Ross Taylor sticks his tongue out every time he scores a century. And this summer it has been out quite often. More often than, as one tweet on his profile pointed out, Miley Cyrus. He did it four times in three Tests against the West Indies, having hit one double and two more hundreds.
The most recent sighting of the unique celebration was during the fourth One-day International against India at Seddon Park on Tuesday, where his ton sealed India’s fate in the series.
Till very recently, there was a another characteristic that defined Taylor — the slog sweep. But of late, the hanging tongue has been seen more often than his once-favourite stroke.
The last time the Kiwi batsman used the ‘slog sweep’ was when he smoked Bangladesh off-spinner Sohag Gazi for three sixes at Fatulla on November 3, 2013. Since then, the batsman who used to almost instinctively shuffle across, go down on one knee and dump the bowlers over mid-wicket or the cow corner seems to have canned that productive shot and put it away in the cellar.
During his knocks of 55, 57, 17 and 112 not out in this series, Taylor has been a different batsman, one who has remodelled his game. He no longer has a leg-side fixation. Instead, he has started scoring heavily on the off-side, having mastered the cover drive.
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Exploring the off-side
The closest Taylor has come to execute the trademark shot in this series was in the 28th over of the second ODI. Even there, he opted to play a traditional sweep, off Ravichandran Ashwin, for a boundary. That was also the only match of the series where he scored more runs on the on-side than he did on the off — 31 to 26. In the first game in Napier, it was 20, 35. On Tuesday at Seddon Park, it was 25 on the leg side as against 87 runs on the off.
“It took me 29 years,” he quipped when asked, after yesterday’s man-of-the-match performance as to how long did it take him to control the slog-sweep.
“Seriously though, I have been working at it for a while, just trying to work the top hand. I wouldn’t say I have lost it completely and I am starting to go back to it because we have a big tournament on in a couple of months’ time, the T20 World Cup, so I am starting to bring it out at training,” he added.
Indeed, earlier Taylor used to employ a heavy bottom hand, and it earned him considerable reputation in the Indian Premier League, first for the Royal Challengers Bangalore and then for the Delhi Daredevils.
What it also meant was that captains started packing the on-side field for him in order to frustrate him into throwing away his wicket. Dhoni did it in the last few games but he was wrong-footed. “It’s been pleasing though, it’s nice to be able to hit to other areas and give the opposition team something else to think about,” Taylor remarked.
Taylor’s immense self restraint was also evident in the way he shaped up his innings yesterday.
Ravindra Jadeja’s first few overs severely tested him and Kane Williamson, two of New Zealand’s best bats against spin, but they hung on before gradually negating the threat.
“Yesterday was pretty tough against the spinner. Against Jadeja, I don’t think we laid a bat on ball in those first couple of overs. He bowled very well, on another day, he could have got a couple of wickets and stifled our momentum,” said Taylor.
“In the past, I have played a few years in India and in New Zealand, it doesn’t really turn as much and you just lunge on the front foot. But now our strategy has been to play off the back foot as much as possible and play into the gaps.
“Kane is a very good player of spin and we knew then that if we could negate them, we gave ourselves the chance to put pressure on their fifth and sixth bowler and that’s what we did,” he added.
In a way this summer has proved cathartic for Taylor, New Zealand’s finest batsman since Martin Crowe. Twelve months ago, he was unceremoniously stripped from ODI captaincy, gave up Test reigns and went into a self-imposed exile. He came back four months later. And in the very second game, the tongue came out.