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Feature

Farewell to the kid from Masterton

From having a name the principal couldn't pronounce at school to hitting the shot to win the WTC - it's been some journey for Ross Taylor

When you're a half-Samoan kid from Masterton, life has some possibilities laid out for you, but other paths seem steep and narrow. This being a small town deep in rural New Zealand, there's always the chance paddocks could be in your future. If you were into sports, the region is better known - like many of this description are - for rugby.
So if you've got shoulders the size of a milking shed, your fast-twitch fibres are in good order, and you have height, there's gotta be a No. 8 jersey somewhere with your name on it, right? The principal at your primary school might have mangled your actual first name, Luteru, to the point where your mother just brought your one Anglicised given name to the front of the queue, but rugby announcers, even in the provinces, are by now well-versed with the Polynesian names on team rosters.
But there was always the matter of the bat hitting the ball like a fearsome peal of thunder, and in those moments, the prosaic stuff - who you are, where you're from - tend not to matter. And when you're hitting, no matter how withdrawn and affable you are, or how nervous you might feel, coaches, teammates, and opponents see a strut. Don't feed that rasping cut of his. Beware of those booming drives. And for the love of all that is holy, stay the hell away from those pads.
In the early days, before there is a real defence, the hitting is a crutch. On first viewing, Martin Crowe thinks: here's a slogger. Crowe would change his mind to such an extent that he becomes a treasured mentor and confidante, but his initial appraisal is echoed elsewhere. You've made the New Zealand team, scored some early runs, and rapidly become a fixture in the middle order. Life becomes big fast. And cricket bigger and faster still. At the IPL, you're a million-dollar buy in 2011. When the slog sweep is pinging off the middle, you're worth every cent.
In international cricket, things are more complex. This is not a good New Zealand side that you are a part of. In fact, it is said, perhaps not uncharitably, that it is one of the worst. When in this context, you become captain, and hole out to deep midwicket playing that shot that is one of the foundations of your game, there are questions about responsibility. Or worse. On the global scale, New Zealand is a broad-minded and generous place. But even in New Zealand, athletes from certain ethnic backgrounds find themselves the subject of more cynical strains of criticism than others. You're never told you don't have the talent.
When the captaincy is yanked away, suddenly, and acrimoniously, there is a gash that needs healing, but also a growing. The next year, 2013, is the richest of your Test career to date - 866 runs flowing at an average of 72.16. The hitter is giving way to the hustler. You're running the fast twos, trading in the slog for the paddle, the big heaves for the legside dinks, and this, in turn, becomes the bedrock of your ODI game, which in later years, is to hit the stratosphere. No one is making backhanded compliments about your talent now.
Still, life is not without its trials. You have a growth in your eye that comes on so gradually you don't notice you're not picking bowlers out of the hand under lights any more. The Test schedule for New Zealand goes cold just as your own form is running hot. And oh, just to drive the point home, you literally get hit in the balls - a missed reverse-sweep in the nets leaving your gonads in such a state they require surgery, the injury forcing you to miss matches.
In your last years come the serious milestones. Passing Crowe's run tally of 5444, then his century count of 17, is moving even for watchers-on, deeply affecting for you. Stephen Fleming's New Zealand run tally of 7172 tumbles too. When you play the cut or lay into a drive, a little of that early strut survives, but the batting is a little more like the man now: unruffled, determined, reserved. And while you've been on your own path, your team has transformed around you. The best your nation has ever produced, probably. It falls to you to hit the runs that win the World Test Championship - a whip off the pads to deep square leg. Sometimes life catches up and meets you where you want it.
If we're being critical, there is the matter of only briefly having threatened to push the Test average past 50 (although, if you play the majority of your innings on pitches where even normally unremarkable seamers can spit venom at any time of the day, these can feel like fantasy numbers). Could that conversion rate have been higher? We're nitpicking.
If you're that kid from Masterton, though, with the name the principal can't pronounce, you might look back and think that for all the publicly-played out travails, dramatic turns, and blows both physical and emotional, there could hardly have been a more gratifying road for you.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf