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“It’s Always Bloody Taylor”

herb taylor

Quite where he stands amongst the best batsmen South Africa have produced is impossible to say. At the start of his career Herbie Taylor played a few times alongside Aubrey Faulkner, and at the very end a handful of matches with Bruce Mitchell, but there is no real basis for a comparison. What can be said with certainty however is that he was a great batsman, and that for many years he was often the only one of true international class available to a country desperately trying to compete with England and Australia, and emulate the inspirational figures of its teams of the first decade of the twentieth century who, on getting fully to grips with the googly before anyone else did, put South Africa on the cricketing map.

Brought up on wickets of matting stretched over gravel Taylor soon became a master of that surface. His footwork and back play were superb and his skills were honed as a schoolboy by his coach, the old Sussex professional George Cox Senior. The difference between Taylor and his peers was that his eye was so good that he had a split second longer than others in which to make his shots, many of which were played very late.

Taylor’s First Class debut came for Natal against the MCC tourists of 1909/10, when he scored 55 and 30 at Durban. He was less successful in a second appearance at Pietermaritzburg a few days later and did not figure in any of the Tests that season. In the following two summers however Taylor did enough to earn a place with the side that came to England for the ill-starred Triangular Tournament of 1912. A wet summer did not help, exacerbating the visitors’ unfamiliarity with turf pitches, but the South Africans disappointed, losing five of their six Tests without ever looking competitive. They showed slightly better form against the counties and Taylor, despite his struggles on damp wickets, made over 1,000 runs on the tour. The editor of Wisden saw enough to describe him as; Excellent in style and a powerful driver he is likely to make a great mark before he is much older.

A return visit from England was planned for 1913/14 and the South Africans were worried. In three Tests in 1912 the mercurial Sydney Barnes had taken 34 of their wickets at just 8.29 runs each. The way Barnes bowled the matting wickets in South Africa would be to his liking and Taylor feared a drubbing. He spent many hours in the nets with the legendary spin quartet of Faulkner, Reggie Schwarz, Bert Vogler and Gordon White in order to prepare for the ordeal that was coming.

The English side that visited the Cape for the last pre war Test series was much more powerful than any that had gone before and they ran out 4-0 winners in the Test series and were beaten just once in the entire tour. Barnes missed the final Test, but still took 49 wickets at 10.93. Amidst the carnage however the private battle between Taylor and Barnes, most definitely won by the South African, has become the stuff of legend.

Taylor’s first meeting with England was at Pietermaritzburg for Natal. Even without Barnes the tourists rolled over the home side for 124, but Taylor carried his bat for 83 in an innings Wisden indicates was without blemish. In the end the weather meant that the game petered out into a draw, but the Englishmen didn’t dislodge Taylor, who was unbeaten on 42 in the second innings when time ran out.

In the first Test the die was cast for the series. South Africa batted first and were dismissed for 182. Taylor didn’t quite reprise his Pietermaritzburg performance, being last out for 109. The second highest scorer was Dave Nourse with 19. According to Wisden Taylor played Barnes with perfect confidence. In the second innings, for the only time in the series, Taylor was dismissed without reaching double figures. He scored eight before being adjudged lbw against Barnes. England won by an innings and 157.

In the second Test England won by an innings again, albeit this time South Africa got within 12 of making them bat again. Barnes’ match figures were 17 for 159 and he claimed Taylor’s wicket in each innings, albeit not before he had, with 29 and 40, made the second largest contribution each time. In the third Test England’s margin of victory was reduced to 91 runs. For Taylor there were innings of 14 and 70 and he was not one of Barnes’ eight victims. In addition his occasional right arm medium pace brought him four of his career haul of five Test wickets.

The match prior to the fourth Test was the tourists’ second clash with Natal, this time at Durban. This time Natal grasped the initiative, bowling England out for 132. That Natal then went on to take a slender first innings lead of 21 was almost entirely due to Taylor. The second highest score for the home side was 11 from Taylor’s opening partner. Taylor went on to score 91. When England did rather better second time around the Natal target was 215.

There was a bad start for Natal who lost two early wickets, whereupon Taylor had to watch ‘Dave’ Nourse struggling to lay a bat on Barnes in the overs up to lunch. Nourse confessed to Taylor during the interval that he simply could not pick Barnes’ top spinner, and they agreed Taylor would do all he could to take Barnes. After lunch Taylor’s farming of the strike was exemplary and however well Barnes bowled at him he kept him out. Once, on 49, Barnes did get one past him but the chance went begging. Taylor said later that Barnes’ wrath was something to behold.

The next three overs Barnes bowled cost him 32 and, at the beginning of the next over he exploded; Taylor, Taylor, Taylor it’s always bloody Taylor, he is supposed to have said before throwing the ball down in disgust and petulantly walking off the pitch despite the pleas of his captain not to. Later Barnes came back, but it was too late by then. Nourse had managed 59 and although Taylor also went, for exactly 100, Natal got home by four wickets.

Had there been more time available South Africa might well have achieved a consolation victory in the fourth Test. As it was England ended up 145 short of their victory target with just five wickets to fall. Barnes kept his temper this time and was rewarded with Taylor’s wicket in both innings, but it was no great triumph as Taylor scored 16 and 93. The latter innings was a remarkably restrained effort from Taylor and contained as many as 60 singles. During it he also shared a second wicket partnership with his elder brother Daniel, who was making his Test debut and scored 36 in each innings. The final Test of the series was Daniel’s last.

The South Africans must have been disappointed to have lost the final Test by ten wickets given that Barnes was indisposed. The great bowler was, depending on which version you prefer, either unfit or in a strop due to a financial dispute with the South African authorities. In his absence Taylor scored 42 and 87 to end up with a series aggregate of 508 at 50.80. In its 1915 edition the editor of Wisden reminded his readers of the prediction he made following the Triangular Tournament.

At the close of his greatest series Taylor was 24 and world events conspired to mean he would be 32 before he played cricket again for South Africa. In the meantime there was the War To End All Wars. Taylor followed teammate Faulkner into the Royal Field Artillery and, like Faulkner, served with distinction. In Taylor’s case the reward was a Military Cross, awarded to junior officers for acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.

Sadly for cricket and military historians much of the detail of Taylor’s service is lost, but what is known is that the award came in January 1917. At the time Taylor’s Brigade were on the Somme, in a village about a mile from the Allied trenches. The citation for the award gives little information; For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He carried out the observations for wire cutting under very heavy fire with conspicuous success.

Wire cutting was an imprecise art, and when it failed it served only to magnify the huge losses sustained in ‘going over the top’. The intention was that shrapnel shells were exploded just above the wire so the bullets produced by the shell would tear the wire to shreds, thereby allowing the charging troops a path through. If the shelling was unsuccessful, and it was not easy to set the fuses to the precise point where the shell needed to explode, the infantry would have nowhere to go. The success or otherwise of the artillery bombardment was therefore crucial and it was, as observer, Taylor’s job to go out into no man’s land to inspect the damage.

It is probably fair to assume that Taylor did not enjoy his duties as an observer, and by the time his brigade left the Somme at the end of March he was no longer with them, having travelled to England to train for the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. It cannot have been the case that Taylor was too concerned at the risks of wire cutting. In the month after he joined the RFC losses were so heavy that the life expectancy of a pilot dropped to a mere 17 days, and there was something of an outcry amongst public and politicians alike over the scale of such losses.

The ensuing furore may well have saved Taylor because, as he was training, the realisation dawned that there was little to be achieved by sending barely competent pilots to the front, and training programmes became longer and more searching. In the event Taylor never returned to the Western Front for flying duties. Instead he became an instructor and in April 1918 joined a training squadron who he stayed with until he was discharged in May 1919.

After leaving what was by then the Royal Air Force Taylor remained in England for a number of months, taking the opportunity to sharpen his batting technique on turf pitches. In May 1919 he took part in one long forgotten, but in its own way historic match. His appearance for a powerful eleven raised by stockbroker Lionel Robinson, a man who had started on his extremely successful career in Australia before moving to London prior to the outbreak of the Great War, was the first game of the famous tour by an Australian Services XI. Secondly the match was notable for being the last twelve a side fixture to which First Class status was awarded. The game ended as an exciting draw, Taylor’s contribution being 19 and 16.

The Australian Services XI formed the nucleus of the great Australian side that demolished England 5-0 in 1920/21 and 3-0 in the following English summer under Warwick Armstrong. On the way home to Australia the side visited South Africa and played three more Tests there. South Africa lost the series 1-0, but they did well to hold on for a draw in the first Test, and gave as good as they got in the second. Taylor was out for just a single in his first innings, but then dropped down the order and made scores of 29, 47 , 80, 26 and 17.

The following season an English side arrived in South Africa for a five Test series. The captain was the uncapped Middlesex skipper Frank Mann whose son, George, would similarly lead an MCC side to South Africa 27 years later. The English batting was some way from full strength, with Hobbs, Pat Hendren and Jack Hearne all staying at home. Some of the leading amateurs remained behind as well, but then they always did even for Ashes tours, and the fact that the bowling was at pretty much full strength meant that the England side was certainly a good one.

What the Englishmen did lack was experience on the mat and in hindsight it is no surprise that the South Africans won the first Test comfortably, 176 from Taylor in their second innings being the decisive contribution. I think today we have reached the top, and can always now look forward to giving other sides a good fight in the Tests, were the optimistic words that skipper Taylor used when addressing the spectators gathered round the pavilion after the victory. He was possibly guilty of a degree of hyperbole, but certainly the series remained an interesting one and, on a personal level, a very successful one for Taylor.

