The brave world of Stafanie Taylor
Before the Women's World T20 final, Dwayne Bravo had a message for Stafanie Taylor. He complained that Taylor's West Indies Women side were not doing the "champion dance" enough. She vowed to put that right.
Jamaica schools cricket is a notoriously macho environment. Fast bowling and fast pitches dominate. The best girl cricketers are often intimidated to join in. "Females are reluctant to get into cricket," says Leon Campbell, a long-time youth coach in Jamaica.
Taylor was different. When Campbell spotted her as a nine-year-old, initially it was the easy athleticism of her fielding that attracted him. "I realised that she could catch. I drafted her in the team based on that."
She soon showed that she could do much else besides. In her early years Taylor considered herself a fast bowler, but it was her calmness and technique with the bat, allied to her quick learning and an insatiable appetite for self-improvement, that impressed Campbell. "From day one I was telling her, 'You are going to be the No. 1 female cricketer in the world,'" he recalls.
Campbell emphasised one thing. "I advised her, 'Do not get out.' In any team if you get out, they will want to blame you." Especially a player who was the only girl in the side. Out of this foundation, Campbell consciously tried to model Taylor upon former West Indies batsman Lawrence Rowe, between whom and Taylor he detects some resemblance. Straight hitting became a particular forte: "I told her that you can't put a fielder behind the bowler."
Taylor did not ask for any quarter from opponents on account of her gender, and nor did she receive it. "They bowled just as fast to her as anyone else," Campbell recalls. Fast bowlers were only riled into more bouncers by the indignity of being hit for four by a girl, but Taylor's bravery was unwavering. "I told her the ball is five and a half ounces. It doesn't matter who has it." At the age of 11, Taylor even played in a match against bowlers in their 20s who were "attacking her seriously", and were visibly aggrieved when she survived an lbw appeal.
At Eltham High School, Taylor became an indispensable member of the first team, even keeping wicket for a stint. In an Under-16 match, as the only girl on either side, she hit a century.
"I was the only female playing with the boys - it changes the way you go about your game, it makes you more mature," Taylor reflects. "Playing with boys you have split seconds; girls have a little more time. I was far ahead because of playing with boys."
As she dominated girls' cricket, there was only one roadblock to Taylor becoming an international cricketer: her aptitude for other sports. "Everyone thought I would excel more in football because I was so good at it," she says. Taylor was also a promising netball player.
But cricket had one thing going for it that the other sports did not. Coaches told Taylor how much international players travelled. "I thought it was a good idea to see the world, because I'm an adventurous person." Suddenly, football had less allure.
On her first tour with West Indies, as a 17-year-old in Europe in 2008, Taylor relished the cricketer's lot. "You go around playing cricket, meeting different people, seeing all the places. That's when I thought to myself, 'Yeah, I could definitely do this.' I dropped everything else and stuck to cricket."
Even more than fierce straight hitting, unwavering self-belief has always defined Taylor with bat in hand. "Everyone thought I was so good that I could take it up another notch and play in the big league," she says. On that maiden tour, only a few days after turning 17, Taylor bludgeoned 90 from 49 balls against Ireland on T20I debut, channelling the spirit of her hero, Chris Gayle.
"She was fully grown and very strong - tall with long levers, a good reach, and a good, basic technique. Stafanie had that absolute confidence in her talent and ability at that age. She has kept that supreme confidence," says Ireland's Cecelia Joyce, who bowled to Taylor during her T20I debut.
In a sense there has been something inexorable about Taylor's journey ever since those first heady days in international cricket. A year later she scored her maiden ODI century, against South Africa. Two years after that she was named ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year; the Women's ODI Cricketer of the Year and T20I Cricketer of the Year have since followed. Last September, Taylor was appointed captain, at the age of 24.
But when she arrived at Eden Gardens for the World T20 final, Taylor had still never won an ICC world event. Nor had West Indies Women. They had to chase 149: if it was considerably less than the 170 Taylor feared, it was still a record for a World T20 final - and it was against Australia, who were primed for a fourth consecutive triumph.
As she came out to open eyeing history, Taylor was accompanied by Hayley Matthews. Not yet 18 when the tournament began, Matthews had given the impression of being a little overawed. "The coaches were saying that now is the time for Hayley to come to the party," Taylor says.
The team management discussed how to get more from Matthews. They decided on a pre-match meeting between player and captain, until Taylor thought better of it, wanting to leave Matthews' singular talent unencumbered by excessive analysis. "I decided to cancel the meeting, just to let her be free and not be too caught up because it was the final. In a final, players tend to get nervous."
