1981

No batsman his master

John Arlott profiles a great and cheerful bowler - Maurice Tate

John Arlott profiles a great and cheerful bowler - Maurice Tate



Maurice Tate: in 1924-25 he took as many wickets as the next three English bowlers put together; not only at the best average, but half that of all but one other © Getty Images
It must seem strange to those who have grown up since the proliferation of Tests that fifty years ago the hinge season of 1930-31 saw two Test tours in progress - England in South Africa and West Indies in Australia. That was heavy traffic for those days (and would have been heavier but that, as Wisden noted, 'Owing to political unrest the proposed MCC tour through India did not take place"). The matches created no wide interest: there was no television, of course, nor long-range radio.

Jack Hobbs once remarked, 'When I first used to go on tour abroad there were no headline stories about the players; in fact very few people in England had any idea what went on. You see, we had the agency man, and about all he did was see the scores got back; and on one tour the only other reporter sending anything back home was our manager."

So the cricket-follower at home had to be satisfied with a thin agency-based diet of Press reports. In fact, that South Africa- England series was historically important as the first there in which Tests - the two at Durban and one at Cape Townwere played on turf. South Africa took the rubber by winning the only game finished, one of the two played on the mat on the Old Wanderers ground, Johannesburg, when 'Buster' Nupen, the tall, fast-medium master of matting-wicket-bowling, took 11 English wickets for 150 runs. It was also, presumably, if not importantly, the first instance of a Test in which a Scot, a Welshman, an Afrikaaner, a cricketer of Greek ancestry and one of Norwegian (one-eyed at that) took part.

Maurice Tate was top of the English bowling in Tests and all first-class matches. He now was 35; and had bowled 280 overs - 130 more than anyone else - for England against Australia (with the record-breaking Bradman) in the previous summer. He never found the mat so helpful as Sydney Barnes had done in 1913-14; but in the first match of the tour he caught Eastern Province on turf and took 5 for 18. In all conditions his accuracy was such that in Tests he bowled 193.2 overs for 341 runs (14 wickets - all but one of them from the first six places in the batting order); in all games 356 for 622 (35 wickets).

Maurice Tate had the reputation of an unlucky bowler; and obviously he constantly beat the bat, the edge and the stumps as well. There were, though, other ways in which he was unfortunate enough, though even his complaints were humorous. In his first place, ludicrous as it may seem, he was 27 years only before he - or anyone else - realised that he was a uniquely gifted fast-medium bowler; 28 before he had the opportunity to demonstrate the fact; and 29 before he played a Test match.

Tate's father, Fred, never recovered psychologically from his solitary appearance for Englandagainst Australia, at Old Trafford, in 1902. He dropped a catch off Joe Darling, who played the decisive innings of the match; came in when England needed eight to win, scored four, and then was bowled. He and posterity blamed him for losing the match and the rubber with it. After the match he said to Len Braund, 'Never mind, I've got a little kid at home who'll make up for it for me." At that time, Maurice was seven years old, had shown no aptitude for cricket, yet lived to stand umpire when Maurice opened the bowling for England.

That failure stayed with Fred Tate; he never encouraged his son to play cricket, nor gave him a moment's coaching. Sussex asked the boy to come to Hove for a trial; and, when he was 16, took him on the staff, as he subsequently thought, out of sympathy rather than outstanding ability. They hesitated long, however, about re-engaging him after the First World War; and for several seasons he tagged along as a run-of-the-mill batsman, and an inferior replica of his father as a slow to medium off-spinner.

It was, as both of them recalled, on July 26, 1922, that Maurice Tate bowled out Philip Mead with the first ball he ever delivered in the style that was to make him the finest of his kind. On the first day of the Eastbourne Week, Hampshire, making heavy weather of it, took all day to score 272 for 7. After two wickets fell early, Mead and Kennedy put their heads down and stayed. Tate, normally an amiable character, became irritated and, from his usual run, suddenly bowled the fastest ball he could. It pitched off stump to the left-handed Mead, came back and hit the top of leg. Philip Mead still remembered it vividly 28 years afterwards: 'It was the first fast ball I ever saw Chubby Tate bowl."'Did your say anything to him, Philip?"'Say anything? Me? Not likely; I never encouraged bowlers."

Tate's captain, Arthur Gilligan, pressed him to develop this method and, retaining his original approach, he did so. In the season of 1923 he perfected it. England had no home series that year but in the Test Trial four of the Rest batsmen were dropped off him on the first morning. After lunch (at 200 for 4) he took five wickets for no runs. Quite apart from his 1168 runs, he took 219 wickets at less than 14 runs each; and Wisden described him as 'by general consent the best bowler in England".

In 1924 he entered into his kingdom. With his first ball in Test cricket he bowled Susskind; he and Gilligan bowled out South Africa in their first innings for 30.

Australia 1924-25 was his greatest triumph. Virtually without support, he sent down more overs than any other two English bowlers and set a record for an England- Australia Test series with 38 wickets, as many as the next three English bowlers put together; not only at the best average, but half that of all but one other. The Australian batsmen simply concentrated on keeping him out while the runs came at the other end.

His figures are plain to see. In 39 Tests between his 29th and 37th birthdays - with Bradman as a major opponent - he took 155 wickets for England at 26.16 apiece. Three times he took over 200 wickets and scored a thousand runs in a season (that has only been done on four other occasions): and, against Hampshire at Portsmouth in 1927, going in with Ted Bowley, he scored 101 out of 144 for the first wicket in 68 minutes; and, putting out both Hampshire opening batsmen in each innings, took 10 for 95. He took Bradman's wicket on five of the 13 occasions it fell in Tests when they both played.

He was unlucky when, joining Jardine's 1932-33 team in Australia, he had no place in his captain's fast leg-theory strategy. Tate joined the party late and in his first match - against New South Waleshe was not given the new ball. When he did come on, though, he took four of the first five wickets - of Wendell Bill, Bradman, Kippax and McCabefor 53, in a total of 273. Because he threatened the master plan, though, he was left out of the Test side and played only one more first-class match in Australia. He joined what he called 'the ground staff" and that was effectively the end of his Test career.

Consider him: at slow or fast-medium, his approach never varied; two short walking paces, six running strides and a four-foot leap. Apparently clumsily built, with heavy, drooping shoulders; deep chest; wide bottom; strong legs and large feet, yet, when he gathered himself to bowl he was a splendidly rhythmic physical specimen. In the moment before delivery, when the left arm pointed high and the right was drawn back like a great trigger, he was the essence of poised power. Then he plunged through in the most perfect action that can be conceived. The left foot drove into the ground so fiercely that George Cox tell how, especially when the ground was wet, he felt it shake under him as he stood at cover point. When Maurice Tate was on song, the great swing of his arm in the follow through often swept the ground so savagely as to scrape blood from his finger joints. When the sea-fret descended on the Hove ground he was - legendarily in his own time - unplayable.

His best ball was the outswinger; though sometimes he made the ball go the other way. Harold Gilligan, who often captained him, thought that when Tate asked for another short leg he was beginning to tire. At his best he bowled to three slips, gully, third man, cover, mid-off, mid-on and square short leg. He always wanted his wicketkeeper standing up to the stumps - to aim at - which some found difficult; and was possible only because of his immense accuracy.

He has been likened to Alec Bedser and certainly they were both fast-medium bowlers; but technically they were quite different. Tate never commanded the leg-cutter as Bedser did. He bowled 'long-fingered"; seam between index and second fingers and, from his high action, let the ball do the rest. Once he bowled out Frank Woolley who, as he passed him, said 'You meant that to go the other way."'I never know which way it's going," said Maurice, 'so I'm bloody sure you don't."

His great gift was pace off the pitch. In his pairing with Arthur Gilligan it was said that Gilligan was positively faster through the air: but Tate was quite as fast off the wicket. Frank Lee recalls Tom Young, the old Somerset pro, telling him when he first went out to face Tate: 'Play forward to him for the first hour." Feeling 'in", Lee played back and the ball was through him before he could line it up.

In that suspension of an apparent law of physics Maurice Tate was unique. Where others came through little more than half-stump high, he, in his great era, made the ball snarl about the knuckles. For more than a dozen years no batsman in the world was his master.