There was a mixture of shock and sympathy at the Ageas Bowl this morning, as at each of the other five grounds where Specsavers County Championship fixtures were scheduled, as news of James Taylor’s enforced retirement began to spread.
Taylor has become as popular a character on the county circuit as he is respected as a player – a combination summed up in a tweet from Yorkshire’s Jack Brooks, who was an England Lions team-mate. “One of the best I’ve played with & against & not a bad lad either.”
It was at the Ageas Bowl last April, during Nottinghamshire’s Championship fixture against Hampshire, that Taylor reflected on his appointment as England captain for a one-off one-day international against Ireland in Dublin.
“To be given the opportunity to lead your country is a huge honour,” he said – and, while there is no pretending today’s news is anything other than an awful blow for cricket generally and obviously for Taylor in particular, there will hopefully be some consolation in how much he packed into a cruelly short career.
Short – it’s a word that has never been far away in descriptions of Taylor the batsman, unless it was replaced by tiny, or occasionally diminutive. It made him stand out from the crowd; made him popular with the public, and able to reach out beyond cricket’s usual audience; and made him thoroughly awkward to bowl at, according to the many who tried to adjust their length, and found themselves being square cut or whipped through midwicket.
It also allowed Taylor to demonstrate the admirable ability to laugh at himself, which was presumably one of the reasons for the aforementioned popularity.
He had charmed the annual lunch of the Cricket Writers Club, not always the easiest audience, back in 2009 when joking about his stature in his acceptance speech having been named Young Cricketer of the Year on the back of a prolific season with Leicestershire. That was when I first learned that his dad, Steve, really had been a jockey – who later had to ask for the afternoon off from his duties as a racecourse starter to watch James’s Test debut against South Africa at Headingley in 2012.
He didn’t bat until day three, but made his parents proud with a battling 34 in a fifth-wicket stand of 147 with Kevin Pietersen, who was at his most imperious. It was an important innings as England salvaged a draw and kept the series alive going into the third Test at Lord’s. But after a double failure there in an England defeat, Taylor had to wait more than three years for his next Test appearance.
He continued to score consistent runs for Nottinghamshire, having made the short move from Leicester at the end of the 2011 season, and played a key role in their successful Yorkshire Bank 40 campaign of 2013. Partly because of that, his next international exposure came in one-day cricket and he scored five half-centuries in 10 innings in the 14 months from December 2014 to February 2015, including two scores in the 90s, before reaching three figures in what turned out to be a match-winning innings against Australia at Emirates Old Trafford last September.
Then, when he was finally given the Test chance he craved against Pakistan in Sharjah, he top-scored with 76 in England’s first innings. That was enough to earn a place for the start of the series in South Africa, and Taylor made a significant contribution to the first Test victory in Durban with scores of 70 and 42. But it was the spectacular short-leg catches he took later in the series, in Johannesburg and Pretoria, to stun Hashim Amla, Dane Vilas and Dean Elgar, that were being replayed more often today – and will continue to be when people reflect on the career of James Taylor. Shorter than it should have been, but with plenty packed in.