February 20, 2013

Sarah Taylor, superstar

The time will come for female cricketers. Just you wait and see

Dateline 2050. As the lights go up in a Sydney TV studio, a slim, trim figure takes the stage to tumultuous applause. Two full minutes elapse before the presenter can make herself heard above the din…

Presenter: Ladies and gentlemen, Meet the Legends is honoured to present a woman for whom no praise can be too high, the first woman ever to play men's professional cricket. She may be a Pom, but we love her all the same… Sarah Taylor.

Taylor: Thanks Marcie, great to be here. You may be whingeing Cobbers but the admiration is mutual.

Presenter: What a gal. Sixty years young today and still as witty as a kangaroo on coke. Only kidding, folks. Remind us how bad it used to be, how little you Poms valued women's cricket until you finally saw the light.

Taylor: Charlie Edwards told me that when she made her England debut in 1996, she not only had to play in a skirt but had to stump up 60 quid for her blazer. How jealous they were of you pampered Aussies back then. And I remember an interview with Gill Smith shortly after she'd helped us qualify for the 1993 World Cup final by bowling you lot out at Guildford, a day made especially memorable because the men were losing the Ashes. She reckoned she'd spent around 5000 quid of her own money flying the flag. Back then they often had to hire their own cars.

Presenter: Blimey.

Taylor: That wasn't the half of it. After training, the coach, Ruth Prideaux, had her living room crammed with sleeping bags by midnight. Gill was an office manager and had had to take half the time off on special leave, half on annual leave - and she was one of the lucky ones. If your employer was sexist, you'd had it. To present a more businesslike front, the organisers curbed the fundraising activities of Audrey Collins, president of the Women's Cricket Association and a member of what Sarah Potter, the playwright Dennis' daughter and an ex-international, had dubbed "the blue-rinse brigade". Selling chocolate bars to spectators was not the image required.

Presenter: But things had changed by the time you made your debut, hadn't they? The ECB were giving a fair chunk of the £2 million it channelled into its representative teams outside the senior men's side, plus a share of the £26 million for recreational cricket. Now there were full-time staff everywhere, and all the internationals and up-and-comers were benefiting from all sorts of specialist coaches, experts and analysts. Just like us. And by then even the Sri Lankans and West Indians were hosting big events and doling out central contracts.

Taylor: Yeah, sure, but with rewards, as you know, comes expectation. When we lost the Ashes, the World Twenty20 title and the World Cup in quick succession, it felt awful, even though our defeats were really close - we lost the T20 final to you lot by four runs, and in the World Cup to Sri Lanka by one wicket and to you lot, again, by two runs. By now the papers were covering us extensively, and painted us as failures. It didn't seem fair. I felt sorry for myself - we all did. One night I cried myself to sleep. But once I started imagining what it must be like for Alastair Cook and the boys, I slowly began to cope. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to make that leap, vast as it seemed.

Presenter: It was around then that you began talks over playing for the Sussex men's team…

Taylor: To be honest, that was an effing eff-up. It shouldn't have gone public - not then, not yet. We'd been talking for a few months about me playing for the second XI in the event of injury. A lot of nice things had been said about my keeping, so it made sense to approach me. Unfortunately the press jumped the gun, which forced the club to water everything down. It didn't help that someone unearthed an old quote from me in which I'd said I'd found Stuart Meaker's pace too hot. I'd said it when I was 15 and he was 18, for heaven's sake, but, naturally, that bit of context was never mentioned.

By now the papers were covering us extensively, and painted us as failures. It didn't seem fair. But once I started imagining what it must be like for Alastair Cook and the boys, I slowly began to cope. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to make that leap

Presenter: You must have been surprised that it was you, rather than someone like Belinda Clark, who became the first woman to be subjected to that type of conjecture.

Taylor: You bet. Belinda hadn't simply been a fabulous player. She went on to run your academy, didn't she? I know the standard of professional cricket here was much higher in the nineties than it was in Britain, but still. If she couldn't crack it, who could?

Presenter: So what changed everything?

Taylor: Luck. Doesn't it always? Nasser Hussain had gone to watch his 14-year-old daughter play for Wanstead, in east London, and, just before the game began, one of her team-mates broke a finger in fielding practice, so the coach drafted in his own daughter - yeah, the coach was a man, naturally. I was there, too - as chance would have it, my cousin's daughter was playing for the visiting team. Eventually, with about ten overs remaining, this waif of a lass, thin as a pin, comes on to bowl and immediately turned one a mile to bowl a girl who had made 50-odd and looked totally in command. Then she did the same the very next ball to the incoming batsman, this time turning it the opposite way. I was sitting next to Nasser, and as we looked at each other, our eyes widened and our eyebrows headed in the same direction - skywards.

Presenter: And thus did the best-kept secret in sport begin.

Taylor: It was so obvious she had something incredibly special, all the more so when she took six for nothing next time out, but we weren't going to make the same mistake again. I urged Nasser not to say anything to his pal at the Daily Mail and for the next two years we kept it all quieter than a mouse with tonsilitis. We even persuaded the girl to change her name. Alicia Smith-Patel sounded a bit dodgy anyway, not to mention far too posh. Elisha Patel was far more, y'know, street. Far more believable.

Presenter: But surely it was in the best interests of the national team to get her into the side as soon as possible?

Taylor: Of course it was, but this was bigger, far bigger than that. Elisha had the potential to make history, to inspire girls the world over, not just cricketers.

Presenter: So, fast-forward a couple of years and there you are, in another World Cup, playing against the mighty Aussies, side by side.

Taylor: We boxed clever there, too, keeping her under wraps in the early games because we knew we could win those without her. By the time I brought her on we'd lulled them into a state of false confidence - 50 for none, if memory serves, chasing 250. Boy, were they insufferable. It took every ounce of mental strength I had to wait that long, but it was worth it. She threw her first ball up high outside leg, drew the batsman forward, then it dipped, spun backwards and bounded on to hit off. She'd done that to me in the nets any number of times, so I wasn't surprised at all.

Presenter: The fact that the victim was a certain Brooke Warne didn't hurt, did it?

Taylor: You bet. I hadn't heard anyone shriek that loud since the time my mate insisted we went to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D.

Presenter: So how come you beat Elisha into a men's county team?

Taylor: We wanted to make things as pressure-free for her as possible. If she'd have been the first, she'd have been too young to cope - that much became clear after the first tweet of her dismissal of Warne. In her first interview with the Sun, she broke down in tears because the journalist asked if she was a lesbian. She hadn't told her parents yet. The very next day I sat down with the ECB bigwigs and the Sussex coach, Mark Robinson, a wise and extremely sensitive man. He said he thought it would be best for Elisha if I kept wicket for the first XI in the next match. It was the most thrilling moment of my life.

Presenter: And as the world now knows of course, you became Lady Sarah of Hove and Elisha became the first woman to represent any national men's team, in any major ballgame, and later just the second female Pom to be elected PM - and, I should add, a damned sight better than the first one. What's your abiding memory of those heady times?

Taylor: The moment Joni Mitchell tapped me on the shoulder during a Championship match at Lord's and told me how proud she was of me. To get that sort of affirmation, from a Canadian who'd spent her first seven decades thinking cricket was something that chirped - that made my life. I framed the bat she signed that day. She even quoted my favourite Joni line, from - and I'm sure you'll like this - a song called "Marcie":

Marcie leaves and doesn't tell us Where or why she moved away Red is angry green is jealous That was all she had to say

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton