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There but for the Grace of God

Fred Tate, with a tight grip on the ball.

I moved from England to the United States in 1998, during which time baseball was all over the news due to the hype generated by the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to pass the home run record, set by Roger Maris 36 years previously. As a result, I got to know quite a bit about Cricket’s bastard son, and in the course of time became aware of a rather unfortunate gentleman by the name of Bill Buckner.

Buckner was a first baseman with the Boston Red Sox, a journeyman player good enough to lead the league in batting average in 1980, however he is almost solely remembered for an horrendous fielding error during game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The New York Mets’ Mookie Wilson hit a squibber right at Buckner, who had only to gather the ball and step on the base to end the game and win the World Series for the Red Sox; unfortunately for Buckner, the ball went through his legs and the Mets scored two runs to win the game and take the series to a deciding seventh game, which the Mets won. Thus was extended the so-called “Curse of the Bambino”, named for the fact that the Red Sox had not won a championship since trading Babe Ruth to the rival New York Yankees in 1918, at that point a stretch of some 68 years (they would eventually break the “curse” in 2004). Despite the fact that several other players had under-performed in game 6 and that the Red Sox had opportunities to win the series in game seven, Buckner received the brunt of the ire from the Red Sox fans and media alike. Though Buckner was welcomed back to the Red Sox four years later, it would be some 22 years before Buckner, who had received death threats, was prepared to forgive the media for what they had put him and his family through.

In cricket history, there exists a striking parallel to Buckner’s story in that of the hapless Fred Tate. Tate played just one Test, the fourth and ultimately deciding Test of the 1902 Ashes series, where his dropping of a simple chance from Joe Darling was considered by the majority of fans and the press to have lost England both the Test and the Ashes. Indeed, the match has gone down in cricket lore as “Tate’s Match” which, as we shall see, is a trifle unfair.

Frederick William Tate began life in humble surroundings, born in a workhouse in 1867 and raised by his mother and grandmother in Brighton. He was discovered as a cricketer while playing for St Peter’s, where he was a chorister, by bowler Alfred Shaw who had organised trials throughout the county. Tate was married in 1894 and his son Maurice, who would go on to eclipse his father and become one of the great cricketers of his era, was born the following year. Tate’s early days in first-class were somewhat unsettled, as he continued to appear for St Peter’s, as well as a club side in Bolton and also taking on coaching duties for the Leveson-Gower family. Taking a year off in 1890 for business reasons, he returned with renewed vigour and quickly became a mainstay in the Sussex side, bowling more than 1,000 overs in six of his first-class seasons and taking more than 100 wickets in all but one of those.

Tate was mostly a medium-paced off-spinner with one or two variations, though he did not swing the ball and may, at times during his career, have been faster than medium pace. Tate tended to eschew the off-theory fields popular at the time and went for the stumps – almost half of all his victims were clean-bowled. Indeed his team mate Fry claimed that had Tate played for Middlesex or Lancashire he would have been much more famous – “…on a sticky or crumbled pitch, Tate can bowl any side for a small score.” Similarly, Ranji actually considered that Fred had been a better bowler than son Maurice.

There is no doubt that 1902, the year of his ill-fated Test appearance, was Tate’s best season by some margin, with 180 wickets at 15.71 and also enjoying his career best performances that season with 9/73 in an innings against Leicestershire and match figures of 15/68 against Middlesex. Leading up to the fourth Test and the debates over selection, Tate was at that time fourth in the national averages behind the touring Hugh Trumble, Schofield Haigh and Sam Hargreave, though he had taken far more wickets than any of those above him and was in fact the leading wicket-taker at that stage with 124 at 13.00.

The Citizen on July 21, 1902 printed a review of the meeting of the selection committee prior to the fourth Test at Old Trafford:-

“Mr Maclaren was not at the meeting of members of the committee, Lord Hawke, Gregor MacGregor and HW Bainbridge being assisted by Hon FS Jackson and AG Steel.”

As a result of the committee’s deliberations Fry and Jessop were dropped – interestingly Fry claims in his auto-biography Life Worth Living to have been involved in the selection process, which considering he lost his place seems highly unlikely. Sydney Barnes was also left out, with Ranji and Palairet, after “brilliant form”, returning to the side. The Citizen review continues:-

“The names of those selected are as follows:- AC Maclaren (Lancs), FS Jackson (Yorks), LCH Palairet (Somerset), KS Ranjitsinhji (Sussex), Tyldesley (Lancs), Abel (Surrey), Lockwood (Surrey), Hirst (Yorks), Rhodes (Yorks), Braund (Somerset), Lilley (Warks).”

The protocol in vogue at the time being followed, with the amateurs listed first along with initials, followed by the professionals, this is by any measure a very strong line-up, though at this stage, and with only three days to go to the start of the Test, there is no sign of Tate’s name.