Matthews and Taylor did not. Only three runs came from the first two overs of their chase, but neither was perturbed. "We knew we had the batters who could get us over that line. Hayley and I spoke about not losing early wickets. For me it was very crucial to bat 15 overs, so Hayley had to take over."
She did. Matthews played with a thrillingly uninhibited spirit in striking 66 from 45 balls: her three sixes were more than what the entire Australia team managed. Seldom has a cancelled meeting achieved more.
At every turn, Taylor ensured that Matthews remained impervious to the strains of playing in a final beamed to millions. "Sometimes, not to get too caught up or too pressured, we would change the topic, maybe joke about something." Between overs the two gave the impression of friends making hay in a casual club game, not a pair sharing one of the most significant partnerships in the history of women's cricket.
For all Matthews' bravado, their alliance of 120 in 15.4 overs brimmed with nous too. West Indies actually hit six fewer runs in boundaries than Australia but it did not matter because, led by Taylor, they excelled in averting dot balls: they failed to score from just 36 balls, compared to Australia's 44, thanks to the openers' dexterous running.
Taylor was capable of matching Matthews hit for hit, but just did not need to. "The team and I know that I could play both ways - I could be attacking but I don't have to be. I could manage a game, everything else around me could go at it. That was the responsibility that the team gave me." How she embraced it - her 59 made her the leading run scorer in the tournament, 44 ahead of the next best. The only shame was that she fell five runs before West Indies overhauled their target in the final, but it did not matter. Taylor was soon back on the pitch amid the bedlam of West Indies' triumph.
Caribbean jubilation at ICC world events has become familiar in 2016. First there was the U-19 World Cup win, then the women's WT20 triumph, and then, a few hours later, the men's glory on the same turf. Yet in many ways the women's success was the most significant of the lot.
The sight of Deandra Dottin and Britney Cooper scrambling the overthrow they needed to secure West Indies' victory was a seminal moment for the entire women's game, a two-fingered salute to those who berate the paucity of depth in women's cricket. For the first time in 15 ICC global events, there was a champion from beyond Australia, England or New Zealand.
It was a result that resonated in the Caribbean too. Taylor hopes that the joint triumph with the men, rated as a 150-1 chance before the tournament, "could spark some fire back into West Indies cricket". The women have found the celebrations at home "mind-blowing" and "overwhelming". And there is now an opportunity to secure something even more lasting than the 2016 World T20 crown, by transforming the status of women's cricket in the West Indies. "It has gained a lot of popularity after our win. It's good for us that people are recognising us and the game is expanding, just like we want it to. We just hope that it doesn't stop here."
The evolution of women's cricket in the Caribbean remains relatively new. As the journalist Raf Nicholson highlighted, West Indies did not play a single bilateral match between August 1979 and April 2003, and did not qualify for the World Cup in 2000. In 1978, 1982 and 1988, the team could not even get funding to go to the World Cup.
"We don't get support like Australia, New Zealand or England," Taylor reflects. "We need more females playing. We need to develop young players. After this core group I don't think we have that much. We don't want cricket to vanish."
Like the men, the women's team are not short of gripes about the West Indies Cricket Board. Asked whether the WICB is supportive enough, Taylor has a simple riposte. "I don't think they are. They could do more to promote the game. Sometimes when we play, a lot of people say they don't know that the women are playing - we think we need more help where that is concerned." Taylor is frustrated too that she has yet to make her Test debut. "I would like to play. They just need to get things in place." There has been "nothing concrete" from the board about scheduling a Test.
Taylor also hopes that more will be done in the shortest format of the game. She thrived in the Women's Big Bash League, and is preparing for a stint in the Women's Cricket Super League in England. "We hope that we have something along those lines - a female Caribbean Premier League." It is something being discussed, according to Pete Russell, chief operating officer of the Hero CPL: "We're looking at ways of how we may be able to incorporate a women's T20 into the current set-up." So there is hope that Taylor will be right when she says there's more to come for the women's game in the Caribbean. Campbell, her mentor, is certainly not satisfied. "To me, she's underperformed with her ability," he says. "I would love to see her play more cricket against the men because there's no woman around now to really challenge Stafanie Taylor."
After Taylor lifted the World T20 crown, her team made good on the promise to Bravo, and celebrated with a rendition of the "champion dance". "It's the first time we ever won a final, so I knew the celebrations would be over the top."
The finest woman cricketer the Caribbean has yet produced had led West Indies to a famous win. Soon she would be charging onto the pitch to celebrate the men's triumph too. She danced, but not all night. "I was exhausted. I just went to bed." Never can she have slept more contentedly.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts