I’ve been in the company of cricketing royalty this week. Two men from different parts of the world, but who both have connections with Derbyshire. In 1977 they were both named among Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Year, although neither could be classed as anything more than useful tail enders with the bat. Their skills lay in other areas in careers that took both men beyond 50 Tests.
The Council of Cricket Societies is exactly what you would expect, groups of cricket enthusiasts who meet to share their love of the game. Usually this is during the closed season to allow guest speakers from many diverse roles, including current and former players, administrators, writers and broadcasters. To mark the 30th anniversary of the Cheltenham society, a special evening was set aside to fit in with the diary of Michael Holding. He didn’t disappoint.
A regular in the Sky commentary box, Holding was a warm and engaging man, almost to the point of being gentle – a far cry from the fearsome pace he used to generate as a fast bowler. He clearly felt fortunate to be part of such a successful West Indies team, forming friendships that have continued to the present day with the likes of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and Andy Roberts. The late Malcolm Marshall, however, was a man Holding saw as peerless as a fast bowler. He recounted how Marshall would walk round the hotel with, under his trousers, sandbags strapped to his ankles. Marshall said it meant when he went out to bowl, he felt light on his feet. It was a ploy that spelt trouble for batsmen around the globe.
Holding’s county experience was at Derbyshire and Lancashire, but he was not a fan of what he saw as a punishing domestic schedule. Still a lean figure now at 59, he was always conscious of wear and tear on his body and turned down a lucrative contract to play for Sussex, having seen Vanburn Holder’s time at Worcestershire see him lose his express pace. What we subsequently saw was less of Holding, but to greater effect, with that long but rhythmical run that earned him the nickname “whispering death.” I can conclusively say he is not dead and neither does he whisper, unless he is out on Newmarket heath in the early morning watching horses work. Racing comes close as a second passion to cricket.
Holding’s Test career ended in February 1987, when he was 33. It was an age at which wicket keeper Bob Taylor, a county colleague for a couple of seasons at Derbyshire, had only a solitary England Test cap to his name. Little did he think his international career could still be ahead of him.
I met Taylor on Wednesday at his rural Staffordshire home. Born in Stoke, Taylor had hoped that playing for local club Bignall End under the eye of former Lancashire and England player Jack Ikin might get him a trial at Old Trafford, but instead progression into the Staffordshire team alerted Derbyshire instead. Taylor told of how on a wet day at Wolverhampton, the Derbyshire Chairman and Secretary offered the teenager £300 a season sat in the back of a black Rover enveloped by cigar smoke. He went on to stay for more than 20 years.
Taylor played in a different era. People were frugal. Elders were respected, and discipline was all around. He was more at home under two of England’s finest post war captains – Ray Illingworth and Mike Brearley – than under the more relaxed leadership of Ian Botham, although Botham was to be a central figure in Taylor’s career as both played in the memorable 1981 series against Australia. The Headingley match was famous not only for the result but for some of the Australian team, notably Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh, betting on England to win at 500-1 on the Monday afternoon. Taylor admitted he had almost placed a bet himself, but he was delayed by autograph hunters and the £2 stayed in his pocket. Only when Lillee was out the following day did Taylor’s concentration waiver and his thoughts drift to the Ladbrokes hut.
Taylor is 72 next month, but still works six months of the year for Duke’s, the cricket ball manufacturer. His nickname, “Chat”, came from his ability to schmooze guests at social events on tour, where he was frequently understudy to Alan Knott. It also earned him a role with long term Test sponsors Cornhill when he hung up his gloves for the last time. Taylor had worn them at school because on chilly days in the Potteries, his hands used to get cold and putting your hands in your pockets on the cricket field meant the cane. He figured what was commonly called the “back-stop” at least had warm hands. It was a simple decision that was to have a profound impact on his life.
Surprisingly, Taylor’s Test career never brought him face to face with the West Indies, so he would never have batted with Holding tearing in from the other end. Keeping wicket to him, though, with the foot movement that Taylor saw as so essential, would have been a joy in summers of 1983 and 1984 when they were team mates at county level. Such men are why cricket is a sport with so many stories to tell.
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