Heritage Insight: Bob Taylor's recollections

Monday 27th December 2021
& News

Derbyshire’s Heritage Officer, David Griffin, recently spent a day with Bob to discuss his career and look at some of his cricketing mementos.

Cricket is a multi-faceted game, combining power, athleticism and physicality with art, grace and skill.

It’s also a numbers game – all of the great cricketers from Grace to Bradman to Sobers to Warne have the statistical records to back up their status within the game.

Jack Hobbs scored more first class runs than other player and Wilfred Rhodes took more first class wickets than any other bowler. And Derbyshire’s Bob Taylor completed more first class dismissals than any other wicket-keeper, setting records that are unlikely to be broken for as long as the game is played.

The bulk of Bob Taylor’s best work was conducted in the service of Derbyshire between 1961 and 1984, although he also played in 57 Test matches for England as well as 27 One Day Internationals. His overall all formats tally of dismissals is a remarkable 2,070.

As the windscreen wipers on my car flicked away the specks of snow falling from the leaden skies en route to the Staffordshire home of Bob Taylor, the words in his email sent just before I departed were ringing in my ears; “…not such a nice day so steady on the road…”

We’d agreed to meet up some time in September, but a variety of circumstances had delayed things, and so it was that Storm Barra was wending its way down the country as I motored into the county of Bob’s birth. As I pulled onto his drive, light snow still falling and gales blowing all around, Bob stood in the doorway of his garage, looking as sprightly as he did in his pomp, despite being in his 81st year.

A cheery wave and a request – repeated throughout my visit – to watch my head on the low beams, and then we were into the kitchen to be greeted by his wife Kathy and a cup of tea, brewed in a pot, mind.

Even in the kitchen Bob’s two great loves – cricket and family – were much in evidence, including a wonderful photograph of Bob and Kathy in Majorca on their honeymoon in 1962. Alongside his young wife, resplendent in an evening dress, was Derbyshire’s young wicket-keeper wearing a barathea suit; “I got it second hand off a drummer in a local band. I think he probably got too hot wearing it when he was drumming so I bought it off him.”

There was time for a glance at the framed photographs of children and grandchildren plus one of Bob meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and numerous others from the cricket field, and off it, and then it was down to business.

We talked initially about my introduction to Derbyshire cricket which led to mention of David Harrison, the Club Secretary / Chief Executive between 1975 and 1981. Bob recalled how when Eddie Barlow was putting the players through their paces on lung-bursting five mile runs, Harrison would turn up to watch, finding a comfortable spot to sit, either on a tree stump or a log, and urge the players to “…keep going lads…” as he chain-smoked his way through a packet of cigarettes.

His predecessors, Major Carr, and before him, his brother Donald, were very different. “They were posh, and I’d never really heard people talk like that. I remember asking Donald if I could have some gloves imported from Australia, like the ones that Mr Andrew (Keith Andrew, Bob’s acknowledged early hero) wore for Northants. They cost £30 including postage which was a lot in 1962, but he did agree, eventually.”

Derbyshire supporters will recall that Bob Taylor wore blue gloves for most of his career, sponsored by Mitre. However, to begin with, the gloves were handmade in Ossett, Yorkshire and then the Mitre brand was added afterwards. Bob explained; “Mitre eventually became one of the best suppliers and manufacturers of gloves, but in the 60s I preferred the hand-made ones from my supplier in Ossett. They were perfect for my needs. Not many people know that traditional wicket-keeping gloves had a turned-in thumb; not as extreme as on a boxing glove, but turned-in, nonetheless. I worked on opening the thumb out, thus developing a wider catching area. That could only be done with a hand-made glove.”

Going back to his earliest days I asked Bob about his formative years in the game and his influences; “Well, I played at Bignall End, and Jack Ikin, who’d played for England, was my captain and he pushed me and got me into the Minor Counties side which played South Africa in 1960 in Stoke. Phil Sharpe and Jack Birkenshaw also played for the Minor Counties team, and the South Africans had Neil Adcock, who was very fast and took ten wickets in the match.”

“Cliff Gladwin was also playing in the same Staffordshire league and he saw me play and recommended me to Denis Smith, the Derbyshire coach.”

Having never met Denis Smith, but knowing him to be an outstanding batsman, a 1936 Championship-winner and a Test cricketer, I asked Bob how he treated him as a youngster; “Oh, he was very forthright and didn’t say much. I was playing for the seconds at Repton in a game where Les (Jackson) was also playing, coming back after injury, and Denis just said, “‘Be ready for Sussex tomorrow,’ and that was it!”

In his 1985 autobiography, ‘Standing Up, Standing Back’ Taylor wrote that a decent slip fielder should be able to keep wicket standing back, but that the real art of ‘keeping is standing up to the wicket. I asked him if he still held that view and if he had always been of that opinion from the start of his career.

“Certainly, in fact when I started, Bucko (Ian Buxton) and Derek (Morgan) didn’t like me standing up because they didn’t think I’d catch the nicks. But they were only medium pacers and so standing up to them was the obvious thing to do. In that first game, I was standing up to Bucko when Ken Suttle edged one. I juggled it a bit before it settled back in my gloves; that was my first catch for Derbyshire.” “But of course, standing back requires skill, but a good slip fielder could do it for a short period. Standing up to the wicket is a different skill altogether though.” “Ultimately, the key to doing anything well is a combination of skill and consistency. You’ve got to be as capable of taking a catch in the last over of the day as in the first.”

We then discussed the Derbyshire bowling attack which Taylor kept to for the first half of his career and which included Les Jackson, Harold Rhodes, Brian Jackson, Edwin Smith and the aforementioned Buxton and Morgan, and Bob recalled; “You see, these were all outstanding bowlers, renowned for their accuracy, and that made my job easier.”

And on the subject of higher honours, he was in no doubt that he was going to have to play second fiddle to Kent’s Alan Knott; “There were a number of good ‘keepers around, everybody had specialist wicket-keepers, but some were very good with the bat, and Alan was the outstanding keeper-batsman in the country at the time.”

His fortunes were to change, however, in 1977 when two things happened which would change his cricketing life. Firstly, Ian Botham made his debut for England, and secondly, Kerry Packer created World Series Cricket and signed Alan Knott to what was known at the time as a cricketing ‘circus.’

“I owe the biggest debts of gratitude to Botham and Packer. Ian was a genuine all-rounder, good enough to play just as a batsman or bowler which meant England could pick a specialist wicket-keeper. And Packer took Alan Knott away and so everything fell into place. From playing just one Test match on the 1970-71 tour to Australia and New Zealand I was able to add another 56 Tests.”

The subject of Test cricket led us on to the standard of bowling at international level and a question about the fastest he’d faced.

Without hesitation he answered; “Thommo (Jeff Thomson). Everyone who faced Thommo at his fastest will tell you that he was the quickest they ever faced.”

And the fastest bowlers he kept to?

“Several, on their day, could be really quick. Obviously Michael Holding and Devon Malcolm  at Derbyshire, as well as Harold (Rhodes) and Alan Ward. But Piccadilly (Graham Dilley) and John Snow could both bowl the occasional really quick delivery as could Botham, but if push comes to shove, the fastest I ever kept to was Bob Willis.”

Briefly, in 1975 and the early part of 1976, Bob Taylor was captain of Derbyshire but he handed the reins over to Eddie Barlow when he felt he was unable to concentrate on the job of playing the game. I mentioned that Kim Barnett said he (Taylor) felt that Kim was too young to take on the captaincy role in 1983 when he was only twenty-two and asked what his view was of the young Barnett.

“He was a local Staffs lad and although he’d had trials elsewhere, I suggested that he could travel with me to Derby and to away games. I also talked to him about Derbyshire and how the club had offered me the opportunity to play and improve and enjoy the game. It was clear that he was going to be a fine player, and when the captaincy came up, I only advised against it because I thought that, like Botham, and others, he’d be better off concentrating on his cricket because the captaincy could be a big burden. He proved me wrong!”

By this point we’d gravitated toward the conservatory where Bob indicated a small pile of cricketing memorabilia on a chair. As the snow began to settle on the surrounding fields, Bob proudly showed me his England, MCC and Derbyshire caps – “Unlike footballers, you only get one, you know” – and the original gloves from 1962 which we’d discussed on my arrival. Then came England and MCC sweaters which seemed impossibly small, and the bat with which he scored his one and only first class hundred, against Yorkshire at Sheffield in 1981.

The merest mention of 1981 sent Bob off into a delightful ramble through that glorious summer when England won the Ashes with Taylor behind the wicket in the second, third and fourth Tests which included the Headingley game when Botham scored 149 and Willis took 8-43.

“Oh, at Headingley nobody thought we could win apart from Botham. He wanted a bit of fun and started smashing it all over the place, and then suddenly things got serious when we got more than a hundred in front. An amazing game.”

But Derbyshire also enjoyed success in 1981, winning the inaugural NatWest Trophy; “Well our name was on the trophy after the semi-final when we won having lost fewer wickets than Essex. I can still see Brian Hardie at the stumps watching the throw from Norbert Phillip sail over his head. Judge (Paul Newman) had played the ball and just ran and I was convinced that Norbert would beat me to the stumps and just take the bails off. But, thankfully for us, he threw it instead.”

Bob is known for his love of the history of the game and I was interested in how much he knew of Derbyshire’s history during his playing days.

“I knew we’d won the championship once, in 1936, and of course Denis Smith was our coach and he played in that side, and I knew all about Tommy Mitchell, Bill Copson, Stan Worthington and the rest, and winning a trophy after 45 years was just amazing really.”

An MBE followed and an audience with the Queen; “That was lovely, just for playing cricket. I met four Prime Ministers too, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major, just on the back of playing cricket.”

I then took Bob back to my first day of county cricket, 3 August 1974 and a game against Nottinghamshire at Ilkeston when Garry Sobers scored the fastest hundred of the season. I wondered if he remember it as fondly as I!

“Well, Sobers was the best player I ever saw. I remember that innings because I was standing up to the stumps when Venkat (Srinivas Venkatraghavan, Indian Test off-spinner) was bowling to him. Watching Garry bat that day was remarkable because the pitch turned really early and he didn’t raise his head as he struck the ball, he kept his head down and whipped the ball to the boundary. He had such grace, power and timing. I just remember him hitting a four through the covers and his head ending up still facing down onto the surface where the ball had pitched.”

Unsurprisingly, when the conversation drifted to the best Derbyshire players of his time, he added Mike Hendrick to the aforementioned list of bowlers, and also Ole ‘Stan’ Mortensen.

“Stan was a breath of fresh air. Aggressive and prone to throwing the ball at the stumps after a batsman had played the ball back to him. Mind you, after watching a ball fly to the boundary for four after one such throw, he stopped doing it when he realised that I wasn’t going to be watching his every move.”

And amongst the batsman, Chris Wilkins, John Wright and Peter Kirsten sit atop his list of Derbyshire’s best during his career.

“It was a great experience for us to watch Wilkins close up. Very powerful, very dynamic and nothing like we’d seen at Derbyshire. Wright was very brave and could bat for long periods. Kirsten, I called him ‘The Don’ for obvious reasons. He was a wonderful batsman and the best fielder we had at Derbyshire too, athletic and with a superb throw. I think he later regretted leaving after just five seasons.”

Unsurprisingly for a cricketer known for his generosity of spirit, Bob Taylor only once mentioned the modern game in a moderately dismissive tone, and that was when discussing the art he excelled at; “I don’t understand this matador approach to keeping wicket” and then to emphasise the point he stood and took an imaginary delivery well away from his body in the manner of a matador flourishing a cape.

“It’s quite simple really. I dived when I had to; not all bowlers were as accurate as Les, but getting your feet, head and hands all in line is the key to keeping. But taking the ball away from your body runs the risk of you dropping it.”

And when pressed on the best since his time – in the UK – he unhesitatingly replied, “Jack (Russell), then James Foster and Chris Read. All specialist ‘keepers.”

After a lifetime in the game – it will be 60 years in 2022 since he made his debut for Derbyshire – Bob Taylor shows no real signs of slowing down. Nicknamed ‘Chat’ for his ability to happily talk to anyone, particularly on tour at interminable receptions, he was a perfect fit for the supporters tour sector after he retired from playing, working abroad with England followers. He also worked for Mitre, Cornhill and Dukes, among others, and still attends the annual get together of former Derbyshire players and PCA events.

Rejecting the offer of a late lunch only because I had an eye on the worsening weather conditions, I left Staffordshire with several items from Bob’s cricketing collection which he has generously donated to Derbyshire. An England sweater, a Derbyshire blazer and cap, the bat with which he scored his only first class hundred, and his original wicket-keeping gloves from 1962 are now part of Derbyshire’s heritage collection.

It’s unlikely that we will ever see the like of Bob Taylor again; his career batting average of sixteen would probably not even get him a game in the 21st century, and so it may be that pure-bred ‘keepers will no longer come to the fore.

But, his tally of victims will surely never be overtaken, leaving him at the pinnacle where he has already been for almost 40 years, and for those of us fortunate to have seen him play, we will forever have our memories to provide us with a reminder of his greatness.

My own favourite memory of Bob is actually nothing to do with a catch, a stumping, or even an innings. In July 1984 he announced that he would be retiring from the game at the end of the season and when he walked out to bat a month later at Taunton in a Sunday League game, he was given a standing ovation all the way from the pavilion to the crease. As Derbyshire followers, we knew how wonderful Bob was, but this gesture from the Somerset crowd demonstrated how revered he was across the game. And in an age when the word great is attached to virtually any sporting occasion or participant, at least we know when it’s used about Bob Taylor MBE, there can be no more appropriate description.

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