The Sporting Life, commenting on the absence of Jessop, stated that “the Gloucestershire captain scored 12 and 55 against Australia at Sheffield, and thereby looked to have made his place secure, especially as he is the most brilliant fieldsman now appearing in first-class cricket. It may therefore be presumed that his wretched batting against the Colonials at Bristol last week has caused the Selection Committee to leave him out. Certainly two worse displays than his on that occasion are not often given by a leading batsman. He only scored 13 at his first attempt, and his 21 on Wednesday was nothing more than a piece of slogging. Those people who saw his splendid fielding at Birmingham and at Sheffield must, however, regret his absence.”

Prophetic words indeed. Should Tate have been selected in the first place? It’s worth noting that, as a bowler, Jessop at that stage had just 36 wickets to his name though his batting, as he would prove at The Oval, was vastly superior to Tate’s (his average at that point of the season was fairly low at a shade over 28, having averaged over 40 the previous two seasons). Schofield Haigh was a leading candidate for a bowler’s spot however Lord Hawke, with three Yorkshireman already in the Test side, did not want to weaken Yorkshire further for its upcoming county game, so Tate was added instead – the general consensus looking back has been that it was thought the pitch, which had been damaged by rain, would suit his bowling; the summer had been very wet and Tate had nonetheless performed well. Fry also comments in Life Worth Living that Tate’s strength was on fast, dry wickets and that he was no more than “useful” at county level on wet ones, which is a surprising comment from a team mate considering Tate’s success for Sussex during that rain-plagued season.

Following his eleventh-hour call-up, on arriving in Manchester Tate found all the hotels to be full and had to take accomodation in an attic, such that he only had half an hour’s sleep the night before the Test, not the best preparation for your first Test match, which was to begin on the occasion of his 25th birthday. As to the details of the match itself, Australia batted first and got off to a great start on the back of a century from Trumper, however from 173-1 they managed 299 all out when Lockwood took six wickets. England in reply scored 262 thanks largely to a magnificent 128 from Stanley Jackson, described as his finest in Tests. Lockwood then picked up where he had left off and took three quick wickets with just ten runs on the board. At sixteen for three, Joe Darling hit Len Braund high to deep square leg where Tate, positioned there for that over and normally a close slip fielder, muffed a straightforward chance. Instead of being out at 16 for four, Darling went on to score 37, though Australia were still all out for only 86, Lockwood again the main protaganist with 5/28. Tate meanwhile was used sparingly by Maclaren, being the last of the bowlers used and finishing with figures of 5-3-7-2.

England were left with the relatively small target of 124 which, considering the batting line-up at their disposal, should not have represented too much difficulty. However, the elite of England’s batting could do no better than 116 for nine after Lilley was out to a fabulous catch from Clem Hill. When Tate walked nervously in as last man he took up the non-striker’s end, as Rhodes and Lilley had crossed. Rain then suspended play for 45 minutes or so and at the resumption Rhodes took guard and, rather than attempting to farm the strike, blocked the rest of the over, leaving Tate to face Jack Saunders. Tate managed to edge the first ball for four, reducing the target to just four more runs, however he was to suffer the further ignominy of being cleaned bowled next ball to hand Australia the match and the Ashes.

Tate was booed as he left the field, apparently in tears, though exactly why he was booed is unclear – was it for the dropped catch, or being last man out? It’s worth noting that the Sheffield crowd had booed the great Sydney Barnes in the previous Test, apparently for committing the heinous crime of not being Schofield Haigh.

In his obituary of Tate senior in the 1944 edition of Wisden, Hubert Preston wrote of a discussion he had recently enjoyed with Len Braund – Braund told Pardon that when Aussie skipper Joe Darling, a left-handed batsman, ands Syd Gregory changed ends during an over he wanted Lionel Palairet, fielding at square-leg as was customary when Braund bowled for Somerset, to cross the ground, however Maclaren, the England captain asked Tate to go instead.

Some accounts suggest Maclaren felt Tate had been forced on him, which may explain his reluctance to give Tate the ball, however it was Maclaren who selected Tate over Hirst on the morning of the Test. Whether or not this was in a fit of pique is unclear, but Tate was very much in form. Though Hirst was the better bat, it’s fair to say that the batting line up appeared strong enough without him.

Len Braund and later John Arlott were quoted as saying that a distraught Fred had said to Braund “I have got a boy at home who will put it all right for me.” Maurice was at that time aged seven, so if that quote is true the young Tate must have already been showing precocious cricketing talent. Maurice first played at Old Trafford, scene of the 1902 Test, for Sussex against Lancashire in 1914, when the following discussion on Fred’s selection in 1902 appeared in the Manchester Courier:-

“It is not generally recognised that those who had the picking of the Engand team were guilty of an error of judgement in choosing the Sussex man in preference to a fine all-round player like George Hirst, as well as leaving out Fry and Jessop, and restoring Ranjitsinhji to the place he had not been able to take at Sheffield…A bowler pure and simple, Tate did very little to justify his selection, while it is generally agreed that if he had caught Darling at square leg at sixteen, when three wickets had already fallen, the Australians would have been out for considerably less than the 86 they obtained. As it was, Darling stayed to score 37. But the fault was not so much with the player so much as those who chose him in the face of others with stronger claims. Fred Tate, if possessing no claims to being an all-rounder, was a great bowler on his day, and his son bids fair to follow in his father’s footsteps.”

