Herbie Taylor: An early South African great


Herbie Taylor, the first great South African cricketer since Aubrey Faulkner, was born May 5, 1889. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a champion of his era who could be compared with any of his contemporaries in terms of stature, led South Africa on either side of World War I, and mastered turf on England and Australia as well as matting wickets in South Africa.

When Herbie Taylor grew up, England and Australia were the only forces in world cricket with South Africa trying to make a pull off the occasional upset. Despite their army of googly bowlers at the turn of the 20th century and the odd individual contribution here and there, it was Taylor who emerged as the first cricket hero since Aubrey Faulkner.

Nimble-footed, aggressive, and an outstanding player off the back-foot, Taylor was considered a master on matting-wickets — the prevalent form of pitches in South Africa during his era, though he also played some splendid innings overseas as well. He was an excellent judge of length, and often played with a bat so straight that it seemed almost unreal.

His numbers — 2,936 runs from 42 Tests at 40.77 with 7 centuries and 13,105 runs from 206 First-Class matches at 41.86 with 30 hundreds were formidable given the era.The numbers would have been far more impressive, had the First World War not robbed him of his best days when he was at his peak.

Neville Cardus went on to call him ‘one of the six greatest batsmen of the post-Grace period’ (but then, this being Cardus, his judgement need not be taken too seriously); Ian Peebles complimented him with the words ‘the ideal model for all aspiring batsmen’. And EW Swanton would have told you how prolific he was on turf in Australia and England as well as on matting wickets in England and Australia.

Early days

Taylor made his First-Class debut for Natal against a visiting MCC side in the South African summer of 1909-10. Playing against an attack comprising of Wilfred Rhodes, Colin Blythe, and Frank Woolley, the youngster scored a solid 55, and opening the batting in the second innings, added 30 more: his scores were second-highest in each innings, after Dave Nourse. The innings impressed the selectors, and Taylor became a regular feature for Natal.

He scored his first First-Class hundred against Griqualand West next season, top-scoring in each innings with scores of 62 and 173. All doubts regarding Taylor making it to the boat to England for the very long 1912 tour (including the first ever Triangular Tournament in the history of the sport) were gone.

Taylor’s first significant innings on the tour came against Worcestershire, where he scored 83 on a horror of a pitch where the home county were bowled out for 50 in their first innings. The innings earned him a Test cap in the Test against Australia at Old Trafford. Taylor did not start his Test career well; he scored a duck in his first innings, and after 3 Tests his career aggregate stood at 60 runs at a pedestrian average of 10.

Then came the Lord’s Test. Taylor, demoted to No. 6, came out to bat at 56 for 4, and lost Louis Tancred soon. From 73 for 5 Taylor added 97 with Louis Stricker in about an hour, in an amazing display of technique, temperament, and controlled aggression, and carried on even after Stricker’s dismissal. He was last out, scoring 93 from 170 balls with 12 fours, and had shepherded the tail very efficiently.

The 1913-14 series

England’s tour of 1913-14 in South Africa will be remembered forever due to the contest between Sydney Barnes and Herbie Taylor — the kind of which has seldom been witnessed in the history of Test cricket. The Barnes vs Taylor contest is part of cricket folklore, and a significant part of that is justified, but a lot of that was probably overrated.

England won the five-Test series 4-0, mostly due to Barnes’ outstanding bowling, but Taylor stood calm amidst the ruins, trying his level best to bail South Africa out every time he batted.

Taylor had earned quite a reputation by then: he had scored a career-best 250 not out against Transvaal, and was generally in sublime form on the matting-wickets at home, and was ready to take on Barnes. He was also the newly-appointed captain of South Africa, and he provided one of the greatest examples of leading by example in the history of the sport.

In the first Test at Durban, Taylor opened batting, and scored a 109 in the first innings (which was also his debut as a Test captain) where nobody else crossed 20, but South Africa collapsed against Barnes (10 for 105 in the Test) for 182 and 111, and lost by an innings. He scored 29 and 40 in the second Test at Johannesburg, but the unplayable Barnes took an incredible 17 for 159 in the Test, and South Africa were once again routed by an innings.

In the third Test, also at Johannesburg, Taylor scored 70 in the second innings, but once again Barnes (8 for 128) led England to another cakewalk. It was in a tour match that Taylor finally had his revenge. He simply needed his bowlers to back him, and Claude Carter, Joe Cox, and Len Tuckett responded to the call by bowling out MCC for 132. When it was Natal’s turn to bat, Taylor batted with great care, shielding his teammates against virtually a Test side (including Barnes, who would take 7 for 114 in the match). Taylor batted on and on, scoring 91 out of a team total of 153. Horace Chapman (11) was the only other one to have reached double-figures. The English fought back despite Carter’s six-wicket haul. And then, when Natal were in trouble while chasing 216, Taylor rescued his side from 26 for 2 and pulled off the chase. Taylor scored exactly 100, and it was good enough. He had pulled off a miracle victory against the all-conquering tourists single-handedly.

The fourth Test at Durban saw a 93 from Taylor, once again against Barnes (who took 14 for 144), and he contributed with 42 and 87 in the fifth Test in Barnes’ absence, as England won easily, yet again. Taylor scored 508 runs at 50.80 in the series — he was the highest-scorer on either side against what Cardus referred to as a ‘fantastically swinging, bouncing, late-turning attack’. The attack included Barnes, who toyed with the batsmen and finished the series with 49 wickets at an absurd 10.93, taking seven five-fors in eight innings, and three 10-fors in 4 Tests.

A stunned Cardus wrote: “Yet at his deadliest Barnes met a worthy opponent in HW Taylor, who played with ease and assurance in each Test match… how possibly could any mortal batsman be subjected to a severer ordeal — Barnes on matting, with wickets falling at the other end all the time?” After this series Taylor became renowned all over the world.Cardus wrote about his batting series: “Perhaps the most skilful of all Test performances from a batsman.”HS Altham mentioned that “the English cricketers were unanimous that finer batting than his against Barnes at his best they never hoped to see.”

War days

Unfortunately, the World War intervened just when Taylor’s Test career was about to bloom. Taylor served the Royal Field Artillery for a year and a half and the Royal Flying Corps for two more years. He was eventually awarded the Military Cross for his unwavering efforts.

Return to cricket

Cricket resumed after five years, and Taylor was back in business almost immediately. Playing for Natal, he scored 76 against Transvaal, and followed it up with a 150 against Orange Free State. He seemed to have picked up almost from where he had left off over half-a-decade back. The touring Australians crushed Natal by 193 runs, but Taylor stood among the ruins, scoring 66 and 23 in a low-scoring match where the hosts collapsed in front of Jack Gregory, who took 11 for 98, and Arthur Mailey.

Having had a taste of the Australian attack, the South African captain was ready. His best days were possibly behind him, but that did not stop Taylor from scoring runs. It was not an excellent series, but he still scored 200 runs at 33.33, which was not really a bad performance, given the pedigree of the Australian side — and to his credit, his team held the Aussies to a 0-1 margin in the three-Test series.

England, again

England returned to South Africa the following year, and once again Taylor lifted his game against them to his usual astronomic standards. South Africa were bowled out for 148 after Taylor won the toss in the first Test at Johannesburg, but Jimmy Blanckenberg struck back with a six-wicket haul to restrict the English to 182. And then, with South Africa at 33 for 1, their captain walked out bat: the bat looked menacingly straight and indomitable, and as Taylor grew in confidence, the star-studded English attack (comprising of the likes of Arthur Gilligan, Alex Kennedy, Vallance Jupp, and Frank Woolley) got more and more demoralised.

William Brunn contributed with fifty, but that was all. Taylor eventually scored 176, and raised his team to 420. It was an innings of the highest quality, and the English batsmen, despite their pedigree, did not have a chance, and lost by a whopping 168 runs. Brunn was the only other batsman in the Test to have scored a fifty, which probably showed the magnitude of Taylor’s performance.

It remained the only Test South Africa managed to win under Taylor. England pulled off a heist in the second Test at Cape Town, winning by a single wicket in another low-scoring Test; Taylor scored 68, which was the only fifty of the Test other than Bob Catterall’s 76. The South African captain continued with his superlative consistency. Taylor once again top-scored for South Africa with 91 in the rain-washed third Test at Old Wanderers.Chasing 326 for a victory in the fourth Test at Newlands, Taylor began aggressively, and scored 101 to lift South Africa to 247 from four from a hopeless 32 for 2. Stumps were eventually called when it could have been anybody’s game.

It came down to the fifth Test at Durban, then: England acquired a lead of 102 in the first innings, and eventually asked South Africa to chase 344 for a victory. Once again Taylor fought a solo battle; had he received any kind of support from the other end he might have pulled off a miracle victory. As things turned out, Dave Nourse was the second-highest scorer with 25, and South Africa were dismissed for 234 despite Taylor’s gallant 102. For the second time in his career Taylor had scored 500 runs in a series. This time he went even a step further, scoring 582 runs at 64.67 with 3 hundreds, and was easily the top-scorer on either side.

It was the highest series aggregate by any Test captain at that point of time, until Don Bradman went past it in 1936. His South African record of three centuries in a series also stood until Jacques Kallis went past him in 2003-04. The love affair with England was on.

Later years

Taylor stood down as captain after an indifferent tour of England (though he played well in the tour matches, scoring 1,898 runs at 42.17, which made him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year). The extra burden of leading the side had perhaps got the better of him. An article on Wisden ran thus: “There can be no doubt that the anxiety of captaining a beaten team told upon him and that he would have done far better if he had had nothing to think about but his own batting.”

After his resignation, Taylor moved to Transvaal, and continued to play with equal domination. He scored a 120 against Western Province almost immediately, and followed it up with 153 against Orange Free State. He followed these with consecutive innings of 169 against Orange Free State and 116 against Natal, and eventually scored 825 runs over two seasons at an astonishing 75.

As England made their return tour, Taylor scored his customary hundred — a 101 at Johannesburg under the new captain ‘Nummy’ Deane. The hundred turned out to be crucial as South Africa went on to win the Test by four wickets, despite some excellent bowling by Sam Staples – and eventually managed to draw the series 2-2.

In 1929, then past his 40th birthday, Taylor was probably past his prime, but still went on a third tour of England — mostly to mentor a batch of rookies. There had also been speculations about him not being at his best overseas, but he managed to counter all criticism with his performance that season.

He played only three Tests in the series. In the fourth Test at Old Trafford, he scored a valiant 70, but could not avoid an inevitable innings defeat. After England were bowled out for 258 in the last Test at The Oval, South Africa found themselves reeling at 20 for 3. Taylor, all of 40, added 214 with Deane, and eventually scored 121 (his first overseas Test hundred) – the highest score of the Test. England were eventually saved by Herbert Sutcliffe’s twin tons.

With 221 runs at 55.25, he had managed to silence his critics. He scored his second consecutive hundred (after the Test at The Oval) when England visited again with a 117 at Cape Town. He scored two more fifties that series, and almost touched an average of fifty yet again — scoring 299 at 49.83. He eventually made a twin tour of Australia and New Zealand — at an age of almost 43 — which turned out to be his last. He scored 41 and 47 in his first Test on Australian soil (virtually playing a lone hand) but it was a familiar story, as South Africa were beaten by an innings. He also scored 78 and 84 at Adelaide, which remained his only two fifties of the series.

Then, when South Africa toured New Zealand for the first time, Taylor scored 113 in his first innings — against Auckland. He scored nine in his only innings of the Christchurch Test, which turned out to be his last, after which he announced his retirement. At the time of retirement, Taylor had scored 2,936 runs, seven hundreds and 17 fifties in Tests. He had also scored 2,001 of these runs at home.

All these remained South African records – the last of them till South Africa’s readmission in the early 1990s. His record of seven hundreds in South Africa-England Tests has still not been overtaken, and the 2,287 runs have only been surpassed by Bruce Mitchell. He had also scored a hundred on his captaincy debut, and largely due to the World War, led South Africa for 10 years 251 days, which remained a world record till Graeme Smith went past him.


Taylor continued to play on till 1935-36 — almost till an age of 47. He took part in seven Currie Cup championship titles —four with Natal and three with Transvaal. He finished his Currie Cup career with 3,226 runs at 58.65 with 12 hundreds. He turned out for one final match for Western Province against the visiting Australians, and scored 25 and 22.

Taylor spent the rest of his life staying near Newlands coaching schoolboys, and occasionally voicing opinions that were highly respected by everyone. He passed away on February 8, 1973.