May 2, 2016

'The outpouring of emotion was like I'd died'

James Taylor, who was forced to retire at 26 due to a serious heart condition, talks about how his life has been turned upside down, and how he'll battle the illness just as he battled for his England career

James Taylor: "I curled up at the bottom of the stairs at Trent Bridge and waited for my mum" © Getty Images

Most of the time, when James Taylor talks of his playing career and the traumatic events of the last few weeks, he does so with sanguine good humour.

Most of the time, it feels like an uplifting story. It is, after all, a story of resilience and positivity, of the magnificence of the NHS, the benefits of a loving family and a wide support network. The goodwill of the cricket community.

And, most of all, it is the story of a young man's narrow escape from death. Given a fair wind, there is no reason Taylor cannot go on to enjoy a rich and rewarding life. As he knows better than most, that is not something to be taken for granted.

So most of the time, his story is life-affirming. He has chosen to give this interview - ESPNcricinfo did not request it - in the hope that he can inspire others going through traumatic experiences with his positive reaction to adversity, and so that he can thank all those who have supported him in recent times. Every health professional, every message on Twitter, every card or email: he has appreciated and taken strength from them.

It is only when reflecting on what he has lost that he falters. It is when he reflects on the international career that has been snatched away. It is when he considers how hard he had to work to gain the position he found himself in just a few weeks ago that the voice breaks and the tears flow. It is wonderful that he has lived to tell the tale, of course. But it is wretched that the career he deserved has been stolen from him.

It is worth, for a moment, reflecting on the events of April 6. He went into the day expecting to feature in England's Test and ODI teams this summer and feeling in better condition - both physically and technically - than ever before.

But, warming up for the second day's play at Fenner's, where his Nottinghamshire team were playing Cambridge MCCU, Taylor started to feel unwell.

"I had my morning net, felt great and then did the warm-up," he says now. "Towards the back end of the warm-up I turned to Brendan Taylor and said my chest isn't feeling great. It wasn't the normal rhythm and the tempo was really high.

James Taylor scored a century in his final innings in England colours © Getty Images

"I did a few more basic throws and then I went inside. It was about four degrees, really cold, and I knew something was wrong because the sweat from my head was pounding the floor. I was soaking wet. That's the first time I thought I was going to die."

The Nottinghamshire physio soon administered oxygen but, after a while lying in the dressing room, it was decided that Taylor would travel back to Nottingham with team-mate Jackson Bird and arrange a doctor's appointment for that evening.

Perhaps, in time, lessons can be learned here. Might more frequent and more thorough scans have revealed the problem at an earlier stage? Might someone at Nottinghamshire have called an ambulance earlier in the day, when he was still in Cambridge? The physio had thought fit to provide him with oxygen in the dressing room, after all. Why risk letting him travel back before seeing a doctor? And, most of all, having allowed him to return home, why simply drop him off at the ground? His mother subsequently found him lying at the foot of a flight of stairs that leads to the players' dining room. This story could easily have had a much darker ending.

But now is not the time for pointing fingers. Taylor was the fittest man in the Nottinghamshire squad and the only man in the England squad who could push Alastair Cook in England training exercises. He seemed an unlikely victim of heart problems and the team-mate who dropped him off did not know he had, in his anxious state, left his car and house keys in Cambridge. And in defence of everyone involved, it appears Taylor was keen to play down the incident at the time. In far from atypical English fashion, it seems he would rather have died than made a fuss. His girlfriend's insistence that she take him to hospital almost certainly saved his life.

"My heart was pounding relentlessly on the journey back from Cambridge," he says. "It was obviously not right. I knew it was out of sync. When we got back, I curled up at the bottom of the stairs at Trent Bridge and waited for my mum, who had another set of keys for my house. My mum found me. She took me home and I lay on the sofa.

"That's when I knew it was really bad. The whole sofa was vibrating and echoing with my heart beat. My place is always at least 24 degrees, but I was freezing. I crawled up the stairs and was sick. My body was clearly starting to pack up. My left shoulder was really hurting, which is the sign of a heart attack. My girlfriend came home, felt my heart and rang the doctor behind my back. The doc said 'take him to hospital immediately'.

"The MRI scan was the kicker. It showed how bad my heart was. It was worse than the worst-case scenario we had feared"

"I looked in the mirror. I was yellow. I know I don't look great at the best of times, but this time I looked really awful.

"The nurse saw me straight away, hooked me up to some machine and then immediately took me to the ICU [Intensive Care Unit]. The machine was going mental. It showed my heart was beating at 265 beats a minute - that's four beats a second - and they couldn't believe what they were seeing on the monitor. Doctors rushed around me. I thought to myself 'this isn't ideal'."

Drugs reduced his heartbeat to 65 beats - the moment his girlfriend, Josephine, describes as "the best moment of her life" - but doctors described the fact he remained conscious and walked into hospital as "a miracle" and compared the stress his heart had been under to "completing six marathons in five or six hours".

