Cricket

The golden years of Ross Taylor

Ross Taylor has never looked more at ease at the crease. But, at 33, the Black Caps master batsman is entering the twilight years of his career. Steve Deane clambers over the boundary fence in Nelson for a quick chat about what the future may hold.

Ross Taylor props straight onto the front foot.

“I was expecting someone official looking, maybe with accreditation or something?”

This mildly passive-aggressive chide is a reference both to my attire – shorts, T-shirt, bare feet – and the fact I’ve clearly just emerged from the Saxton Oval post-match spectator throng for our hastily arranged interview.

The words are playful, but there’s a measure of steel woven into them. The 33-year-old senior pro has taken control of the interview before we’ve even got through the introductions. That’s Taylor in a nutshell these days. Relaxed, confident, in total control of his domain.

“That’s not how we roll,” I respond with a chuckle. “Have you heard of Newsroom?”

Taylor: “Hmm. I’ve heard of Newsboy.”

Ahem.

After playing a bit-part role in the Black Caps’ sedate T20 victory over the West Indies, Taylor has accepted our interview request at short notice. He likes a briefing. The subject, I’m midway through telling him far too verbosely, is the future.

“I’m going home,” he interjects. He has been ‘rested’ for the final two T20s against the West Indies, and doesn’t appear overly thrilled by the decision.

Being left out the Black Caps side for T20 matches – as he somewhat bafflingly was for much of last summer – was a subject slated for the end of the interview. Having assumed it would be a bit of a sore point, the plan was to offer a few gentle throw-down questions about how Taylor’s exceptional form, poise and mental application before broaching the touchy subject of his T20 snubbing.

“It is what it is,” shrugs a man who has mastered the art of expressing just enough disappointment to make his feelings known, while stopping short of generating a negative headline.

“You listen to what the coaching and support staff want. A few players have been rested. Kane [Williamson] and obviously Timmy [Southee]. It is two T20 games. You never like to be rested but at the same time it is nice to spend some time with the family.”

Assuredly on the front foot

So he’d rather be playing than learning how to master the stand-up paddleboard he received for Christmas?

“You’ve got to respect the decision. You always want to play for your country.”

Taylor front-footing the awkward question means we’re now conducting this interview in reverse.

“It’s a good job it’s print and not radio then, isn’t it?” he muses.

And there it is again. Subtle but assured. The veteran in total control as he brings up what must be a least a quadruple century of stand-up interviews for his country.

It hasn’t always been like this. At the press conference when he was announced as Daniel Vettori’s successor as captain of the Black Caps in 2011, Taylor appeared ill at ease. Appearing temporarily overwhelmed, he drifted dangerously close to waters marked ‘sorry, what was the question again’?

Look at him now: pointing out that the medium doesn’t require chronological consistency; gently but unmistakably wresting back control, asserting dominance over his domain. And that, unmistakably, is the hallmark of what are almost certainly the golden years of Luteru Ross Poutoa Lote Taylor as a cricketer.

His only peers at the very top of the New Zealand cricket batting tree are his late mentor Martin Crowe and the precocious young captain Williamson. So when Taylor strides to the crease these days, he takes with him an aura of assuredness that only a very few ever possess.

We may be chewing the fat in Nelson, but it is Taylor’s display in Hamilton that has brought us here. Statistically, the undefeated 107 Taylor stroked on Day Three of a routine Black Caps test win over the West Indies (incredibly such a thing exists these days) in December was significant. It tied Crowe and Williamson’s mark of 17 test centuries, and elevated his average to 48.04 – within sight of the 50-mark that inscribes a player indelibly onto the list of true greats.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that you are only a couple of bad scores away from losing your confidence. So don’t look too far ahead.”

- Ross Taylor

But the numbers didn’t tell the full story of what could have been mistaken for an otherwise unremarkable entry into the pantheon of fine Taylor knocks. The mark on Mitchell Santner’s helmet where it was clunked by fired-up Bajan paceman Miguel Cummins, or Henry Nicholls hopelessly fending a Cummins snorter to the keeper, don’t get a mention in the statistical wash-up of Taylor’s 273-minute, 198-ball masterclass. But those incidents spoke to its quality. The bounce of the Seddon Park pitch was variable enough to trouble all but the finest of players. And Taylor was utterly untroubled.

Others hopped, fended and weaved. Taylor calmly regarded anything short of a length as a mild insult, either smashing the ball to the mid-wicket fence or slipping languidly like a boxer who saw the punch coming a week ago.

