Taylor rubs shoulders with cricket's elite
When it was announced that international exhibition matches would be played in Pakistan this weekend, the presence of a former Test veteran like Sanath Jayasuriya in a World XI squad would not have raised too many eyebrows. The presence of an American teenager just might do the trick though.
Mixing and mingling with the likes of Jermaine Lawson, Andre Nel and Jayasuriya will be Steven Taylor, an 18-year-old left-hand opening batsman from Miramar, Florida, located 20 miles north of Miami. USA has produced youngsters in recent years that looked like glittering gems at the junior level only to lose their luster before falling short of reaching the senior team. Taylor on the other hand has continued to sparkle and has a chance to become America's first home-grown star since Bart King led the first-class bowling averages in England in 1908.
Taylor played the first of two games for the International World XI against Pakistan All Star XI in Karachi, scoring a run-a-ball 15 while batting at No.3.
"If you look at the rest of the Under-19 players in America, Steven is way ahead. He has a tremendous amount of talent," fellow USA team-mate Orlando Baker said. Taylor first toured with the men at the age of 15 in November 2008 when Baker captained a USA squad at the WICB Cup in Guyana. Taylor earned the nickname "Bob" on the trip after showing up wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack. In the four years since, he has grown into a punishing opener and his intimidating batting style has forced Baker to stop calling him Bob, instead labeling him "the American Chris Gayle." Baker should know since he grew up with Gayle as the two played for the Jamaica U-19 team together in 1996 and 1997 before Baker moved to America.
"Playing with a guy like Chris Gayle, Steven gives me so much resemblance of him in terms of his power, his timing and I just hope he keeps working hard because he has a lot of talent," Baker said. "When you look and you can find a player like this in America with so much cricketing talent, so much natural talent, you want to nurture this talent."
One of Taylor's biggest learning experiences was at the 2010 ICC U-19 World Cup in New Zealand when USA entered the lion's den in their first match against eventual tournament champions Australia. At 16, Taylor had to take strike for the first ball of the chase against Josh Hazlewood, five months away from making his international debut for the Australia senior side with pace hovering around 140 kph.
"That experience was very good for me because I never faced pace at that level," Taylor said. "When those guys were bowling to me, the ball was hitting my bat. The ball was hitting me, I wasn't hitting the ball. Hazlewood had bowled me a bouncer and the ball didn't touch me at all but the umpire called four leg-byes. I knew if that had touched me, I would have died. That's when I knew that the bowling in south Florida was weak. As soon as I came back, I made a 70. The following week I made a hundred."
Taylor has always been physically mature for his age, but his temperament has become more refined during the last 18 months. A turning point for him was when he scored two centuries and finished tied for second in runs with 455 in nine innings at the 2011 ICC U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Ireland. Taylor had a reputation for bullying attacks at home in sunny Florida, but struggled to score runs in unfamiliar conditions. That changed on the green pitches and cool weather in Dublin. Taylor stood head and shoulders above his USA U-19 teammates, drawing the attention of then Papua New Guinea coach and current Australia national selector Andy Bichel when Taylor notched a scintillating 140 off 120 balls with 19 fours and three sixes against PNG. The next highest score for USA was 23 in a six-run loss.
"Let's not forget Steven Taylor's innings, amazing innings really. He hit the ball with power," Bichel said after the match. "He's got a bright future if he can keep everything together, but he's got the right things about his game at the moment and who knows down the track where he could end up if he does so."
Even though Taylor had a handful of opportunities for the USA senior team in 2010, it wasn't until 2012 that he fully cemented a place in the starting XI through his performances at the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. After a timid showing in the first three matches, Taylor came out of his shell on day four of the tournament against Ireland. He says it was a sequence against Trent Johnston that gave him the confidence that he belonged at the senior level.
"Those first few games it was mostly nerves and not being accustomed to the wickets," Taylor said. "What made me click was when I hit Trent Johnston for six and the next ball he came up and bowled a bouncer and I got a single and he cursed me. He was mad that I hit him for six and then got off strike. For me, that was smart cricket. To think that I hit Trent Johnston, a guy who played in the last two World Cups, that was my turning point."
Taylor went on to finish second on USA's run-list at the tournament behind captain Sushil Nadkarni and played a key role in USA's upset of ODI nation Scotland. At ICC WCL Division Four last month in Malaysia, Taylor marked himself out early on as USA's most prized wicket and finished second overall in the tournament with 216 runs.
USA's cricket teams are frequently derided internationally for being chock full of expats, with one writer calling them the "Guyana Rejects XI" in 2010. But as 2012 winds down, an American-born and raised talent is emerging as USA's most visible cricket ambassador on a global stage, taking part in a pair of exhibition matches in Karachi alongside Jayasuriya while going up against Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul. Taylor might have retired the SpongeBob SquarePants backpack, but this weekend he'll be sure to soak up the experience.
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey