Non-stop source of information

Wicketkeepers love to talk, to recount the myths and mysteries of the game, to recall the old days, the new days, the times when stars were brilliant and characters lived, writes Ted Corbett.

Of all the guys I met around the world cricket in 30 years — must have been close to 1,000 I reckon — I loved wicketkeepers the most.

Intelligent enough to move a few yards towards the boundary if they saw a bowler mark out a long run, bright enough to cease their chatter as the bowler ran in and strong enough in the knees to crouch all day behind the stumps — that was the stumper you saw.

Behind that lay the real character and, as far as I was concerned, a non-stop source of information.

They loved to talk, to recount the myths and mysteries of the game, to recall the old days, the new days, the times when stars were brilliant and characters lived, when batsmen scored hundreds before lunch, treble centuries on the first day; when bowlers did not know they had enough but carried on regardless and when umpires were full of wise and witty remarks.

Meet one after play and their conversation often began with “Hello, did I ever tell you about the time...”

A friend and I once took two of them to dinner one night — and, believe me, we never got a word in edgewise all evening.

The nicest was undoubtedly Bob Taylor. He was also one of the best and if there had been justice on earth he would never have been out of the England teams. One of his Derbyshire team-mates remembers: “If Bob dropped a ball — any ball — the team talked about nothing else for the next week.”

Sadly, he played in the days when Alan Knott averaged double the Taylor batting figures and rescued England repeatedly so that the selectors took the obvious way out and made Taylor the reserve.

“I toured Australia three times as reserve to Knotty and had to teach myself that there were a dozen keepers back home who would love to have gone on those trips even if it did entail helping Knotty, watching him keep wicket immaculately and bat brilliantly and wishing I was out there,” he told me.

In the end Knott had to cry off with an injury — imaginary, some said — so that Taylor could get in a Test match in New Zealand. Nice guys, both of them but Knott was rather more taciturn and while he had nothing else to do Taylor earned the nickname Chat.

His second forte was chatting, with anyone and everyone. After his playing days were done his skills as a conversationalist stood him in good stead, first as a public relations person in the Press box and then as a cricket goods salesman.

So we all got to know him well — not that we had not had many a chat with him during his career — right down to the day he laid aside his smart PR clothes and went straight out on to the field and kept wicket to stand in when Bruce French was injured. Bob was in his mid-40s by this time and the selectors quickly put in a call to Bobby Parks of Hampshire.

“I knew from the start I could not last half a Test,” Taylor said. “The knees could not take a whole day of bending and crouching. But it was fun while it lasted. Did I ever tell you...” And off we went on another trip down memory lane.

Then there was Farokh Engineer, suave, clever, a great keeper and a tireless opening batsman for India and Lancashire. At a moment’s notice — it is always the case in newspapers — I was asked to write a piece entitled ‘The Story Behind Lancashire’s Rise to the Top’.

So I went to see Rookie — as he was always known — at his home in Manchester and listened for several hours while he explained just how the team had planned their Cup victory at Lord’s.

Alec Stewart was another who liked to tell the tale. I traced him to a match in Sussex one Sunday afternoon when I heard he was going to be asked if he would keep wicket, captain England and open the innings against West Indies at Lord’s.

“I’ve heard the same story,” he said. “So I am prepared. When Ray Illingworth” — then Supremo, manager, chief selector and, as his book describes him, One-Man Committee — “asks if I will do it all I’ll say ‘Is that for three times the usual fee, boss?’” This declaration was followed by Stewart’s trademark grin so I don’t know if he asked Illingworth the question but I do know it was all worthwhile because Stewart, diving a huge distance to his left, caught Brian Lara, one-handed when Lara had just reached 50 and looked ready to steer West Indies to victory.

I saw that day too what a talent Stewart had for captaincy, speaking so directly that the lad he was dropping could not take offence. “You are not playing today but we need you — seriously — on Tuesday for a more important match, so there is no need to be offended,” he said. It was a lesson for any young captain but then Stewart had been brought up in a sports household and must have absorbed many a lesson from his father Mickey, a long-term Surrey captain. He speaks in that same direct way on BBC now and reminds me why it is that I don’t miss every one of the 1,000 or so cricketers I met plying my trade around the world but I still remember all the wicket-keepers with great affection.