Twelve years later, in 1926, under the heading of “ECHO OF 1902″ the Daily Mail published details of a letter from Fred Tate ahead of the Ashes Test at Old Trafford:-

“FW Tate, father of Maurice Tate, the Sussex fast bowler, has written to the Lancashire Club expressing the hope that in the forthcoming match the son will redeem the father’s expensive dropping of a catch in the 1902 match. Behind this expression lies an interesting story. On the occasion referred to, Tate was put into the English side at the last minute, as it was considered that the pitch, which had been damaged by rain, would suit his bowling. He stated that on arriving in Manchester he found the hotels full, and had to find accomodation in an attic, with the result that he did not get more than half an hour’s sleep on the night before the match. For Sussex he had always fielded at short slip, but in the Test match he was called upon to go into the long field for an over. He failed to hold a high ball to square leg near the boundary from J. Darling off a full pitch from Braund, and the batsman went on to make the highest score of the innings. “We wanted only about 120 to win. There were no wickets down for 45, with the cream of England’s batting talent still to go in, but we lost by 3 runs. I was the last man in and was out for 4. As we walked to the pavillion, Saunders told me he wished one of the batsmen had received the ball which dismissed me. I have wired to Maurice telling him to put his whole heart and soul into the game to redeem my mistake.”

This is interesting on a number of counts. First, it is clear that some 24 years after the event Tate senior had not put the events of 1902 behind him. Also, he was still clearly of the opinion that he had not up to that point been redeemed by his son Maurice. Tate Junior had by July 1926 played in 13 Tests and, while his batting had been unremarkable, his bowling had at times been superb, averaging at that point almost six wickets a match.

Other Ashes Tests have been notable for simple drops, for example at Leeds in 1948 when England put down three easy chances to allow Australia to set a world-record run chase of 403, however no single catches have perhaps been so pivotal.

Is it fair that the match is referred to as “Tate’s Match”? Undoubtedly not – Trumper and Jackson both hit sparkling centuries, Lockwood and Trumper each fashioned a ten-fer, and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph had this to say about the fall of England’s ninth wicket:-

“Hill’s catch, which dismissed Lilley, could not have been excelled. He was posted just in front of the pavilion gate; Lilley swung at the ball and hit it well. It was no skied-drive such as that which Tate had missed the previous day, but a low-skimming hit, which Hill first seemed to lose, then got it, and held in splendid fashion. That catch lost England the match; it was eminently worthy of such a result.”

Sports fans, like everyone else, like to be able to simplify more complex issues to aid our understanding, and it is likely this desire which necessitates that we apportion credit or blame for results in team sports – it’s not always readily apparent that one player was noticeably better than the rest, however a Man of the Match award is still typically given. It’s not possible to say for sure that had Tate taken that catch all other events would subsequently have occurred as they did – for example, when Hale Irwin missed a one-inch tap-in during the Open Championship of 1983 and went on to lose by one stroke to Tom Watson, he was quoted as saying that even had he made it, there was no guarantee that all of the other events would have happened the same way, as he would undoubtedly have been in a different frame of mind if he’d made that putt.

After his playing career ended Tate senior spent some time as coach of Derbyshire, though it’s interesting that despite his father’s coaching credentials, Maurice claimed never to have been coached by him. Fred became licensee of the Robin Hood Inn in Derby where he would regale the locals with the “Tale of the Test Match”, though his version of events is not documented. Perhaps surprisingly, Tate considered Maclaren the best captain he ever played under. Tate died in 1943, aged 75, having enjoyed, considering his modest beginnings and having had no father figure, a great deal of personal success.

The parallels between Buckner and Tate are apparent – both were blamed for losing what was effectively a “world championship” because of a pivotal fielding error, both could point to important performances by other team members and both were still struggling to put events behind them more than 20 years after they occurred.

So did son Maurice redeem his father at Old Trafford in 1926? In a rain-affected match, he did not bat and took two wickets for 88 runs. Also, he did not take a catch; perhaps more to the point, as far as I’m aware he did not drop a catch either. In fact Maurice would never enjoy a particularly good game at the scene of his dad’s blunder.

In all first-class cricket Fred Tate took 1,331 wickets at 21.55 with 104 five-fers and 28 ten-wicket hauls. Oh, and by the way, he also held 235 catches.


Really excellent piece

Comment by zaremba | 12:00am BST 30 April 2012

Yes, a really interesting one that. Thanks for bumping it z, or I might have missed it.

Comment by Howe_zat | 12:00am BST 30 April 2012

That story reminds us again of the shallowness of the human mind. Even a game called cricket is too complex for it to consider with easy truthfulness. And so the audience remembers Tate’s dropped catch but forgets Hill’s brilliant catch. And a hundred years later still glories in Bothams 149 at Headingly while forgetting that Dilleys magnifient 50 at the other end of the pitch made it all possible. We want rampant heros and villains and nothing less inbetween.

Comment by watson | 12:00am BST 30 April 2012

was a good read

Comment by AndyZaltzHair | 12:00am BST 1 May 2012

Cracking read. Neat job mate.

Comment by bagapath | 12:00am BST 1 May 2012

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