A blossoming career cruelly cut short

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Iain O’Brien: Taylor a genuine fighter

A week ago, James Taylor was approaching the season with a view to consolidating his positions in the England Test and ODI squads.

It was the next step in a progression that started long ago. Long before the England debut or the limited-overs captaincy of Nottinghamshire. Long before he was winning awards at Shrewsbury School or setting records at Loughborough Town and Leicestershire. Long before he was having dispensation to miss school to play county cricket or representing England Under-19. He has been playing cricket for as long as he can remember. It has been the constant theme of his life and he was, in his coach’s word, right on the cusp of fulfilling all the dreams of childhood.

But now he is lying in hospital, awaiting a major operation and reeling from the knowledge that his life has changed irrevocably and his dream has been dashed. Everything he was building towards – in career terms, anyway – has been swept from under him. Aged just 26, his life as a professional sportsman is over.

When he started to feel unwell, during warm-ups ahead of the second day of the match against Cambridge MCCU last Wednesday, he presumed that it was the first signs of a virus that had swept through the Nottinghamshire squad during their pre-season tour of Barbados. As he returned home, driven from Cambridge to Nottingham by his team-mate Jackson Bird, his heart began to race and his light headedness increased. His girlfriend and mother, sensing these was something unusual in this normally phlegmatic character complaining of chest pains, insisted he went to A&E. It was a wise intervention.

He was admitted to hospital that evening and, as each test followed, the extent of the problem became apparent. On Monday the final set of scans revealed, as Mick Newell, the Nottinghamshire director of cricket, put it “the worst case scenario.” His Nottinghamshire team-mates were informed at around 9am on Tuesday and a statement released an hour later.

It is a desperately cruel twist of fate. There are many examples of cricketers forced into retirement through injury: from well-known cases such as Craig Kieswetter to dimly remembered such as Matt Bulbeck or Simon Ecclestone. Each case represents a personal tragedy. But to add to the loss of a career, the acute health anxiety is a doubly cruel development.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that England have lost a future captain. Taylor had already led them in one ODI – the rain-ruined match in Dublin last May – and, with Eoin Morgan’s future uncertain and England keen not to overburden Joe Root, it seems highly likely more leadership opportunities would have presented themselves.

“Absolutely he was a potential England captain,” Newell, who is also an England selector said. “He captained for us and he batted better when he was captain. With the Champions Trophy and the World Cup coming up in this country there was every chance he could have been a star in those. He was an intelligent batter who finishes games off. He was right on the cusp.”

His team-mates, understandably, were shocked and upset. Steven Mullaney, with whom he shared a house for a couple of years, dedicated his century in the on-going match against Surrey to his friend, while Nottinghamshire confirmed that a role could be found for him to “help out” around the club when he has recovered from his operation.

“He was a lad who had the world at his feet and unfortunately it has been taken away from him,” Mullaney said. “But we are just glad he is still with us and we will give him our full support.”

James Taylor pulled off some stunning grabs at short leg in South Africa © Getty Images

Hit fitness – Newell referred to him as “the original gym bunny” and “the fittest man in the squad” – will be a huge asset now as he battles to recover from heart surgery. “That level of fitness has saved him from a worse fate,” Newell said. “But what he wanted to do since he was a kid has been taken away from him.

“In the short term it might be quite painful for him to come and watch cricket and be involved. But there’s no reason he can’t be involved in cricket in the future. In the short term, that may be something that keeps him going through the rest of the summer. There are all sorts of options for him.”

As a player, he will be remembered for some stunning catches at short-leg – his fielding during the Test series victory in South Africa was exceptional – a strength that belied his diminutive stature and a maturity that belied his years. His ODI century against Australia at Old Trafford last year was a model in assessing the conditions and batting accordingly. He was robbed of another international century by some poor umpiring during England’s opening match of the 2015 World Cup.

‘Titch’ as he was known to team-mates and friends, leaves behind him a career that many who played for a decade longer could envy. Almost as soon as he started playing, he broke records: the youngest Leicestershire player to 1,000 Championship runs in a season; the youngest to a List A century and, at the time, the fifth youngest English player to record a first-class double-century.

He was the Cricket Writers’ Club’s young player of the year in 2009 and captained Nottinghamshire’s limited-overs side in 2014 and 2015. He had shown, without registering the scores to underline the point, that he had the temperament and quality to prosper at Test level: an innings of 76 at Sharjah demonstrated he could play spin; an innings of 70 in Durban that he could play pace. He was popular, calm and exuded enjoyment for the game and the lifestyle. The future was golden.

So there is no way to disguise the fact that this is an innings cut horribly short. Encapsulating the sense that there was so much more to come, his final List A innings – and his final England innings – was a century in Kimberley. He retires from the game younger than Andrew Strauss or Jonathan Trott were when they made their Test debuts. It is, put simply, a damn shame.

But this is a case of a career lost and a life saved. This condition often manifests itself only after it is too late (as a statement from the British Heart Foundation put it: “Tragically the first sign that the condition is present can be when someone has a sudden cardiac arrest”) and, at least in Taylor’s case, there is no reason he cannot go on to enjoy a rich and fulfilling life.

As Newell put it: “I think the initial devastation of being told he’s not going to play cricket again has been tempered by how grateful he is to be alive.” Such choices provide welcome perspective.

The ECB were in the process of reviewing their cardiac screening process anyway, but this incident will no doubt raise questions as to whether his condition might have been picked up sooner. At present, professional players are screened at around the ages of 20 and 23 and, unless any abnormalities are found, not usually after that.

Taylor had not undergone a scan since 2013. Such screening probably saved the life of Calum Haggett who was diagnosed with an aortic root dilation and leaking heart valve in 2010. He underwent surgery and continues to play for Kent. Wilf Slack, who died at the crease aged 34, was less fortunate.

Though the condition – generally genetic – is incurable, it can be managed. Taylor will undergo surgery on Thursday or Friday. An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) will be fitted that detects dangerous heart rhythms and shocks the heart back into a normal rhythm. It may also be some comfort to know that he is insured – both under the terms of his incremental contract with the ECB and personal accident and illness cover through the PCA – so any potential financial worries will, at least, be eased.

Sympathy for Taylor will extend far beyond any of his clubs – Worcestershire, where he attended the academy, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire – and far beyond supporters of England cricket. He is bright, well connected – as Taylor was born upstairs, his father was drinking tea with Prince Charles downstairs – and personable. If he shows any interest in moving into coaching or the media, he will find many doors open to him.

There will be a period, no doubt, of transition and even mourning for what has been lost. But better to mourn a career than a young man. James Taylor’s playing career may be over, but he has the character and chance to take a fresh guard and build a different sort of successful innings. For that, at least, we can be grateful.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.


Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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