“People have been saying I look at ease,” he agrees. “It is nice. At this stage of your career you don’t worry about the small things: just go out and bat, trust your routines and, more often than not, you’ll have success.

“I’m pretty relaxed at the moment. I just go and bat. It has taken a few years to get to that stage.”

Just over 10 years, in fact. A decade on from when he made his test debut against South Africa in Johannesburg (mustering 15 before becoming one of Jacques Kallis’ 292 tests scalps in his first dig, followed by a two-ball four in the second innings), Taylor appears to have truly worked out his game.

The batsman who once sheepishly admitted he got bored batting long periods in first-class cricket, now appears content to linger at the crease for as long as fate permits. He seldom, if ever, contributes to his own downfall these days.

In fairness to Taylor, he put away his beloved slog sweep years ago, and has played with great responsibility for the majority of his career. He’s been a complete player for some time. The subtle shift in his countenance is merely the final piece in an elegantly-constructed puzzle, the combination of some fine-tuning with mental skills coach Pete Sanford and the serenity that comes with age and experience.

Ducking the bouncer

Ross Taylor is at the peak of his powers. The question for Kiwi cricket fans enjoying an unparalleled era of success is: how long for? How much longer does a player who has already hinted that the rigours of touring have become less tolerable plan to ride the wave? And how long will the wave remain steady under his feet?

“There is going to be a stage in the next couple of years where I am not going to be in as good form as I’d like to be,” he says.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that you are only a couple of bad scores away from losing your confidence. So don’t look too far ahead.”

How can we not? How can we not fret about the prospect of a more balanced family life combined with some relatively stress-free fast cash from the global T20 franchise circuit diverting Taylor down a path already prematurely trodden by Brendon McCullum and Mitchell McClenaghan?

Throw us a bone.

“As you get older you don’t try to look too far. You’ve got to maintain fitness and health, and your mental state, first and foremost, along with your family. It is just balancing all that. The calves and hammies are [good], touch wood.

“I’ve always said I’d love to play in the [2019] world cup. In saying that, if I am fit and healthy and still enjoying my cricket … I’ve got three kids now and it is pretty full-on, but I don’t think the world cup has to be the end. But I’ve still got to deserve a spot in the side. Hopefully I can continue to work hard on my game so that when I do pull stumps I can be at the top of my game.”

What would that pinnacle look like?

Statistics are the lifeblood of cricket. What numbers would do justice to Taylor; provide enough contentment to pull the pin?

“Statistics probably motivated me a few years ago. They are not the be-all and end-all. Whatever average and number of centuries I end up with, hopefully the family and friends are proud of what I’ve achieved.

“In the past I have had a lot of goals and I still have a lot of goals. But they are there for when things aren’t going well or you need a bit of a push. If you get into your processes, train hard and get into the groove those sort of things take care of themselves.”

Short-form feast

And now back to the start. If there’s one facet of his game that hasn’t, perhaps, done justice to his ability it is T20 cricket.

With the Black Caps indulging in a steady diet of the shortest form of the game (10 games against the West Indies, Pakistan, Australia and England) this summer, Taylor has good reason to want to reestablish himself as a vital cog in the T20 side. If he doesn’t, those despised ‘rest’ periods will become annoyingly frequent.

He’s also presumably not thrilled with international T20 numbers that read: average 24.7, strike rate 120.4 over 74 matches?

“Statistically Twenty20 is not something I’ve had as much success in, but when you bat in the middle order you don’t get as many opportunities. Like today, you get four or five overs – like Tom Bruce did – and you have to play your shots and you get low scores.

“It is a tough place to bat. If there is any place to bat it in Twenty20, it is that top-three. But you’ve got to earn that right – and when you do get an opportunity make the most of it.”

The vast majority of the sell-out crowd have left, however a hardy group of fans have been waiting patiently by the Saxton Oval boundary. As our chat peters out, they summon Taylor for a group selfie, asking him to poke out his not inconsiderable tongue – his now-traditional way of marking a significant innings.

Taylor happily obliges. The tongue-poking ritual dates back to 2007, when he first produced it following an ODI century against Australia, as a cheeky swipe at the selectors who left him out of the 2006 Champions Trophy squad.

Back then it was a spur-of-the-moment act of a player still far from fully-at-ease with his place in the world. A decade on, Taylor’s tongue is still a regular feature of the Kiwi summer: a reassuring reminder that one of New Zealand cricket’s true greats is still with us. And isn’t going anywhere just yet.

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