Pringle column: So long Tonker! A leader you had to follow

By Derek Pringle

In the Essex dressing rooms of yesteryear, famous for their characters, none was bigger or more boldly defined than Brian ‘Tonker’ Taylor, who died two weeks ago at the age of 84.

Captain of the county from 1967-72, Taylor, a wicket-keeper/batsman of great determination, dragged an underachieving county to the cusp of greatness it would later achieve. Just as Nasser Hussain’s England side laid the foundations for the success it achieved under Michael Vaughan, so too did Tonker’s Essex pave the way for the glories under Keith Fletcher and Graham Gooch.

Naturally paternalistic in his instincts and distinctly reactionary in most of his views, Taylor tended to be the butt of the mostly young  Essex dressing-room’s humour. He took his stick well, though, and while there was a generational gap between him and most of his players, their deep fondness for him was clear. It is often said that leaders need not be loved only respected, but with Tonker it was both.

The stories about him as Essex captain are legend and they still talk of his masterplan to dismiss Geoffrey Boycott in 1972. At the peak of his game, Boycott had taken double hundreds off Essex’s attack at Colchester in the previous two seasons. But he was a compulsive hooker, something Tonker felt he could exploit through Keith Boyce, the team’s West Indian fast bowler.

To have his bowler in peak condition to deliver: “The quickest bumper you’ve ever bowled, Boycey son,” Tonker gave him the previous match off, though Boycey’s idea of rest was to go to the Walthamstow dog track to punt and drink plenty of gin.

If the plan sounds primitive it was, though by way of subterfuge Boyce was instructed to pitch the first two balls up at medium pace, to get Boycs on the front foot, before delivering the coup de grace. This subtlety was supplemented by Tonker pushing another man back on the hook just as Boyce was running in for that all-important third ball, a move not strictly legal and one that caused all the hoo-ha between Mike Gatting and umpire Shakoor Rana in the infamous Faisalabad Test of 1987.

As expected, Boycott patted the first two balls back to mid-off, at which point the wink-wink-nudge-nudge routine went into action. Miraculously for a man who liked a late night, Boycey remembered his instructions. As Boycott shaped to hook, Tonker, from his vantage point behind the stumps, turned to the men set deep on the leg-side and bellowed – “CATCH IT!!!”

Trouble was, Tonker had turned his eyes to where he thought the ball was headed and not to where it had actually gone, which was off Boycott’s gloves and through to him, from where it quickly went to ground. Still, despite the fluff, the masterplan remained a minor triumph – Boycott only went on to make 121, and not one of the big double hundreds which had spawned the idea in the first place.

My own close dealings with Tonker came later after he’d retired from first-class cricket, initially with the Essex Second XI, of which he was captain/mentor, and then with Cambridge, were he was the University’s cricket coach. On both occasions his influence on me was crucial. A player with 22 seasons’ experience at the top, including a tour of South Africa with England in 1956/57, his knowledge of the game was extensive, even if his psychology wasn’t. They say cricketers prefer the game to be simplified, well Tonker’s attitude, especially towards the opposition, was binary. They were either prats or plonkers, while his own team were largely brilliant and blameless.

He could deliver a bollocking though, such as the time I couldn’t bowl for Essex’s ‘Dinky Doos’ because I was laid low by a dodgy curry. As he went round the team delivering his post-mortem he got to me and said – “And you, you long streak of p**s, stay off the exotic f***ing food or you’ll have to play in nappies.” He meant it too, at least the first bit, insisting for a while, on away matches, that I take steak and chips with him rather than head off for a ‘Ruby Murray’.

On another occasion, this time at Cambridge after Sussex had made 349 for nine declared, he delivered a pep talk before the start of our innings. “Right, you, you and you are each going to make a hundred to stick it up these show ponies from the South coast,” he said pointing at our top three.

“Excuse me Brian,” said Ian Peck, one of the openers, “but this is only my second game of the season. A hundred does seem a bit optimistic.”

“Alright,” he said. “You can get fifty.”

The power of positive thinking is not always a mysterious force for good. Forty minutes later we were 28 for four, going on to eventually lose the match by an innings and 40 runs.

Some of his aphorisms, fondly known as ‘Tonkerisms’, will outlive him now. Things like: “Physios? Good players don’t need them and bad players aren’t worth it.” Or, to bowlers: “Got a bad back, son? You just need a good dump.”

A no-nonsense man, impeccably turned out on or off the field (his pressed whites and blanco-ed pads and boots were legend), he could neverunderstand those prone to histrionics or scruffy dress.

His formative years came at a time when men sported short backs and sides, most married their childhood sweethearts and life was as complicated as you made it. Another of his firm beliefs was to never show weakness to an opponent. Once when a batsmen went down in pain after being struck on the chest by a bouncer his response was unsympathetic. “The ball’s only on you for a second, how can it possibly hurt?”

If he ever possessed self-doubt, and he must have done at some stage in a game renowned for it, he kept it well hidden.

While he believed in tough love for his charges he did it with humour and decency, something they reciprocated with a lasting devotion. It is why, until he became too infirm to travel, my old Cambridge teammates – Millsy, Doc, Hodge, Busby, Gumby and occasionally me – would take him to lunch at the RAC Club. It became an annual event and one of the highlights in our diaries – a hopeless but happy cricket team reminiscing with their old coach over times each of us cherished greatly. As cricketers of all stripes will know, it doesn’t get much better than that.

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