Taylor leaves England grateful for small mercies
James Taylor's chance has been a long time coming, but he took it in style in Colombo to press his claims for a place in England's World Cup squad
It took him a while to get going, which was understandable. He had a little luck, which he rode (Kevin Pietersen said he was built to be a jockey, after all). There were flashes of power and invention allied to a lot of hard running, which was what those who have seen him play domestically would have expected. It didn't end in a hundred, which was forgivable since his hands were beginning to cramp. It has been a long time coming but James Taylor has arrived. Taylor is England's List A A-lister who was being kept the wrong side of the velvet rope. Having made his debut in 2011, against Ireland, Taylor had played only one other ODI, also against Ireland, until this match. His other appearances, in two consecutive Tests against South Africa, came more than two years ago and it was during that time he made a cameo appearance in the Pietersen saga. He has been batting off Pietersen's heightist criticisms ever since.
It took something unforeseen to get him into the side again. Alastair Cook's suspension for overseeing a slow over rate in the Hambantota win turned out to be serendipitous for Taylor. Apt given that the word comes for one of the former names for Sri Lanka: Serendip. The absence of Cook also precipitated a return to form for Eoin Morgan, though his captaincy could not quite prevent England from going 3-1 down in the series.
Before coming to Sri Lanka, Taylor had talked about his desire to seize this opportunity but after three games his outings had been limited to the nets. He performed his duties as a squad member cheerfully enough but even on the eve of this match, he was waiting his turn to bat at practice behind most others, including Ian Bell, the other candidate to take Cook's place in an otherwise unchanged side. Saying Taylor is not very tall is a bit like saying WG Grace was quite a confident fellow. His 5ft 6in stature has been enough for the likes of Pietersen and Geoffrey Boycott to, ahem, overlook his talents. For someone with the third-highest List A average of all time, and who has scored 1361 runs at 75.61, with six hundreds, over the last two seasons with Nottinghamshire and the Lions, the selectors have taken some persuading too.
Partly through form, partly through circumstance, this was a much-changed batting card. To some minds, it might even have constituted fantasy cricket: no Cook or Bell, widely impugned as the stodgy ancien regime; Moeen and Hales, sleek batsmen of the future, opening the innings; Taylor, bristling with determination, striding out at No. 3. There was even room for Ravi Bopara in the top five, due to Morgan's recent strife. That the result turned out to be wearingly familiar was certainly not Taylor's fault.
Having waited so long for a proper go, he was only kept a few balls more, his Nottinghamshire team-mate Hales kindly steering to slip to get Taylor into the middle after just 1.1 overs. This was a test, for all Taylor's domestic experience. In 2014 alone, England have deployed nine different players at three - Taylor would go on to eclipse all of them.
His first delivery was left alone outside off, his first run came with a guided single down to third man. He survived a strong lbw appeal from Dhammika Prasad on 3, which ball-tracking suggested would have clipped leg stump; two deliveries later, Prasad cut a delivery beguilingly away and past the outside edge but Taylor had the presence of mind to make sure he didn't wander out of his crease as Kumar Sangakkara attempted an underarm at the stumps.
It was an assured performance, enough to suggest he should stay in the side in Kandy, possibly at the expense of Alex Hales
He lost Moeen soon after but settled into a level-headed partnership with Joe Root. England's stated ploy during this series has been to be more attack-minded throughout with the bat, but Taylor and Root were happy to absorb dot balls, particularly against spin. When he had 35, Taylor was given out lbw to Jeevan Mendis but he was again alert, aware of a bottom edge, quick to signal a review.
At that point, Angelo Mathews had settled on a containment strategy, with Jeevan and Rangana Herath getting through six overs in tandem for just 20 runs. Following his reprieve, Taylor struck Herath's replacement, Ajantha Mendis, straight down the ground for six, before hitting Jeevan back over his head the following over. That assertive counter prevented him from being smothered.
Taylor continued to take charge, scoring comfortably more than half the runs while he was at the crease. He was swift over the ground, taking 37 singles over the course of his innings. Occasionally he took risks - twice in an over he called his partner through and beat direct hits at the non-striker's end - but also put pressure on the fielders.
There was a glimpse of the power some doubted he had in an audacious whip for six off the bowling of Thisara Perera, who also attempted the short ball and was twice pulled hard to the boundary. Signs of the "hand speed" Taylor has worked hard at developing. As he began to feel more at home, out came the lap sweep over his shoulder. It was an assured performance, enough to suggest he should stay in the side in Kandy, probably at the expense of Hales.
England have already had one captivating maiden century maker on this tour, perhaps a second was asking too much. Taylor fell short but he walked off with 90 to his name, feeling taller than he ever has before.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick