May 2004

A brave leader of men

Courage was Maurice Turnbull's calling card, but international rugby union was tougher than even he imagined

Courage was Maurice Turnbull's calling card, but international rugby union was tougher than even he imagined. By Andrew Hignell:

Maurice Turnbull: a man for all seasons © Getty Images

Maurice Turnbull was truly a man for all seasons. He was a man who defied Bodyline, played in the first Welsh XV to win at Twickenham, and will be remembered as a brave and courageous soldier. He was an inspirational figure for Glamorgan cricket in the 1930s and '40s and his sporting achievements read like the curriculum vitae of a Boy's Own hero, his cricket and hockey Blues at Cambridge followed by international cricket for England and international rugby union and hockey for Wales. He was even the South Wales squash champion, having first overseen the funding and construction of Cardiff Squash Club.

In addition to all this, Turnbull was a knowledgeable follower of horse racing, a shrewd bridge player, a lover of fine wines, poetry and music, besides running an insurance business in Cardiff, and dabbling in a spot of journalism for both local and national newspapers. It seemed that everything Turnbull touched turned to gold, and there is no knowing what he might have achieved had his life not been cut short during the Normandy invasion of 1944.

Turnbull's leadership qualities, and ability to stay calm in a storm, were evident from the moment he made his county debut as an 18-year-old for Glamorgan in 1924. Coming in at 24 for 4 in the first innings against a Lancashire attack considered one of the finest and most well-balanced in the country (including Australian quick Ted MacDonald and cunning seamer Cec Parkin), Turnbull top-scored with 40, lifting Glamorgan's total to 153. His obdurate batting then helped them turn the tables on the visitors in the second innings and record one of their closest victories.

But it was his inspirational captaincy for which he became famous, calling the players together before each innings with his oft-repeated encouragement: "We must try to win, even if we lose!" Turnbull completely transformed a ragbag side that had previously lurched from one innings defeat to another, accompanied by a series of financial problems. In his early years in charge, Glamorgan were faced with bankruptcy, but Turnbull stemmed the expensive tide of county imports and instead insisted, with his unwavering belief in Welsh-born talent, that the county invest in home-grown players. He was handsomely rewarded as they blossomed into a fine side.

During the winter months, as well as spending long hours raising money for Glamorgan, Turnbull played scrum-half for Cardiff, and he made his Welsh debut at Twickenham in January 1933 in the Five Nations Championship. Wales had never won at Twickenham, and Watcyn Thomas, their captain, made a fiery dressing-room speech in English and Welsh. "After Watcyn's words, everyone just wanted to get on with it, but we had to line up and be presented to the Prince of Wales," said fullback Viv Jenkins. Turnbull was surprised both by the size of the crowd (60,000) and the ferocity of the play. "Everything seemed utterly unreal," he said. "I've never known tackling so hard and swift."

After a nervous start, Wales reached half-time 4-3 behind. But attacking Welsh play in the second half brought about a try and with it, victory. Turnbull, however, did not wear a smile at the end of the match: he had taken many knocks during the fierce game, and left the field with a sore shoulder as well as a badly bruised jaw. After getting changed, he went to hospital for check-ups, fearing that his jaw was broken. Although he was given the all-clear, the doctors advised against eating for several hours, so he rejoined the rest of the Welsh squad at the Hotel Metropole, and played only a watching brief in the post-match celebrations.

While that was the peak of Turnbull's rugby career, his batsmanship for Glamorgan continued to flourish throughout the 1930s, his strokeplay becoming ever more dashing. But contemporaries regard his double-hundred against Nottinghamshire at Cardiff Arms Park in 1932 as his finest innings. It was also a notable innings in the context of English cricket history, as Nottinghamshire's opening attack, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, used the end-of-season match to practise the fast leg-theory which they hoped to employ on the winter tour of Australia. But their experiment failed abysmally, as Turnbull thrashed their "Bodyline" deliveries for an imperious 205. Sitting in the crowd at the Arms Park was a young man called John Arlott, who had travelled by train and bicycle with a friend from London to watch Turnbull - his boyhood hero - against England's opening attack. Arlott was not disappointed, and later wrote: "Turnbull was wonderful to watch that day and he punished those two bowlers as I believe no other batsman ever did."

Behind the glittering sporting career lay a devoted father and family man with a devout Catholic faith. Throughout his busy life, both at home and on overseas tours with England, Turnbull always found time to attend Mass or Communion. Even in the middle of one Championship match at the Arms Park in June 1932, Maurice led a delegation representing the Archdiocese of Cardiff by train and then ferry across the Irish Sea to Dublin, where an open-air Pontifical Mass was being held in Phoenix Park. He even travelled one winter to hear the Pope speak in Rome.

His deep faith helped him as he served in the Second World War. But at Normandy in August 1944, Turnbull died, aged 37, while serving with the Welsh Guards. Fast-tracked to the rank of Major, Turnbull was killed as he led a counter-attack on German troops on the outskirts of the small town of Montchamp. As a column of Panzer tanks advanced along a lane towards the Welsh Guards, he took a party of soldiers to the far side of the hedge, lining the lane, hoping to immobilise the lead vehicle. But just as they were level with the first tank, it swung its gun through the hedge and opened fire, killing Turnbull instantly.

The tragic news soon reached Cardiff, where Glamorgan were playing a friendly. The crowd stood for a minute's silence, and may have cast their minds back to when he had nonchalantly struck England's finest bowlers to all parts, or put in relentless tackles on the rugby field.

This article was first published in the May 2004 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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