It is the psyche of James Taylor that separates him from the ordinary. The same belief, resolution and courage that took him to the top of English cricket has also helped him rebuild his life. Cricket fan or not, Taylor’s retirement in September 2016 was a shock. Diagnosed at 26 years of age, suffering with a life-threatening heart condition.
The former England Test player – and now selector – may stand just 5’6” tall but, mentally, he is a giant. Reaching the top is no easy journey and Taylor’s life and career have been a classic illustration. The former England off-spinner, Graeme Swann, reckons “no one has ever worked harder to achieve his dreams” than his former team-mate, hence the disappointment throughout the game when the latter’s career came to a premature close.
When people admire elite level sport from afar, they do not always appreciate precisely what it entails. Performances are applauded, statistics are admired, and accolades are remembered. Above all, though, Taylor had to battle with himself to find a way to succeed. Driven by only one fear – the fear of failure – and the ambition to challenge himself. “Aged 8 I was having three-hour net sessions. You might say it was mad but it was the accumulation of the work I started doing as a youngster that helped build my muscle memory.
“My philosophy was always ‘train hard, play easy’. You don’t want to go on the field and think: ‘Damn I wish I’d practised that.’ I wanted to be that bloke who trained harder than others. That’s where I’d get my confidence and belief from. I loved training, learning and then challenging myself. It is a big thing I tell kids: enjoy what you are doing as that will make you want to work hard.”
Taylor believed batting was about planning, like playing chess. He was equally determined to work hard for the present moment. The pressure moment. His match-winning maiden one-day international (ODI) hundred against Australia in September 2015 was a perfect example. Utterly focused, played on his terms, at his pace. “In elite sport, you have to have some form of gameplan. I knew when I walked out to bat what I wanted to do. I knew where I wanted to hit the ball against each bowler. I knew what fields would be set against me. With all that preparation done, I never felt too nervous.
“It’s all about understanding nerves and how you want to react to it. Sure, I never wanted to give my wicket away and, therefore, there was an element of fear driving me on. However, where you have pressure, you have opportunity at the other side. It is just a word, and just perceived. I really tried to train my mind into thinking: ‘How good will I look when I get this right?’ I’ve done my training, this is a moment I can make the most of.”
Taylor’s talents and incredible work rate were the bedrock of his success from his days as an outstanding schoolboy batsman at Shrewsbury School. He completed the ‘holy trinity’ by representing England at one-day, T20 and Test level, playing the first of his seven Tests against South Africa at Headingley in 2012. By his mid-twenties, Taylor’s career was beginning to peak as he cemented himself in the England team but he was not prepared to settle for what he had already achieved. “In my career, I constantly worked hard on adapting myself” says the former Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire player. “I had my game, which I was fully confident in, but I had to add strings. I knew if I wished to keep playing for England, I needed to accelerate my innings earlier. It’s so important to keep evolving.
“I wasn’t arrogant I just had belief in myself. There is a difference. Not everyone understands it and people watching on the TV might not. I’m just backing myself. I know I’m doing right, I’ve worked hard to get here.”
Taylor regards his grit, determination, and ability to adapt what’s thrown at him as his “super strengths.” Those strengths ended up being required to tackle a far tougher opponent. His life-threatening heart condition was a crushing blow: both his living and passion were taken away from him. The former England captain, Nasser Hussain, described Taylor as being stripped of his finest years of his international career. Yet the batsman picked himself up and resolved to ‘play the next ball’ as he had always done in the middle. “I learnt everything through cricket. How to deal with setbacks and learn from the things you can control. I have always had the capacity to look forward, within my career and in my life. Think about the things you can do, not the things you can’t.
“It could have been so easy for me to sit on my arse and just think: ‘F*ck my bad luck’. My life had been turned upside down, I was in a dark place, unable to walk for a week and felt absolutely terrible. But I don’t like making excuses. I was incredibly unlucky but also so fortunate. I wanted to work hard for another goal.”
Still wanting to challenge himself he has become England’s youngest-ever selector. Along with fellow selector Ed Smith, Taylor helped shape a World Cup winning side. There were clear echoes of Taylor’s mentality as a player; England had the pressure of a home 2019 World Cup yet believed in their opportunity to win it. “It was an effort that started after we finished the 2015 Cricket World Cup; a tournament where we underachieved. As part of the playing group, and then as a selector, England Cricket made a huge transformation over that four years. We ripped up the manual, changing our approach to the game. As a whole group, we created an expansive and enjoyable environment.
“In the few years building up to the 2019 Cricket World Cup, I noticed how close the lads were. On top of the exceptional talent in the group, it was a team environment where everyone enjoyed each other’s success. I’m a big believer in havingpeople around you who shape you. You then learn about work ethic; yougain determination and you learn how to be successful.
“I was loving watching the boys play at the World Cup. Their enjoyment created a belief, and an attitude to take the opportunity rather than succumb to the pressure. If you want to hit your first ball for six, hit your first ball for six!”
Taylor is humble. He will not take huge credit for England’s World Cup triumph but it is clear what he helped to build. Here is a man who has tackled the pressures that come with elite sport and also gone on to show immense positivity when faced with one of life’s greatest setbacks. Through determination, hard work and a positive belief, Taylor has mastered the trick of turning pressure into opportunity. We can all learn from that.