The Englishmen won the second Test by a single wicket and then, after two even draws, won the final Test by 109 runs to take the series. For Taylor there were half centuries in the second and third Tests, and he reached three figures in each of the last two, but there remained some disappointment and much criticism of his captaincy. Years later batsman Bob Catterall blamed Taylor for the loss of the series and, whilst expressing the view that as a batsman Taylor was possibly better even than Hobbs, that he was a bad captain, a bad tactician and a bad coach. The main plank of his criticism arose out of that second Test defeat by one wicket. About half an hour before the close of the second day Taylor and Catterall were putting the English bowlers to the sword when Taylor told his young partner to stop attacking the bowling and play for the next day. The pair did get through to the close, but added only a handful of runs at a time when both were batting well. In such a narrow defeat not very many more runs would have been needed to change the result.

The 1924 trip to England was to be Taylor’s last as captain. It was not a happy tour in that the South Africans lost the Test series 3-0, and after Taylor invited England to take first knock in the first Test at Edgbaston, and had to watch them amass 438 he had the indignity of his own team being rolled over for 30. They made a much better fist of the second innings but their confidence never quite recovered as England’s new stars, Maurice Tate and Herbert Sutcliffe, made hay. It was a damp summer in which the South Africans, none of whom bar Taylor had any significant experience of turf wickets, batted particularly poorly. On the tour as a whole Taylor led the batting with over 1,900 runs at an average of over 40, but he only scored two half centuries in the Tests.

South Africa’s next Test series was against England in 1927/28. The England party was similar to the last to visit the country. There was no Hobbs or Hendren again, and Tate and Harold Larwood were not selected. Strangest of all to 21st century eyes is the captain, a man who only ever played for his county three times and at the time the party was selected had never done so. Rony Stanyforth kept wicket for the Army and stepped into the breach when the man who originally accepted the captaincy, Derbyshire’s Guy Jackson, had to withdraw through illness just before the ship sailed.

For this series Taylor was no longer captain, that task having passed to HG ‘Nummy’ Deane. Perhaps the weight of that responsibility had been weighing heavily on Taylor as, reinvigorated also by a move to Johannesburg, he looked much more like his old self even if noticeably slower. The series started badly for the home side as they lost the first two Tests and drew the third. That they won the fourth and fifth matches to square the series was testament to Deane’s ability to motivate them, and Taylor’s century in the fourth Test marked the start of the change in fortunes.

By the time of the 1929 Northern Hemisphere summer Taylor was 40 and he returned to England for a third visit and a much happier one than five years previously. Despite by now being a veteran on any definition Taylor topped the averages for the tour. In its summary Wisden said of Taylor that; Well as he performed it would be idle to pretend that he was the dominating personality of a few years ago, but he was still the man England had most to fear, an observation fully evidenced by the events of the final Test. Earlier in the series the first two Tests had been drawn before England won the next two to take an unassailable lead. The South Africans were fortunate with the weather, in that it was a good summer, but unlucky with injury. At one point the squad was so depleted they had to call up one man from outside it, and Taylor had to miss the second and third Tests.

The final Test was drawn as well, but Taylor marked it out with a superb final innings in England and his only Test century against England in England. He joined his captain at a difficult time with South Africa deep in trouble at 20-3. It might have been the time for a rearguard action, but in fact the pair added 214 in two and a half hours and Taylor went on to reach 121. The Times’ reporter wrote; We were privileged to watch an exhibition of batting which, whatever criteria be adopted, must be described as altogether admirable. The technical excellence of the strokes was faultless.

In 1930/31, when England visited again, Taylor was finally a member of a series-winning South African side. In fact he was not selected for the match the South Africans won, the first Test, but he came back into the side for the second with a century and scored half centuries in each of the third and fourth matches as the home side hung on to their advantage. He perhaps should not have gone to Australia and New Zealand in 1931/32, but at least he did not let himself down. He, with the rest of his side, had to spend a great deal of time in the field watching Bradman bat, but he showed he could still score runs himself with innings of 78 and 84 in the fourth Test and his series average was a respectable 31.40.

Anno Domini effectively retired Taylor from the international game as, following their return from New Zealand the South Africans had nothing further scheduled until their visit to England in 1935. One wonders whether Taylor at any point fancied that trip as in the previous domestic season he averaged over 50 and did not make his final First Class appearance until March 1936 when he was tempted to play for Western Province against Vic Richardson’s Australians. Taylor, not far short of his 47th birthday, scored 25 and 22. He must have felt young though, if for no other reason than the match also represented the last of the career of his old friend Dave Nourse, who was 57 years of age. Nourse, whose more illustrious son Dudley had played alongside Taylor in his last Test series a few years previously, scored 55 and 10.

After cricket and in the years leading up to World War Two Taylor concentrated on a sports goods business he part owned in Durban. After the war he worked for a mining company and also involved himself in coaching. Sadly he never wrote an autobiography, although there are a few instructional books and pamphlets to which he gave his name. Herbie Taylor died in 1973 at the age of 83. One of the main South African daily newspapers announced his death on its front page under the headline South Africa’s Greatest? The answer would probably be different today, but back then there would have been few who disagreed.

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