Cricket interview

Bob Taylor, Former England Wicket-keeper

You’ve guessed it, it’s another wicket-keeper we’re interviewing this month! However, what stands this interviewee apart is he holds the world record for the number of dismissals by a wicket-keeper, his record of 2,069 I doubt will ever be broken. It is of course Bob Taylor, arguably one of the most accomplished wicket-keepers to have ever played the game.

When people talk about 1981, people inevitably think of Botham and Willis, but it is Bob Taylor who as a result of his 7 catches in the match, has the famous match-ball in his possession, proudly displayed at home.

“When the final wicket fell, we all ran off the pitch. Geoffrey Boycott had picked up the ball and given it to Bob Willis,” remarked Bob. “I didn’t realise at the time, but when we were on the balcony watching Botham and Willis being interviewed by Peter West on BBC2, one of the press boys tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I realised that when I caught Geoff Lawson for my 4th catch, it gave me the world record. When we went back into the dressing room, Bob was sat there with the ball, so I told him what the press guy had just told me and asked if he minded if I could have the ball. Bowlers often get the balls for the best bowling analysis, but wicket-keepers never really got anything. So, he gave me the ball, and I have it my possession now.”

We’ll talk more about 1981 later. But there is so much more to Bob’s career than just 1981.

Similar to my conversations with Jack Russell, Rob Turner, Neil Burns and Paul Nixon, I asked Bob what made him take up wicket-keeping as a youngster. “I used to love watching Godfrey Evans on my small 10 inch black and white television. He was always so lively behind the stumps; just a ball of energy. He took my eyes straight away. So much so, that when I got to school for my first cricket lesson I remember asking the cricket master if I could have a go at wicket-keeping. I was always small as a kid and I hated the thought of being posted down to third man or fine leg boundary. A wicket keeper, or back-stop as it was called in those days was always involved in the game, what with catches and stumping’s; I wanted some of that. The school master said that if I grabbed the gloves out of the kit bag first the following week I could be the wicket keeper. There was no way I wasn’t going to get those gloves! These days, whenever I coach I tell kids that the wicket-keeper is the second most important man after the captain, no matter what the level. You’re the king-pin of the fielding side and should inspire the rest of the team.”

Yet, Bob’s admiration for Godfrey Evans wasn’t the only reason he wanted to become a wicket-keeper, there was also a hint of an ego in there as well! “In the winter month’s I loved my football. I was a centre forward and my ego was often boosted on a Monday morning because the football master (who was also the cricket master) used to write a match report on his type-writer and underlined the goal scorers in red, then pin it onto the school notice board. I couldn’t wait to get to school on a Monday morning to see that I had scored and my name highlighted. I genuinely got a boost! So, I thought as a wicket-keeper I would get a lot of catches and thus my name would get underlined in the summer months as well!”

As with many cricketers in that era, football and cricket was always a difficult juggling act. Bob’s goals as a centre forward saw him on the books of Port Vale. “I only played for the reserves, but I left there to go to Burton Albion, but that’s when I started playing cricket for Derbyshire and the two clashed. I couldn’t play mid-week games for Burton Albion and cricket for Derbyshire. Cricket was always my first choice so that was the end of my illustrious football career!”

But it wasn’t his football skills that attracted the attention of Derbyshire, it was his form for Staffordshire in the Minor Counties League. “I was a 16-year-old schoolboy when I first played for Staffordshire. David Steele was also in the team and we were both fortunate that we had former Lancashire and England batsman John Ilkin who’d retired from first class cricket in the team. He must have seen something in me as he played for my club side and also captained Staffordshire. He gave me the opportunity to play Minor Counties cricket.”

Bob’s form for Staffordshire over a three-year period saw him picked up by Derbyshire at just 19 years of age on the back of his performance playing for a Minor Counties XI against a South African touring team in 1960. “After that game, I had a game for Staffordshire against Durham, which got rained off; I was in the pavilion at Wolverhampton Cricket Club when someone had said a couple of Derbyshire officials wanted a chat. I was then sat on the back seat of a car being offered a contract to play for Derbyshire in 1961. To my delight, in those days if you played in the Minor Counties League and was offered a contract by a first-class county in which you weren’t born they had to give you a 3-year contract. It was great for me as 3 years gave me the security and chance to really prove myself; if I had been born in Derbyshire I would likely have just had a 1 year contract and who knows I could very easily have had a bad season and been on the scrap heap before I’d started.”

Bob made his first-class debut for Derbyshire during the first year of that 3-year deal in a home fixture against Sussex. “I was on a king pair when I had to go in during the second innings trying to save the game. I had Don Bates at one end trying to bounce me out and Harold Rhodes at the other coming into bowl in brown suede shoes!!”

In today’s game bowlers tend to cut a hole in their boots if their big toes give them discomfort when running in to bowl - it was obviously very different back then! But Bob survived, Derbyshire drew the match and Bob’s professional career was underway. It was the beginning of a happy 23-year spell for the county.

“I was always happy at Derbyshire. We weren’t the best team, but it allowed me to drive a banger of an old car and they were great guys to play cricket with! We were the first winners of the NatWest Trophy in 1981. Prior to that, it was the Gillette Cup, but Gillette pulled out of sponsoring the Trophy and NatWest Bank took over. We beat Essex in the semi-finals, who had the likes of Keith Fletcher, Graham Gooch and John Lever, in a rain-affected match. With one ball to go we needed 1 run to level the score, the scores finished level and we won the game as we lost wickets. Remarkably, the final was exactly the same. Geoff Miller managed to get the one run to equal the scores and we beat Northants as we’d again lost less wickets. That trophy was probably my biggest Derbyshire highlight, sadly we never got close to winning the County Championship.”

Reflecting back on Bob’s world record, what was more remarkable about this feat is that Derbyshire weren’t one of the major counties challenging for the title, year on year. As such, they could often get bowled out cheaply and thus Bob would get only one chance to field as the opposition had racked up enough runs to win by an innings. Imagine how many more dismissals he could have had if he’d played for a more successful county, with no disrespect to Derbyshire.

“To be honest it just made me extra pleased to get the record.”

After 8 years at Derbyshire, Bob was on the fringes of the England side. In 1969, he was selected for an MCC tour of Sri Lanka – his first representative tour. Bob played in a one off ‘Test’ match in Colombo where he scored 7 and 19 not out, in a convincing win for the MCC. “Tony Lewis was captain of that tour. We should have gone to East Africa, but we pulled out because of the Apartheid situation. Instead we went on a tour of South East Asia. The match in Sri Lanka was the only official first-class game. For the rest of the tour we went to Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, just playing one-day matches, mainly against ex-pats. It was a fun tour, but amusingly Geoff Boycott, who one of the experienced players on tour, scored hundreds against the amateurs, but in the only game that counted towards first class averages he got two low scores!!”

12 months later and Bob was finally given an opportunity at international level when he was selected for England’s 1970/71 tour to Australia and New Zealand under the captaincy of Ray Illingworth. It was a tour that saw him make the first of what was to become a 57 Test match career for the great gloveman.

To many it should have been many more for someone of his ability, but the challenge for Bob was there another great gloveman in that era, Alan Knott. Both were highly regarded and to this day many debate who was the better keeper. Knott was though the better batsman.

“I guess it is like a goalkeeper in football, there is only space for one of them in the team. It’s just the way it was.”

Bob went on to that first tour knowing he was second fiddle to Knott. England won the Ashes series 2-0, our first Ashes win since 1956 and the New Zealand leg 1-0. Knott was excellent throughout, but in the first Test of the New Zealand tour, Bob was given the gloves in Christchurch; a Test match England won by 8 wickets, with Bob taking two catches and a stumping.

“I knew I was going to be the understudy on that tour but I owe Ray Illingworth a lot for giving me my debut. I never dreamt I would be playing in New Zealand. I remember we had a team meeting and it came as a complete shock when Ray said he was giving Alan Knott a rest and I’d play the first Test. It was a great win and performance with Basil D’Oliveira getting a hundred and Derek Underwood a number of wickets.”

With Knott coming back in for the final two Tests of the series, it would be six years before Bob was able to wear the gloves again in Test match cricket and this time it was Kerry Packer, who he had to thank. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kerry Packer. He came along with World Series Cricket and took away a number of the super stars of cricket including Alan Knott. So, I owe Packer a lot as it helped me play 56 more times for my country.”

And there was someone else Bob owed a lot to as well, the great all-rounder Sir Ian Botham. “Beefy was a genuine all-rounder who could win matches with both bat and ball; because he performed two roles it allowed the selectors to pick me for my wicket-keeping ability.

I don’t think I’d have got in the England side these days as a wicket keeper batsman, although I might have improved my batting now! I always did try to improve my batting, but I would never lose sleep if I wasn’t batting well. My keeping however, I couldn’t sleep if I wasn’t keeping well. Wicket-keeping was the most important thing for me and the team. The game has changed now; selectors and captains will always go for batting all-rounders first.”

Despite not getting the nod by the England selectors, Bob was selected for a Rest of the World squad to tour Australia in 1971. The tour was put on as a replacement series for South Africa who were now in international exile because of Apartheid. It was a huge honour for Bob who got the opportunity to share a dressing room with the likes of Lloyd, Sobers, Pollock, Gavaskar, Greig to name just a few.

“Donald Carr, my first captain at Derbyshire, had become the assistant secretary of the MCC and asked me if I would like to go to Australia with a rest of the world side. There had been a lot of pressure on the Australian cricket board to replace the South Africa series. It was a unique tour and was fantastic to be among those players. It was a fantastic squad.”

Bob played in the last ‘Test’ of the series, a win at Adelaide, which gave the touring side a 2-1 series victory. But it was the whole experience off the field that left Bob with many cherished memories.

“The start of the tour was chaos there was total segregation. The West Indian players were in one part of the dressing room and others in the other half. Nobody mixed. There was no team spirit or anything. Norman Gifford, Richard Hutton and myself suggested to our management team that we needed to build team spirit. We formed a Saturday night club, where we’d all get together, have a drink, and let our hair down and just enjoy each other’s company. Our first ‘club’ saw Norman and I as barmen, I’d pinned a notice to the dressing room outlining the dress code: jock strap, white sock, black sock and a comb in your hair, honestly you should have seen Clive Lloyd and Gary Sobers with a jock strap on, odd socks and a comb in their hair. It was funny to see the management team’s faces with us all dressed the same as that! What I didn’t realise was the Muslims in the group didn’t drink, Richard noticed they weren’t drinking so he fined them 5 dollars - they soon started after that! Everyone had a great time! Sir Donald Bradman who was chairman of the Australian Cricket Board thanked us for helping them out and I remember him saying Sobers’ 250 in Melbourne was the best innings he’d ever seen – a huge compliment from the greatest batsman of all time.”

When Knott was banned from international cricket in 1977 for turning to World Series Cricket, Bob was back in the selectors’ thoughts and returned to Test cricket for the tour that year to Pakistan. Bob became a regular and was first choice keeper for the series that followed against New Zealand, Australia and India. Bob’s performances behind the stumps were outstanding, but he missed the 1981 tour to West Indies – the selectors preferred the superior batting of Paul Downton and David Bairstow.

A 5-0 whitewash and some mistakes by Paul Downton behind the stumps in the first Test of the 1981 Ashes series saw a press campaign to get Bob back behind the stumps. The selectors bowed to the pressure and Bob was back for the second Test at Lords, Ian Botham’s last as captain.

“It was great to be back in the side. Downton had missed a few chances and people were calling for me to return. I always loved playing at Lords. I can tell you walking through those Grace Gates on the first morning of an Ashes Test is something very, very special. Quite nerve wracking actually. We drew the match, Botham bagged a pair and the press got on his back. Beefy’s batting and bowling had suffered as captain and he resigned as captain. Mike Brearley took over and we headed to Headingley 1-0 down. We were heading for an innings defeat until Beefy ended up with his famous 140 odd. Graham Dilley supported him so well. Their heroics saw us set them 130 or so to win, which in Test terms is not a big score.”

I asked Bob, if the side felt the momentum had shifted and as a team they felt they could win the game? “We had to believe we could do it. But, we knew someone had to do something incredible. Bob Willis started bowling from the football stand end but he wasn’t getting any rhythm. Mike Brearley, Ian Botham, David Gower and I got together and we decided to give Bob a try at the other end. He got rhythm, pace and bounce and the game suddenly started to change. When Dennis Lillee chipped one up to Mike Gatting who dived full length at mid-on we knew we had a chance as the last two batters to come in were Ray Bright and Terry Alderman. I remember when they were 8 down, and we were waiting for Ray Bright to come in, I turned around and saw the Ladbrokes marquee. When we were batting we, all saw the digital scoreboard put up the Ladbrokes odds. We were 500/1 against. I was genuinely going to put £2 on. The trouble was the marquee was on the other side of the ground. I started making my way over to it during a lunch break, but I had a ton of children coming up to me asking for autographs, which I couldn’t say no to. By the time I finished signing, I had no time to get to the marquee. When I looked at the marquee at 8 wickets down, I realised I could have won a thousand pounds if I hadn’t of done those autographs, which was a lot of money in those days – it still is now of course, but it was a huge amount then! As is well documented Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh did put some money on - at least I was going to back my own team! Of course, it was different in those days, you would never get away with that now!”

England got the last two wickets and the game went down in history. Botham’s Ashes was alive.

“We went to Edgbaston after that and we were in a similar situation again, albeit on a much flatter wicket. Australia only needed a low hundred score to win and at tea were 80 odd for 5. At tea, Mike Brearley told us we had to get stuck in. Just before heading out, Brearley had spotted Beefy was putting his Nike tennis shoes on and asked him what he was doing and Botham, the strong personality that he was, replied that he wasn’t expecting to be bowling. Brearley told him to get his bowling boots on. Beefy tried to call his bluff but the tone of Brearley’s voice got a lot firmer and just told him to get his bowling boots on and get out to the middle, the umpires were all waiting for us. Brearley did make Beefy bowl and he went out and got five wickets for one run and won us the game!”

The result put England 2-1 up in the series – a remarkable turnaround. However, sadly for Bob, Alan Knott having returned from the Packer series was available for selection again and with England’s poor batting in the series, he replaced Bob behind the stumps. A kick in the teeth for Bob after his great work behind the stumps in those two outstanding wins.

“It was very disappointing have gone from 1-0 down to 2-1 up and then get left out. I didn’t get many runs but I caught quite a few catches and kept wicket well throughout. But the selectors just said I wasn’t getting enough runs. I was naturally very disappointed but the team went on to Old Trafford and Ian Botham got another magnificent hundred as England beat Australia again to go 3-1 up.”

I asked Bob about Brearley’s captaincy. What made him such an astute captain? “He just knew how people’s minds ticked. He knew how to get the best results from his players. He knew who needed a kick up the backside and who needed some comforting words. And importantly he knew the game of cricket inside, out. He always confided in his senior players and he just gave you confidence that he knew what he was doing. And above all, he was a lovely man.”

Bob toured India and Sri Lanka over the winter of 1981/82, playing in seven Test matches, his keeping accounted for another 19 dismissals. A home series against India followed and he was back down under in 1982 where he scored his 11,000th first class run in a match against Queensland. He kept in all five Tests of that Ashes tour.

His final appearance for his country came in 1984 in Lahore and he retired from first class cricket later that year.

“It was an easy decision to retire. I’d been playing for 23 years and the time was right.”

But what a career, a world record number of dismissals and for someone who was often left out for his batting still scored over 12,000 first class runs by the time he hung up his gloves – an amazing record.

I asked Bob, reflecting on all of those dismissals, which was his favourite; but for him it was a dismissal that was never given! A decision not given by the famous umpire Shakoor Rana – think Mike Gatting’s wagging finger, a few years later.

“As wicket-keepers we love making stumping’s. I remember in Pakistan I was keeping to John Lever. We’d got their opening batsman out and Javed Miandad walked out to the middle. We were going to bat last on this turning wicket and they had a good leg spinner called Abdul Qadir. John Lever bowled to Javed and he played the ball back down the wicket. Next ball, I stood up to the stumps, as the batsmen were roughing up the pitch for the likes of Qadir. John bowled this ball, swung it, Javed danced down the wicket and tried to nip it through mid-wicket, he played and missed and I took the ball down the leg side and removed the bails all in one movement. It was a dream dismissal for a wicket-keeper. I turned around to the square leg umpire to appeal and there was Shakoor Rana looking up into the stands. He totally missed it and it was given not out. That would have been my finest stumping without doubt.”

Bob kept to many fine bowlers during his career so I asked him who was the most difficult to keep to. “It was always the left handers. When I coach now, I always say to young wicket-keepers practice and practice in the nets against left handers, because if you nail that everything else will become easier. One player I would love to have kept to though was Shane Warne. He was without doubt, the best spinner there has ever been.”

Bob also talked at length about the importance of concentration and focus. “As a keeper, you have to concentrate from ball one through to the last ball of the day.”

He recalled keeping in the sub-continent as a typical example. “There is nothing harder for a keeper than keeping in places like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. You’re playing against some of the greatest batsmen on flat wickets, in 90 degree temperatures with searing humidity. At the end of a six-hour day you’re hot and sweaty; you’ve hardly touched the ball as batsmen are scoring off of most balls and if you’re not concentrating on that last ball of the day, you’ll drop that chance. There is nothing more deflating, because you know that batsman will go on and on. You have to concentrate all the time. It can be tough.”

Cricket has changed a lot since Bob played. T20 cricket is now at the fore, batsmen are playing more expansive shots, I asked him how he felt he would fare. “They’d be no problem at all with my keeping. The shots have evolved but I’d have adapted; who knows my batting might have improved as well!”

Bob is still involved in cricket. He continues to coach young wicket keepers at coaching clinics at Marlborough and Harrow schools - passing on his huge experience to talented youngsters. He also does some consultancy work for Dukes cricket balls. It’s great to see him still involved in the sport he loves so dearly.

Bob is an icon in English cricket, one of the finest wicket-keepers this country has produced. People use the word ‘great’ quite loosely these days, but Bob Taylor was a great player for England, one of the best wicket-keepers to have ever played the game. In any other era, he would have played well over 100 Test matches for his country.

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