Raju Bharatan, noted cricket critic of yesteryear, had once called New Zealand the “eternal bridesmaid” of international cricket. This term was coined during the 1970s and 80s when the Kiwis side did well to reach the semifinals of major international championships but never threatened to win any of them. Even during the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup of 1992, where the team looked like having forged a winning combination, they crashed out in the last-four stage. Though they had excellent performers such as Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, Geoff Howarth etc in their ranks during this period, success in a major championship eluded the Kiwis during the 20th century.
Though New Zealand won the ICC Champions Trophy in 2000, it was only from the second half of the second decade of the present century that the side started appearing in the finals of international championships more frequently. Though they were outclassed by the Aussies in the 2015 ODI World Cup final, the Black Caps came very close to winning the title in 2019. The loss suffered by them to England at Lord’s, in what was the cricketing equivalent of a penalty shootout in soccer, was heart-breaking. But they showed immense resilience to rise up quickly and won the first-ever World Test Championship, hosted by the ICC, last July, defeating India convincingly in the final.
Many factors have been attributed to this increasing prominence of New Zealand in international cricket of late, such as the batting of Kane Williamson, his captaincy, the presence of a set of bowlers having the capacity for winning matches etc. But it is seen that most critics generally tend to overlook the contribution made by one unfancied player who not only held together the middle order of the New Zealand batting during the last 15 years but also delivered for his side when the chips were down. The cricketer concerned is Ross Taylor, who retired from international cricket during the week that went by.
Taylor is such an underrated player that the little known facts about him are numerous. He has a mixed lineage with his mother hailing from the Samoan community, who are indigenous to New Zealand. In fact, he is only the second cricketer of this descent, after Murphy Su’a, to play for his country. He has scored nearly 18,200 runs in international cricket, which places him at 17th position in the list of highest run-getters in the game. He holds the record for the highest number of matches played for his home country, besides being the first player to complete 100 international matches in all formats of the game. He was also a brilliant fielder in the slip cordon, with a total tally of 351 catches, out of which 163 were pouched in Tests.
However, Taylor’s journey through the international arena was neither easy nor smooth as he had to encounter may a setback before reaching the pole position among the run-getters for his country. He made his ODI debut in March 2006, as a hard-hitting batter and soon announced his talent with a century (128) against Sri Lanka in only his third game. He played his first T20 International eight months later. The call to the Test line-up took another year, but this delay was more a reflection of the fewer number of matches played by his country than anything else. He did not set the Wanderer Stadium in Johannesburg on fire with his performances on his debut. But he quickly found his rhythm in the longer duration version of the game at the highest level with a century against England in Hamilton four months later.
Taylor’s forte was his ability to see the ball early and strike it cleanly. He demonstrated these qualities in good measure in the group match against Pakistan in the 2011 World Cup when he struck an unbeaten 131 off 124 balls. New Zealand were struggling with only 175 runs on board and six batsmen back in the pavilion at the end of 42 overs. Taylor took charge at this stage and went on a rampage, adding 127 runs in the last 8 overs, in the company of tail-enders. He literally pummelled Pakistan into submission with a powerful display with the bat that saw him strike seven sixes against an attack that comprised Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul and Abdul Razzaq. The Pakistani players were shell-shocked after being at the receiving end of Taylor’s onslaught and they folded up for 192, leaving the Kiwis winners by 110 runs.
The captaincy of New Zealand side was thrust on Taylor in rather peculiar circumstances when Daniel Vettori, then leading the team, declared himself unfit in the ODI against Sri Lanka at Napier in March 2010, less than 30 minutes before the start of the game. Taylor did not allow this sudden development to affect him and led the team from the front with a knock of 70 as the hosts won the match by two wickets with four balls to spare. He was elevated as the regular skipper in all formats of the game after Vettori stepped down from this post in June 2011. Interestingly, he was interviewed by a committee consisting of John Wright, John Buchanan and Mark Greatbatch, then coach, manager and chief selector respectively of New Zealand, before his elevation as captain.
Captaincy of the national side is something that every cricketer looks forward to and Taylor was no exception. But, in his case, it ended on a sour note as he stepped down within 18 months of taking over, following differences of opinion with the new coach Mike Hesson. Under Taylor, New Zealand went through a bad phase when the side performed poorly in ODIs. Hesson felt that Taylor was not able to manage the pressures of leading the side in all formats and wanted Brendon McCullum to be appointed as the captain for the limited-overs format alone. He informed Taylor about this during the tour of Sri Lanka in December 2012. However, there was some miscommunication as Taylor felt that the coach was planning to recommend to the Board that he be replaced as captain in all formats. A piqued skipper announced his decision to resign and thereafter led New Zealand to their first-ever win in a Test against Sri Lanka in 14 years. These developments so affected Taylor that he decided to take a break from the game after the series.
Taylor returned to the national side within six months after New Zealand Board apologised for mishandling the matter relating to captaincy. Though his relations with Hesson remained patchy, Taylor contributed substantially to the building of a new look Kiwi side under McCullum. In the second phase of his career, which followed after his stint at the helm, he curbed his natural attacking instincts considerably. This was evident during his innings of 290 against Australia at Perth in November 2015, when he batted for almost 10 hours. More importantly, he did not hit even one six during this knock! The emergence of Williamson as one of the top batsmen in international cricket in recent years lifted a considerable load off his shoulders and he slipped comfortably into playing a supporting role.
One of Taylor’s significant contributions with the bat came in the final of the World Test Championships. Chasing a target of 139 in a low-scoring game, New Zealand were in a spot after losing two wickets for 44 when Taylor joined Williamson at the crease. The two put their heads down and ground the Indian attack to dust, gradually accumulating runs on the way. Taylor’s unbeaten knock of 47 off 100 balls, made after spending more than two hours at the crease, remains a testimony not only to his grit and patience but also his resolve and determination to see his side clinch a major ICC title.
Well played, Ross Taylor! Your name will be written in golden letters in the annals of New Zealand cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)