Leafing through the 2001 yearbook of the Palmerston North Boys High School, one stumbles on Ross Taylor’s photograph twice. Page 36: Taylor wears a broad smile while being with the school cricket team. Page 52: Taylor standing in the back row, with a stiff, obedient-boy expression on his face.
Underneath the photographs are micro-profiles of Taylor and his teammates. The one on the cricket page describes him thus: Ross has continued on from where he had left off last summer. He rarely fails. He hits the ball long and hard. He is a true match-winner. He continues to work on strategies, his off-spin has real potential. And he’s an outstanding slip catch.
All of these are virtues that still shine in Taylor, who nearly two decades later is set to play his 100th Test, making him the first cricketer to reach the milestone in all three formats.
But it’s his catching that’s still stamped on the mind of the school’s physical education teacher and Taylor’s mentor Paul Gibbs. “In that particular match, he took four-five wickets with his off-spin, and then took a couple of sharp catches at first slip that made me sit up and think, ‘wow this boy is special’.” He wasn’t supposed to play that game, but for a vacancy left by a senior player who went vacationing with his parents. The story goes that he never got the spot back.
The profile under the hockey team photo reads: Ross Taylor. Strike Forward, 21 goals. Adjudged the best forward in the John Dentice Cup. Raw talent and skill are the first words that come to mind. Ross has awesome speed and acceleration. He has often out-run opposition players while dribbling the ball. If Ross makes the mental and tactical adjustment to play more as part of the whole team, he will be a better player.
The last sentence was another way of putting that Taylor was a selfish player but Gibbs words it differently. “He was lazy, but had good pace and because of the cricket swing, he used to hit the ball really hard. I didn’t want to be the goalie then,” admits Gibbs, chuckling. When the cricketing dream began to burn brightly than ever, he ditched hockey for good.
The century-old school, a lovely neo-Victorian structure lined with swinging trees and spacious courtyards, is crammed with Taylor memorabilia. In Gibbs’ room, there is a cartoon of Taylor with arms folded and a sanguine expression and Mike Hesson, in umpire’s clothes, with a raised index finger. “This happened during the Hesson-Taylor episode (in 2012), when Taylor was the captain and Hesson wanted him to resign,” says Gibbs.
There is a framed Royal Challengers Bangalore jersey -”He wants to be back there. I don’t know why he went unsold in the auction. He’ll surely get there.” There is another one with Jacob Oram, Taylor, Matthew Sinclair and Jamie How – all old boys of the school playing together in Tests.
But more than the photographs and trophies that suffocate the cabinet, it’s Taylor’s memories that swirl in the quiet corridors of the school. Gibbs takes you to the ground, sprinkled with kids playing rugby and football, flanked by the school on one side and the boys’ hostel on the other. He points out to an ash-coloured, wooden window, from the centre of the wicket at deep-midwicket, and says: “This was his room and he used to hit a lot of sixes in that region.” He still does in international cricket.
The hostel days, he says, have a special place in Taylor’s heart. “It happens, the boys bond very fast. Tight with friends. Still very very friendly, they still meet up, probably reminisce and probably feel safe with them. Some of them are teaching, good businessmen, a lot of them still play, like Ian Smith’s son Jarrod, who became a footballer in the US,” he says.
Taylor wasn’t a naughty, restless kid. Gibbs describes him as a “quiet, respectful, cheerful boy, always acknowledges you, saying good day even to people whom he didn’t even know too well. He was a good, reliable young guy. Nice sense of humour.” He runs out of superlatives in describing him.
The only instruction he didn’t follow used to be the time goals he set. “I remember setting time goals. You can whack these guys around, but you need to be there during lunch, you need to set us up for the afternoon session, I would tell him. Then he would get out two overs before lunch, but would have a hundred. What do you tell him? ‘Ross, you didn’t get your goal?’ He was a busy accumulator of runs and his influence on the game was not just a time thing,” he recollects.
In his early international days, Gibbs would get slightly twitchy watching him. These days, he sits backs and enjoys him. With a satisfactory grin, he says: “The greatest feeling for a teacher is to see the students doing extremely well in life. So whenever I watch him on the ground, I just sit back and enjoy him,” he says. And sometimes, he would leaf through the glossy pages of the year-book and get overwhelmed with a sense of pride.
In the last year of his first-class career, Mark Greatbatch stumbled on a shy boy, who asked him whether he could do the drinks duties on the ground for free. Slightly bemused, he granted the boy’s wish. “It was the strangest request I’ve ever heard, so for a moment I was shocked. But later, I realised that the boy might be really interested in the game,” he says.
After the day ended, he took him aside and queried more about him. “Do you play?’ And he said: ‘yeah.’ And I said: ‘well, bring your gear down’. So he did a day’s work with us in the dressing room and he was great and a good kid. Then I went out after the day’s play with him and his gear and started throwing some balls to him. And this 12-year-old started hitting them back rather firmly so I thought I better go back three or four yards and I ended up having to do that another couple of times.”
Two technical aspects registered in Greatbatch’s sharp eyes. His firm front-foot stride and his timing. “For a boy of that age, it was remarkable. Not a single edge, everything off the middle. I was not half as good as he was at this age. I was so impressed with him that I talked to a few people around the Central Districts age-group system about getting the boy some better cricket.”
He got him into the Central Districts U-13 cricket team, but soon he was playing for the U-15s and smashing kids around. “Almost every match, he got a hundred. With a bit more polish, I thought he would play for the first-class team. But I wanted his progress to be steady rather than push him straightaway into the big boys’ league.”
So Greatbatch decided to find him a good school with cricketing background. And in a few months’ time, he found himself at North Palmerston High School, from where his career soared. “Back then, I never thought the boy would go on to become one of the greatest cricketers of our country,” he says.
Soon after quitting first-class cricket, Greatbatch took up coaching duties of the Central Districts team. He would occasionally watch U-15 games to trace Taylor’s progress. “I used to go there with a notebook to list down my observations. Then after a while, I would throw the notebook away. It was so good to watch him bat,” he says. Even now, each time he watches him, Greatbatch sees in front of him the shy boy who came up and requested to ferry the drinks.
New Zealand, as a country, doesn’t indulge in deification. Even their greatest, Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe, were never placed on a superhuman pedestal. They see them as heroes, but humans too, prone to flaws and fallible. In that sense, Taylor conforms to their concept of heroism, though the faces of New Zealand’s surge in the post-aughts era would be Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson.
But in a different way, Taylor’s narrative is more compelling than either of them. For cricketing fulfillment, he had to travel to different parts of the country, from Wellington to Napier to Palmerston. He also had to fight self-doubts and cop knee-jerk criticism. He also fought injuries and had to undergo multiple surgeries.
Taylor mastered the game on the go. Unlike Kane Williamson, who inherited a side closer to reaching its prime, Taylor found one in transition. That he outlasted his setbacks is a testament to his will. In that sense, he’s a more everyday hero than most heroes of this country.
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