1910, Sussex County Cricket Club recruited the young 15-year old Maurice, known as ‘Chubby’ to his friends and relatives, as a ground-staff bowler at a salary of £1 per week. Maurice was happy to be involved in the daily grind of the game all the members of the family loved.Like his father before him, Maurice began his cricket journey as an off-spinner, gradually also developing into a hard-hitting, if somewhat unscientific, lower-order batsman.

By the end of 1912, the Sussex authorities had seen enough of Maurice to cap the 17-year old in a Championship match against Northamptonshire. It was to be his only First-Class match of the season, and the debutant scored 4 and 6 and had bowling figures of 1 for 28 from 14.

The outbreak of World War I called a temporary halt on cricket at Hove and in other parts of England, as, indeed, in other parts of the world. In 1914 Sussex County Cricket Ground was the headquarters of the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, which was raised at Hove by Colonel C Somers Clarke; the battalion utilised the adjacent skating rink for drill purposes too.

In July 1915 Councillor AR Sargeant, Mayor of Hove, opened a miniature rifle range for the benefit of the 2nd (Hove) Battalion of the Sussex Volunteer Training Corps at the north west corner of the county ground. Councillor Sargeant had announced that the Mayoress would inaugurate the range by firing the first shot and for that reason he appeared to be very relieved to find the Ambulance Corps in attendance because he could not vouch for her accuracy. The Mayoress was handed a rifle and retaliated by scoring a bull’s eye with her first shot, with the assembled company looking on in unabashed admiration.

Cricket returned to Hove from 1919. Wally Hammond makes an interesting observation in his book Cricket’s Secret History about the career of Maurice in the immediate aftermath of the War. It seems that the Sussex Committee had not been very keen on retaining the services of the 24-year-old Tate when cricket had resumed in 1919, and it was only when word reached Hove that Surrey had made an overture to Tate to join them, that Sussex had felt justified in hiring his professional services.

However, the Committee had summoned Tate in the winter of 1920 to tell him that he would have to concentrate on his batting in preference to his bowling if he wished to prolong his career with the county. There may have been some logic in that seeing that Tate had topped the 1,000-run mark both in 1919 and in 1920, and it was felt that his batting was likely to be more beneficial to the county than his journeyman off-spin bowling.

Hammond states that it was Sir Home Gordon, a keen follower of cricket and a well-recognised personality on cricket grounds, being easily identified by the red carnation he always wore in his buttonhole, who had invited the Secretary and Captain of Sussex to a meal at his club, and had persuaded them to give Tate another season to prove his worth. Well, in 1921, Tate scored 1,460 runs from 30 matches at 28.07 with a highest of 203 (his highest individual score, made against his old adversary Northamptonshire) and 2 other centuries. He also captured 70 wickets at 25.34.

Recalling an incident that had occurred at The Saffrons, Eastbourne, against Hampshire, Hammond regards it as one of the defining moments in the cricket career of Tate, and one that would cause a drastic change in his cricketing life. Tate had been bowling his slow-to-medium off-breaks during this phase of his career, much like his father had done before him. On this occasion, the 27-year-old ‘Chubby’ Tate was about to play in his 124th First-Class game.

Lord Tennyson won the toss for the visitors and Hampshire opted to bat first. Hampshire were 22 for 2 when Phil Mead walked in with deliberate strides. At this stage of his career, Tate, in his slow off-break style of bowling, was being seen as a sort of stock bowler for Sussex. He kept trundling away as Alex Kennedy (78) and Mead proceeded to put on a third-wicket stand of 92.

It was a frustrating experience for Tate as he kept bowling to Mead, the “immovable heartbreaker” of the legendary idiosyncrasies at the crease. Full of sympathy, Hammond remarks: “I have bowled to Mead myself, and he was the only batsman I ever faced who would deliberately leave alone a ball that would pass within two inches of his stumps. He was uncanny in his judgement, and absolutely positive, and he never made a mistake.”

What followed was born more out of exasperation than anything else. In the words of Hammond: “Maurice, tired and perhaps annoyed at the veteran batsman’s contemptuous treatment of those slow off-breaks, suddenly increased his pace and swung his body for all he was worth, to make the ball come faster off the pitch. It did; it zipped up like a rocket and hit the left-hander’s leg stump. A flash of surprise passed over the Hampshireman’s leathery face — and was instantly wiped off, for it is never a good thing to let a young bowler know he has caught you napping.”

The look of surprise on the face of the usually unflappable Mead did not, however, escape the notice of the shrewd Sussex captain, Arthur Gilligan, himself a noted exponent of the fast-medium genre of bowling. At the end of the day, Hampshire were 272 for 7, Tate having netted 3 of the wickets to fall.

Gilligan takes up the story: “A sheer piece of luck caused Maurice to change his methods. Sussex had batted very badly in 1922, and when we had a day off the whole team practised at the nets. Maurice Tate bowled me several of his slow deliveries, then down came a quick one which spread-eagled my stumps. He did this three times. I went up to him and said: ‘Maurice, you must change your style of bowling immediately.’ My hunch paid. In the next match against Kent at Tunbridge Wells, Maurice, in his new style as a quick bowler, was unplayable. He took three wickets in four balls and eight in the innings for 67. That was the turning-point in his career.”

The rigorous net sessions were to continue for the next few weeks, his skipper giving him his scheduled ‘homework’ on a daily basis. It is a tribute to Tate’s tenacity of purpose and to his excellent physical condition that he found himself capable of shouldering the work-load and was eventually in a position to add the zip and fire to his deliveries at will by developing his new-found body-swing to the desired level. His efforts were soon reflected in his figures.

Tate was chosen as the Bowler of the Year in 1924 by Wisden. Part of the citation went something like this: “In 1922 he found his true metier, and last summer he was by general consent the best bowler in England, taking in First-Class matches 219 wickets for just under 14 runs apiece. He was brilliantly successful under all sorts of conditions, but his great triumph came in the match at Lord’s in August between England and The Rest. On the second afternoon of that game he was for a spell irresistible, taking five wickets after luncheon without a run being hit from him. He may have bowled quite as well on other occasions, but he never looked quite so deadly. He has all the good qualities of bowlers of his type–accuracy of length and power to make the ball break back or go away a little with his arm — but his prime merit is extra pace off the pitch.”

By the time Tate made his Test debut for England in the first Test against South Africa at Edgbaston in 1924, he was, at 29, completely transformed and ready to gradually establish his credentials as a premier fast-medium bowler for England, and one who was likely to prevail over the long haul. The substantially built man, about 15 stone in weight, with broad shoulders and large feet, the favourite of cricket cartoonists, was to be a prominent figure on cricket fields all over the world for a long time.

He made an immediate impact with the new ball, bowling through the first innings of the hapless South Africans in the company of his county captain and dismissing the visitors for 30 in 12.3 overs. Tate became the first Sussex bowler to capture a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket when he had Fred Susskind caught by Roy Kilner for 3 after Gilligan had disposed of Bob Catterall in the first over of the innings for a duck.

By the time the innings ended, England had found a new bowling star who was to perform yeoman service for the country for the next 11 years. Gilligan finished the innings with figures of 6 for 7 in 6.3 overs, while Tate’s haul came to 4 for 12 in 6.

Till date, there have been 20 instances of a bowler capturing a wicket with his very first delivery in Test cricket. In this Test, Tate became the fifth English bowler to achieve the feat after Bill Bradley (against Australia at Old Trafford in 1899), Ted Arnold (against Australia at Sydney in 1903), Jack Crawford (against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1906), and George Macaulay (against South Africa at Cape Town in 1923).

At a later date, Arlott would wax lyrical about the revamped bowling action of Tate, as follows: “You would hardly have called Maurice Tate’s physique graceful, yet his bowling remains — and not only for me — as lovely piece of movement as even cricket has ever produced [sic]. He had strong, but sloping shoulders; a broad chest, fairly long arms and — essential to the pace bowler — broad feet to take the jolt of the delivery stride and wide hips to cushion it. His run-in, eight accelerating and lengthening strides, had a hint of scramble about it at the beginning, but, by the eighth stride and well before his final leap, it seemed as if his limbs were gathered together in one glorious, wheeling unity.”

Tate’s figures stamp him as being one of the leading all-rounders of his day. Between 1912 and 1937, Tate played 679 First-Class games, scoring 21,717 runs at 25.04. He was good enough to score 23 centuries and 93 fifties. He also held 282 catches. He had 2,784 wickets at 18.16, with best figures of 9 for 71, 195 five-wicket hauls, and 44 ten-wicket hauls. Everything considered, Tate was a cricketer that any captain would want in his playing eleven.

Tate’s test figures are no less impressive: 1,198 runs from 39 Tests with a hundred and 5 fifties; 11 catches; and 155 wickets at 26.16 with best figures of 6 for 42. He had 7 five-wicket hauls and 1 ten-wicket haul.

Tate was almost 30 when he was selected for the Ashes tour in the 1924-25 Australian summer. The large-hearted workhorse of the England attack set up a new Ashes record with 38 wickets in the 5 Tests at 23.18, with 5 five-wicket hauls, and a ten-wicket haul. Tate’s record would be broken by his natural successor in the England bowling line-up, Alec Bedser, in the home series of 1953, with 39 scalps.

Tate was to perform another feat in the 1928-29 Ashes in Australia that is still spoken about with respect. In the first Test, at Brisbane, the game in which Don Bradman had made his Test debut, England had won a massive 675 runs, with Mead bowing out of Test cricket after scoring 8 and 73.

England had won the second Test, at Sydney, by 8 wickets, a young Hammond scoring a magnificent 251; and the third, at Melbourne, by 3 wickets, the match producing some prodigious batting feats that included six individual centuries, one of them an innings of 200 by Hammond.

By the time the teams had arrived at Adelaide for the fourth Test, then, England were clearly on top with a scoreline of 3-0 in the series. England won the 4th Test by 12 runs, the match being lit up by the emphatic debut of Archie Jackson who scored 164 in his very first Test innings, exhibiting the genre of batsmanship not seen in Australia since the retirement of Victor Trumper. Continuing his fine form in the series, however, Hammond was to trump Jackson with 119* and 177.

The seventh day of this timeless Test was to produce a magic moment. Needing 349 to win, Australia had lost their eighth wicket when young Bradman had been run out on 58. Amid mounting excitement, the ninth wicket pair of Clarrie Grimmett and Bert Oldfield had added 16 valuable runs, and victory seemed within sight. Having batted for about half an hour and scored 9, Grimmett had suddenly lashed out at a ball from ‘Farmer’ White, the ball travelling like a bullet to Tate fielding at short leg. “Tate at short leg knocking up the ball from a hard hit and bringing off a great catch,” to quote Wisden.

In the words of Denzil Batchelor: “Surely, oh army of ghosts who watch the well-loved game from the balcony of Elysium, this is the catch to remember till the end of time — not the one Joe Darling sent up to poor old Fred so many years ago?” In a sense, the blot on the Tate escutcheon, created by father Fred in 1902, had been erased, and the ignominy of the previous incident had been laid to rest.

Departing from the usual practice of the times, Sussex appointed Tate as the first professional to captain them from the home match against Gloucestershire in 1934. He was to lead the county 11 times, the last against Lancashire in 1935. The lion-hearted ‘Chubby’ was 42 when he turned his arm over for the last time in a First-Class match, against Surrey in 1937, capturing 5 wickets in the game. During the middle of this season that the Sussex Committee had informed him that his services were no longer required at Hove, and an endearing hero had passed into legend and folk lore.

He coached at Tonbridge School for a while. Like his father before him, he kept several pubs, notably The Greyhound at Wadhurst. In 1956, Tate accepted a coaching assignment at Butlin’s at Clacton. He came home to his pub at the end of the first week complaining of cold, retired to bed early, and died of a massive heart attack. He was laid to rest in in the local cemetery, the headstone commemorating Maurice William Tate and his wife Kathleen, who followed him into the hereafter 23 years later.The inscription on the stone reads “God takes our loved ones from our home but never from our hearts.”

When Tate passed away on May 18, 1956, the Sussex and Middlesex players, who were playing a championship match at Lord’s from the following day, along with a large section of the spectators, all combined to observe a minute’s respectful silence at the headquarters of cricket.

Accolades flew thick and fast as contemporary cricketers reminisced about the universally popular all-rounder from Sussex. Jack Hobbs, who had faced him on numerous occasions, perhaps spoke on behalf of everybody when he said: “Maurice was one of the greatest bowlers of all time. It is difficult to find words to praise him sufficiently. I know from experience how difficult it was to play against him.”

On May 17m 1958, about two years of the demise of the Sussex champion, the Duke of Norfolk opened the Maurice Tate Memorial gates in a simple ceremony. Gilligan and Hobbs unveiled the memorial panels. Brighton College of Arts and Crafts had designed the gates, which were 16 feet 6 inches in height and over 9 feet wide. The monogram MWT and dates 1895-1956 appear in the wrought ironwork. The Maurice Memorial gates are still at the county ground but are no longer at the entrance. They are to be found within 10 yards of the Cricket Museum. In a touching gesture of remembrance, the Sussex Committee had handed over the golden key to the gates to Kathleen during the ceremony.

In 2004, Maurice Tate was named the Sussex All-Time Greatest Cricketer, as voted by the public, ahead of CB Fry, KS Ranjitsinhji, Imran Khan and Ted Dexter. His grandson Christopher received the award on his behalf, even producing the golden key to the Tate Gates that had been handed over to his late grandmother in 1958.