December 22, 2013

The story of Ross Taylor

How the New Zealand batsman struggled with rejection and self-doubt to emerge stronger and better

Ross Taylor: set to be his nation's best © AFP

The subject of Ross Taylor should only be attempted in extraordinary circumstances, but these are extraordinary times. It's a tough assignment to appear balanced and fair, as one must always try to be, so while it won't please all, I hope, due to the feats of Taylor in recent weeks, an attempt to inform and provide insight is accepted.

It's well known that Ross rang me in 2006 and asked me to mentor him. That I didn't know him at all was beside the point. The fact was he stated clearly that he wanted to score more than 17 Test centuries, set a new record for New Zealand. So my reply was an emphatic affirmative. He paid his own way to Auckland, we met, we spoke, and we clicked.

Last year, at 10.15am on Sunday, December 2, to be exact, Ross rang me to say he was packing in playing cricket. Of course, we now know why he felt so low; he was told he was no longer wanted as the national captain. Not that being sacked was so much the issue as the way it was executed. A year later, he has found his peace.

Time heals. Ross and I have shared a close parallel together, over the same duration at exactly the same time, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. Ross has found his love for the game again, his love for playing for his country; he has let go of the confusion and moved into the light.

His story is worth telling at this juncture, if I may say and do so myself.

Up until late last year Ross had enjoyed a fairly smooth ride through life. Beautifully raised in Masterton, by two extremely humble and caring parents, he attended a strong high school, Palmerston North Boys High, and made his way naturally into the Central Districts provincial team as a powerful, free-flowing strokemaker. His signature shots were the cut and the power-hit to leg, both tailored through a passion for hockey during the winter months.

In late 2007, Ross made an inauspicious Test debut in South Africa, and then in his third Test, the first match of England's tour of New Zealand in early 2008, he stroked a cultured, technically straight hundred in New Zealand's victory in Hamilton. He looked to have the temperament and intelligence to forge a special legacy for his family, and particularly for his proud Samoan culture (his mother's side).

However, during the last 12 months, following his sacking as captain, Ross spent many lonely nights in his hotel room, contemplating his world. He was stuck. He didn't want to venture out into the team social environ, not yet trusting what others thought, nor what he himself would feel. Martin Guptill, his best friend, wasn't around much after the England tour, so Ross ate room service alone, often in deep thought.

Also, he struggled to enjoy his normal deep sleep, his tonic after a hard day's work. He tossed and turned, playing over and over his innings to come, running his batteries down like a car with its lights left on overnight. By morning, he often felt spent. Resuming his innings, within an hour of play he was inevitably out; confused, distorted in mind, slow in body.

I asked him to slowly explain a typical night before an important match. I repeated it back to him. He realised he had stopped living a normal life. While away overseas on tour, he was living a cricketing nightmare

He asked valued sports-science experts what to do. He called me two weeks prior to the West Indies tour beginning in Dunedin. He had no form and carried a few doubts about the road ahead. I asked him to slowly explain a typical night before an important match. I repeated it back to him. He realised he had stopped living a normal life. While away overseas on tour, he was living a cricketing nightmare. In other words, his nights were spent fretting on what he thought he was the only thing he had left in the game - his batting. He had forgotten about himself.

I offered him what I had learnt, especially when away on tour. The simple premise was that once you left the ground, cricket was a taboo subject. Often we left the ground many hours after play - the most marvellous way to learn, over a beer in the dressing room with valued peers. Further to that condition, as the game had already started, there was nothing more to prepare for, just the act of recharging each night, ready with energy the next day. I reminded him of what he used to enjoy doing: eating good food with a glass of red, sharing a laugh and quiet evening with loved ones, then sleeping like a baby with not a care in the world. To be himself.

In the build-up to the Dunedin Test, I stressed that he watch some Youtube footage of him batting well - a bit of visual stimulus. The night before the first Test against West Indies, Ross expressed he felt surprisingly ready. Despite a tough opening 30 minutes at the crease, he walked off at stumps with his captain, Brendon McCullum, unbeaten centuries to both names - a symbolic union.

At 8.30pm he texted me to say he was having a quiet, enjoyable meal and a glass of wine with friends. I relaxed as I read the text, knowing he had made a vital adjustment to his approach to the game. He had let go of all the anxiety and resentment. Instead, he began to live the moment he was in.

Ross was back. I texted a friend and predicted that Ross could well be on the verge of something special, a double, possibly even a triple. The next day he began fresh and walked off unbeaten on 217, his highest.

Then in the next Test he carried on "in the zone", head down and playing the moment, only to succumb to a rush of blood after he had denied himself any food during his first-day ton at the Basin Reserve. Had he not got out two overs before the close, he could well have gone on to another double, even a triple. It wasn't like him to not eat, a lesson, I am sure, he will have learnt now.

A week later in Hamilton, his hometown, he carried on and on and on for his third hundred of the series, the 11th of his career thus far. After occupying the crease for over 20 hours and all but reaching 500 runs for the series, Ross was dismissed caught at deep third man. He became the first New Zealander to score three hundreds in three successive Tests in the same series. I was right about the triple, just not quite the form it would take!

There is no question that Ross Taylor has reached that period so typical of a player finding the peak in his career, his prime. At nearly 30, he has become a mixture of mature mind and conditioned body. There is nothing now holding him back.

The moral of the story so far is of a man, humble and gentle in nature, being stung by a painful experience and taking his time to heal and learn from the experience. Many would have succumbed to such an ordeal. Instead, Ross chose to focus on his true essence for living; to love and be loved. His family has been extraordinary. His wife, Victoria, a cricketer herself, has been unbelievable in support. Becoming a father has given Ross the real focus of his life.

He will fulfil his dream and achieve whatever goal he sets himself, for he sees life clearly and succinctly. There will be other obstacles, mostly top-level bowlers gunning for his scalp, yet he will find a positive way to express his love for cricket and the privilege he feels representing his country and family.

What I admire about him is that he is always prepared to ask for feedback and assistance, always grateful and humane to thank all those he trusts. His feet are firmly on the ground as he carves out a career that will see him top the mountain he set out to conquer - to be his nation's best.

And so I am biased, and very proud of him. Through his example of resilience and character, of integrity and honesty, Ross has taught me much and helped me heal. This flurry of expertly crafted hundreds in the last three weeks has been a wonderfully courageous way to end a tough yet important year in his life.

Ross Taylor is a good, honest story of pain and pleasure; and he is a greater man for coming through it.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand