Name a batsman who looks good, but just never makes those tough runs.
You’ve named half a dozen already. Mark Waugh springs to mind for Australians, Ian Bell’s the most recent exemplar for Britons, while Vinod Kambli emerges from the subcontinent.
A lot of times of late, the name floated has been Ross Taylor. This author, very recently, had been among them.
Back in 2006, when Taylor made his international debut, he slotted into a New Zealand side which was a flight above competent when it came to One Day International cricket. Playing against a depleted and despondent West Indian side, the touring Caribbeans had lost the opening three one-dayers on the trot.
When, on Taylor’s debut, the Kiwis won again, it meant the West Indies had paved a path of 19 losses in their previous 21 ODIs. The only downside for New Zealand was the debutante’s unfortunate dismissal – run out, after a homicidal call from his batting partner.
But in the fifth ODI – which a disinterested New Zealand side lost to an uncharacteristically disciplined West Indies XI – he showed something of the raw talent he was revelled and reviled for on the domestic circuit.
Such opportunities were less forthcoming in Test cricket. With Hamish Marshall, Jamie How and Peter Fulton the unchanging top-three for the three Tests against the West Indians, and Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle and Scott Styris equally unmoved from four to six, Taylor missed out on the whole series.
And when, after that, changes did occur to the middle order, it was to accommodate an Oram or a Sinclair.
That failed to stop Taylor’s progression. Limited Overs cricket may, by dint of its existence, be a ‘limited’ domain for a cricketer to express him or herself, but it provided ample platform for Taylor to display his talents.
Against Sri Lanka, he made a century: an admirable hundred, and a perfectly correct one. It paled in comparison a few months later, however, when Australia came calling. Certainly, it was far from full-strength – the captain Michael Hussey and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin were undoubted ring-ins to their position, and the rest of the side were all far from Australian certs. Only Matthew Hayden, Glenn McGrath and Brad Hogg had the stamp of Authentic Australian about them.
Despite an alleged green and gold weakness, however, New Zealand soon played up to their stereotype: of masters against the second rate, and bunnies against the first.
The ten wicket victory in Wellington was nothing but a red herring, merely a diversion from the reality. When a side has no clearly defined fifth bowler, and those doing their share get targeted, it’s almost inevitable that the batsmen will score big.
So Australia did, racking up 336 in the second ODI, played at Auckland’s Eden Park.
It was later termed the “perfect” run-chase. Needing to go at over six-an-over from the first, New Zealand did so with a professional ease that belied their dark-horse status.
Chases like that aren’t meant to be so easy. Craig McMillan’s astoundingly fast 50 at the death cleaned the match up, but it was Taylor’s hundred which allowed for a platform to be built, set and launched from.
Having come in in just the third over, he didn’t leave again until the 39th – by which time New Zealand were only 109 runs from their target.
It was merely a follow up for Taylor, because his frankly astonishing catch to dismiss Michael Hussey had halted that centurion at a stage where he could’ve pushed on to produce what would have been an unsurmountable target for the New Zealanders.
Two World Cups followed, of both the one-day and Twenty20 varieties, and while Taylor struggled in one, and struggled to push beyond ‘competent’ in the other, New Zealand’s first Test of the calendar year – in November – saw him make the team sheet.
Performance was the final adjudicator – and with a ton-fifty in a Test in England in 2008 showing his capabilities in new conditions, it didn’t take him long to move into a position of some seniority within the side.
Daniel Vettori had always said he would step down from the captaincy after the 2011 World Cup, and never showed any signs of diverging from this path, yet New Zealand still seemed caught unawares when he followed through on it.
In 2010, at the height of New Zealand’s PC period, Taylor was named vice-captain. Well, in reality, he was the recipient of the “opportunity … [to] step in as captain” in Vettori’s absence.
Courtesy of New Zealand Cricket’s desire not to sack Brendon McCullum as vice-captain, while still removing him from the role, the decision had been made to instead disestablish the position entirely.
Further proof of NZC’s over-appeasement was shown in their clarification that Taylor’s appointment as not-actually-vice-captain didn’t represent him becoming number-two, with McCullum demoted to number-three.
In reality, as far as most were concerned, this was exactly what it represented. But regardless, NZC’s painful timidity created a void once Vettori stepped down, with newspaper headlines presenting the case for Taylor vs McCullum in headline-fight style.
The way it occurred, it was inevitable that conflict would be the order of the day.
We all know what followed – 12 months of allegedly sub-par skippership, a supposed further downturn in national results (Hobart’s memory faded quickly), and yet more coach turnover.
When Mike Hesson created a New Zealand humanitarian crisis, it came at a point when Taylor’s captaincy had finally started to mature.
But regardless, the events that occurred, occurred. Much was debated about who was wrong, who was right, and which account was the more accurate, but the result was indisputable.
Taylor left the team, with that seemingly fuelling the media angst that had enveloped the side. When he returned, he wasn’t the batsman he had been. He seemed overly wary, it often seemed that he didn’t really want to be there.
His late-2013 double-century against the West Indians, his first in Tests, saw Taylor finally emerge from the ashes of those events.
Or, at the very least, it was the precursor to his full redemption: an ODI hundred, against India, watching from the other end as the winning runs were hit. He celebrated with his batting partner, captaincy successor, vice-captain predecessor, and (according to the media) arch-foe.
McCullum, to his credit, played his part. At a time when it would have been very easy to isolate Taylor, when he withdrew from the team and conjecture abounded about whether he would return, McCullum made it clear that he wanted him back.
He ensured there were as few bumps as possible when Taylor did come back – despite the crowd responses to both Taylor and Hesson, and John Parker’s attempt to channel Tony Blair with his very own Dodgy Dossier.
But despite his successes, Taylor always seemed half a failure away from intensive scrutiny. Things came to a head early this year, best displayed by the following headlines:
Stuff, January 25th: “No panic in Black Caps camp over Ross Taylor’s form with the bat”
Radio NZ, March 2nd: “Ross Taylor needs to pick up his run rate”
Radio Sport, March 4th: “Black Caps unfazed by out of form batsmen”
By the middle of March, even the New Zealand Herald were reporting on how much reporting there was on his form:
“It says something about the New Zealand cricket team’s form that Ross Taylor is under more scrutiny than anyone, if anecdotal feedback on talkback radio and social media is a gauge.
This is the batsman who, on Friday night, became the fastest New Zealander to 5000 one-day international runs…
…This is the same Taylor who, in the United Arab Emirates against Pakistan in December, became the first New Zealander to score three consecutive ODI centuries…
…Taylor appears a victim of his own success. The expectations are daunting when you average more than 44 in each of the last five calendar years, including 66.20 from 13 ODI innings in 2014 and 51 from 13 innings in 2011.
This year, he averages 44.20 in 14 innings.”
And the calls for his release only grew. Eventually, courtesy of some poor displays under pressure, it really did start to seem that maybe something was wrong with Rossco.
Disaster struck when the lightning-fast thunderbolts of Ish Sodhi cannoned into the tender regions of the male anatomy, leaving Taylor on a Harare hospital bed, receiving emergency surgery.
But Taylor recovered in time to make it to Australia, and great things were expected of he and his side. This was a team who, allegedly, were playing with the world’s most outstanding ‘brand of cricket’, led by the flawless McCullum, batted to heroism by the illustrious Guptill and unsurpassable Neesham, bowled to inevitable victory with the spite of Southee and craft of Craig.
The team was shown up to be many a mile from this description when reality hit, however.
A 503-run opening partnership, irrespective of the standard of conditions, implied many things for the New Zealanders – and not one of them positive.
So when, at the Gabba, with anticipation building, Southee tore his second ball past Joe Burns’ outside edge, it seemed that perhaps Blacktown was merely an aberration.
At 161 without loss, and then 311 for one, the idea of that tour match being any other than a premonition of the horrors to come evaporated. New Zealand were being pummelled, in a horrific, pathetic display of poor cricket.
Taylor fared even worse than the rest of his side. His batting looked, in all fairness, as though he was playing in the wrong grade.
The balls he survived were scratchy, or even poorer, and the balls he got out to were horrendous shots.
The criticism mounted again. Ross Taylor wasn’t good enough anymore, it was time to bring someone else in. He couldn’t make tough runs.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
But when the going got tough, Taylor got out.
The second Test saw Taylor keep his place. So, too, did Doug Bracewell, Mark Craig and Martin Guptill: faith in his selections, if not his captain, has been a motif of Hesson’s reign as coach.
While the WACA may have seemed, at best, pitifully poor – a deck so flat it led to Mitchell Johnson’s retirement – the pure scoreboard pressure the Australian top-order had dumped on the New Zealanders meant that batting in those conditions was still challenging.
Was Taylor that good? Yes, he broke infinite batting records, but was his a particularly fluent performance?
Unlike the rest of Taylor’s career, where grace and elegance – albeit in an idiosyncratic, homespun style – had dominated proceedings, it suddenly did. Not. Matter.
It was an innings of resilience, where – to use a phrase from Stephen Waugh’s autobiography – it wasn’t about “how, but how many”.
Throughout his innings, Taylor looked good without looking exceptional. Where Matthew Hayden’s 380 was a sequence of mastery and domination, making bowlers like Heath Streak and Ray Price look sickeningly poor, and Michael Clarke’s 161* last year was a performance of true guts and determination, Taylor never showed any exquisite qualities – in any direction.
He made runs: he broke Tip Foster’s century old record, he insulated New Zealand into a position of enough safety to eventually draw the Test, and he fell inches short of making just the second Test triple-hundred by a New Zealander.
Perhaps the best measure of Taylor’s performance was the criticism he received towards the end. Why was he not slogging? Why was he batting like that? This was too slow, it wasn’t good enough.
It almost felt as though by being – once again – considered not good enough, Taylor had proven he was. Where other New Zealanders had come and gone, or in Jimmy Neesham’s case gone home, Taylor had stayed, and was staid enough to eventually receive criticism for how he batted.
No one else in the New Zealand order, aside from Kane Williamson, had been good enough to be worthy of that strain of criticism.
And so Taylor came to a moment where he proved himself able.
He didn’t make pretty runs, he never looked truly comfortable, and there was ample room for criticism. They were tough runs. Difficult runs.
Runs that might have aided a new series of complaints, but utterly dismissed many, many more.
And so Ross Taylor, still just 31, may have a chance to push himself into the echelon of Donnelly, Sutcliffe, Crowe and company, among the top throng of New Zealand middle-order bats.
Better still, he has an opportunity to stand as an equal among Kohli, de Villiers, Root, Smith, Warner and teammate Williamson.
While Bell gets the sack, Taylor can push on. Twelve months ago they were in much the same place. Today, they couldn’t be much more different.
Two-hundred and ninety can do that.