Hedley Brian Taber – Herbert or plain Herbie to his mates – finally lost his battle with ill health on Friday.
He had suffered breathing problems from serious asthma ever since I got to know him on our first tour, in 1966-67. Despite his health struggles, he seemed to have nine lives like a cat; this turned out to be his final one.
A couple of years ago his wife, Fran, sent me a text saying, “Herbie’s going into hospital and he won’t be coming out.” Lo and behold, he was soon back at the retirement village and we were having our regular Saturday-morning snooker game, followed by a couple of glasses of red wine. At a younger age, when people asked how he was, I’d say, “If Tabsy gets past 45 he’ll make 90.”
Sadly he fell just short, but he displayed staunch fighting qualities to reach 83. He was resilient; he never complained – just got on with life and did his job. The cat was not well at times but he was alive until Friday.
In his prime he was a fine Australian wicketkeeper and probably the most popular cricketer I ever met. Wherever you went, people would ask, “How’s Tabsy?” You’d tell them nothing had changed, Brian was still battling. The reply was always the same: “Isn’t he a good bloke?”
His first Test was in South Africa in 1966-67 and he claimed a very creditable eight dismissals – it would have been nine but one local umpire was extremely patriotic.
In December 1968 as New South Wales captain Herbie equalled a then world record of 12 dismissals in a game against South Australia. We used to joke: “How did you get a stumping off [legspinner] Dick Guy? He never spun a ball.”
Despite Tabsy’s prowess as a smooth keeper with good footwork, I worried about him after he was struck in the eye by a bail in a charity game. But then in 1982 we took an old-timers’ team to play in Fiji. Tabsy was our keeper and we had three wrist-spinners in the side. When David Sincock, the biggest spinner of them all, hit the edge of the matting with his first delivery, it flew past the right-hand batter’s left shoulder. Tabsy collected the ball easily and casually tossed it to me at slip. The next ball hit the same spot on the matting and shot straight along the ground, just missing off stump. Herbie again easily collected the ball and casually tossed it to me at slip.
I stopped worrying about his damaged eyesight then.
We admired Taber as a keeper but were wary of him on the golf course. He was a regular miracle worker and would often produce unbelievable shots. During a game in India in 1969, he produced his piece de resistance. The first two holes were halved, so the match rested on a par three of 155 yards. Tabsy caught a bit of the sandy tee and then flubbed his iron. He exclaimed: “Might be time for the Texas Wedge.”
He proceeded to give the ball a good tap with the putter and it gained much needed impetus from a strategically placed rock about six inches from the pin. Its last roll was into the hole. Quite unperturbed, he marched to the hole and collected his ball, noting as he replaced the pin: “We’ve got our par.”
Tabsy retained his incredibly quick sense of humour to the end. He also helped other keepers, including Rod Marsh, the man who took his place in the Australia side.
He was an extremely good manager and one of his great contributions to Australian cricket came when, in 1991, he managed an underage side to the Caribbean. At departure he was told by a naïve official: “If [Shane] Warne puts a foot out of place, send him home.” Tabsy quite rightly ignored the advice, made Warne the social secretary, and after his playing success on the tour, told me: “By the way the young bloke is a really good legspinner.”
Tabsy was a good cricketer, he understood the game and knew how to handle people. Importantly he was a good bloke. We all miss the gentleman wicketkeeper.
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