With blood tests suggesting he had suffered a heart attack - medics subsequently concluded otherwise - he was rushed to the cardiac unit. He spent 16 days in hospital in all, with Josephine sleeping on the floor beside him on the first night and then on a camp bed. "She left my side for seven hours in the entire period," he says, "and that was to make me food."

During those days, he was diagnosed with ARVC (arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy) and told that he could never exercise again. Plans to fit an internal defibrillator were delayed while further evaluations were carried out. He is currently wearing what he refers to "a life vest". It is attached to an external defibrillator that will, if required, provide the shock required to either regulate his heart or restart it should it stop. In the weeks ahead, he will have the internal defibrillator fitted.

"They kept telling me that it was a good job I was fit," he says. "I was in the best nick I have ever been physically."

James Taylor was a revelation at short leg during his final Test series in South Africa © Gallo Images

Tests conducted in recent days - he gave three blood tests a day - uncovered the fact that sometime in the last couple of years, he had contracted glandular fever.

"I have been playing international cricket with glandular fever," he says. "But I've always battled through being ill. I had a few things going on. But nothing that would stop me playing."

Might that determination have contributed to the problem? While AVRC is, 90% of the time, genetically inherited, is it possible that his training regime - and nobody hit the gym harder than Taylor - might have asked too much of his body? It is too early to say for sure as tests continue to ascertain exactly what happened and what limits will be put on him after the operation.

"I've an athletic heart," he explains. "I physically have a big heart. It's quite common in athletes. I trained a lot more than most cricketers.

"The doctor told me, a day or two in, that I could never exercise again. I, being me, thought, 'We'll see. I'll take three months off and I'll hit the back end of the season hard when it comes to the one-day stuff.'

"But the MRI scan was the kicker. It showed how bad my heart was. It was worse than the worst-case scenario we had feared. It turned my world upside down. Even cricket - the thing I'd die for - I wouldn't mind not doing as long as I can exercise. I was in hysterics. We all were.

"But then the doctor said, if it's any consolation, this condition is usually discovered in post-mortems. So you realise that I'm okay to be here at the minute.

"My girlfriend said: We could keep crying, or we could turn it around and think positively. Let's see how we can move forward and make the best of it. Let's think what I can do, not what I can't. So I took to social media and tried to be positive and let people know what I was going through. The amount of messages I've had from people saying I'm an inspiration or helping them with what they are going through, that has been a huge boost to me."

"I always think of the positives. This could have happened when I'm 20. I wouldn't have played for England, scored centuries for England or captained England"

The pain of losing his England career remains raw, though. After years of battling, after years of shrugging off the nonsense about the limitations of his stature - Sachin managed fine, didn't he? - he finally stood on the brink of a decent run in the Test and ODI sides. He scored a century for England, a List A match against South Africa A, in his last full game. He had a golden future. The unjustness of having that snatched away is not easy to bear.

"This is so typical," he says. "I've been battered down so many times. Maybe because of my size, I've always had to fight more than others.

"People say things like, 'Oh, I know what you're going through: my granddad had the same thing.' And I think, 'That's the difference. He was a granddad and I'm 26.'

"I had to fight so hard with England. I was bashed and bashed with my England career and, just as I start to come good - and I was going to come good this summer - this happens. It sums up my international career."

Just for a moment the tears flow. He insists, though, that he wants to continue the interview and soon is reflecting more on the glory of his achievements than the pain of what he has lost. To have captained his country, to have scored a century at international level against Australia, to have played a full part in a series win against the No. 1 Test team in their own backyard - these are tremendous accomplishments.

"I always think of the positives," he says, managing a rueful smile. "This could have happened when I'm 20. I wouldn't have played for England, scored centuries for England or captained England. My last full game was in an England shirt and I scored a century.

"I didn't play as much as I wanted to. But throughout my career I proved a lot of people wrong. And hopefully I can continue to prove a lot of doctors wrong over the next few years.

"As soon as I was told, I couldn't do what I loved any more I flipped things around. I thought it could have happened earlier. I might never have played for England. I might never have made all the friends I have made.

"I battled to become an England regular and I will continue to battle now. I'm going to have to get used to my new body after my operation.

"I've been battered down so many times. Maybe because of my size, I've always had to fight more than others" © Getty Images

"But a couple of good things have come of this. If I can help people through my heart condition or in dealing with adversity, then great. The doctors and nurses saved my life - there is no doubt about that - and I owe them so much. Anything I can do to support them, I will.

"I have realised too how lucky I am to be surrounded by good people. I certainly wouldn't be here now mentally without them.

"Before any of this happened, I'd lie in bed and wonder - or my insecure self would - 'Will anyone miss me when I'm gone? Who will be at my funeral?'

"Well, the outpouring of emotion when this news came out was like I had died. It was like I'd died but I was lucky enough to read the messages that people have sent to me. It was nice to read.

"It's probably my proudest moment. I've battled through something I should never have battled through. So even though I've a dodgy heart it must be a strong heart."

That's James Taylor for you. Big-hearted. Strong. Determined that even in his darkest moments he could use his misfortune to help others. And, despite everything, insistent that he is a "lucky" man. The James Taylor story is just beginning.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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