July 10, 2017

'I don't know if I wanted my entire life dependent on cricket'

Former England batsman Claire Taylor on her batting philosophy and how she brings the same commitment to playing the violin

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On the balcony of the stately Merion Cricket Club pavilion sits one of the shortest players in the MCC touring squad but one with a towering presence. She is friendly but fierce, ingratiating yet intimidating, a yin and yang fighting for spiritual balance.

A short while earlier, Claire Taylor had been at the crease for the winning runs to secure another T20 victory for the MCC tourists on their way through Philadelphia last September.

Her glittering international career with England ended just as the sport was on the cusp of professionalisation. Now with increasing numbers of women's T20 leagues starting up, is she tempted into resuming a more active playing career once again?

"I went down to the Surrey Stars and had a talk with them at one of their training sessions," Taylor says. "Then I went outside with them for their training session and talked about batting and this, that and the other. Then they said Meg Lanning wasn't coming over, and they were saying, 'Why aren't you playing Kia Super League? You could come and replace Meg Lanning.' And I said, 'Well, nobody asked me!'"

Taylor is joking - sort of. Despite being on the wrong side of 40, she looks as fit and skilled as anyone in the MCC travelling party. However, she quickly finds a spike of reality to burst the fantasy thought bubble before it fully forms in her mind.

"When I stopped playing cricket in 2011, that was when I wanted to stop playing," Taylor says. "I was also struggling with injury for that last six months. So part of me doesn't ever want to go back to that kind of pressure, where you're having to do so much rehab work just to get yourself on the park that the cricket itself isn't quite so enjoyable."

There was a lot for Taylor to enjoy in her 13-year international career, from 1998 to 2011. She is one of only ten female cricketers to have scored 1000 runs in Tests, and sits fifth all-time for ODI runs, behind Charlotte Edwards, Mithali Raj, Belinda Clark and Karen Rolton. She holds the England record for most ODI runs in a calendar year, ending with 807 at 42.47 in 2005.

What stands out in particular was the golden year of 2009: twin World Cup and World T20 wins - with Taylor claiming Player-of-the-Tournament honours at both events - and being named ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year and the first woman to be named one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. All of that contributed to her receiving an MBE in the Queen's New Year's Honours list for 2010.

"At The Oval, having to score at ten runs an over for 12 overs against some of the best bowlers in the world, with the best captain in the world setting fields - that doesn't happen all that often"

Some might marvel that Taylor was able to do all of that as essentially a part-time cricketer. Earlier in her career, she was essentially a full-time cricketer - in terms of time spent training, if not monetary compensation - in an effort to achieve the best results possible, but struggled for consistency. It was only after she got back to working a "day job" alongside her cricket that she realised a single-minded pursuit had actually been doing more harm than good.

"I played cricket and played for England at a time where cricket was my No. 1 priority, but I still needed to do something else because I still needed to earn some money, and I needed a challenge as well outside of cricket," Taylor says. "I didn't want my whole life to be consumed just by one thing. So I was in some ways looking back. I don't know if I would have wanted to have a professional cricketing contract that meant my entire life was dependent upon cricket.

"Everyone has to find their own different balance. For me, when I was at my best in 2009, I was working three to four days a week as a management consultant, and I was training three to four days a week and playing cricket, and I found that balance worked quite well. For others, that balance would be different."

Taylor's experience goes against the notion that one must live and breathe the sport to be an all-conquering menace at the crease. India captain Mithali Raj raised a few eyebrows on the opening day of the ongoing 2017 Women's World Cup when TV cameras caught her reading a book while waiting to bat. Taylor says she resorted to playing the violin to achieve a spiritual medium on tour. It was part of the secret recipe that helped the England women match the men to achieve a historic Ashes win in 2005, their first in the rivalry since 1963.

"In 2005, I knew I had an audition for the Reading Symphony Orchestra when I got back from the tour," Taylor says. "So we go off on tour against Australia in 2005 when the guys won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years and the women won it for the first time in 42 years. I've got my violin on tour with me and I'm practising and asking in the hotels if there's a room I can use. I'm practising because I've got this audition in September and the tour was in July.

Taylor on her way to a match-winning 76 not out against Australia in the 2009 World T20 semi-final © PA Photos/Getty Images

"It was so nerve-wracking because I said to the team management, 'I've got this audition. I haven't had to audition for anything in ages. Can I take 15 minutes in a team meeting and I'll play in front of the girls? Because I absolutely wanted to scare the life out of myself for this thing.' So the poor England team in 2005 had to listen to me play the violin in a team meeting so I could be well prepared for this audition. They helped me out."

Getting the nerves out of her system that way may have helped her relax at the crease. In the five-match limited-overs series that followed the England Women's 1-0 Test series win, Taylor made 82 in a two-run win and 116 in a four-wicket win chasing a target of 216.

Like for any English cricketer, victories over an Australian side were especially sweet for Taylor, which is why she rates her knock in the semi-final of the 2009 Women's World T20 as one of the best in her career. Taylor arrived in the middle in the third over, and after seven, England were 43 for 2, needing another 121.

The highest successful chase in women's T20I cricket entering that game had been by Australia against England: 152 in the second women's T20I in 2005. England had never chased more than 118, against New Zealand in 2007. To say that the odds were stacked against Taylor and England is putting it mildly, but she describes the thrill of "challenging the unknown" as the thing she enjoyed most about cricket, and that quality propelled her that day, through what still remains the highest ever successful chase in women's T20Is.

"I enjoyed meeting the challenge," Taylor says. She finished unbeaten on 76 off 53 balls, hitting the winning boundary with three balls to spare.

"On odd occasions, you would get into a game situation where the challenge set by the opposition and the way that everyone is playing around you is just on the edge of what you think you can achieve. People talk about going out of your comfort zone. I'm not really talking about that. I'm talking about the very boundary of your skills and meeting a challenge like that.

"I get that same kind of performance buzz from my music and, in some cases, from my work that I used to get from cricket"

"So at The Oval, having to score at ten runs an over for 12 overs against some of the best bowlers in the world with the best captain in the world setting fields - that doesn't happen all that often.

"The pressure was almost freeing. All that practice I had done, hours in the nets at Guildford, chasing eight, nine, ten, 12 an over in a T20 match, and suddenly you get into that situation and you have freedom to do it, so you do it. And then for Beth [Morgan] and I, neither of us to lose our wickets and put Australia out of the World Cup, that's a good feeling."

Many players and coaches try to simulate every possible game scenario as part of match preparation. The intensely cerebral Taylor, who graduated with a degree in mathematics from Oxford, instead focused her preparation on what she describes as an interchangeable set of parts for moments within a chase.

"Yes, you do want to practise as many scenarios as you think you can get hold of, but you can never practise every scenario," Taylor says.

"So it becomes like little building blocks, and when you get into a game, it's which bits do I need? If this is the risk profile that's going to get me to score ten runs an over against Ellyse Perry or a spinner or whatever with this field setting, I can change that to a different bowler, different field settings, I can get the captain to change the field just by the way I play.

"I think the innings at The Oval is important for a couple of reasons: my philosophy about batting, thinking about where I need to strike the ball, about moving the field around, about being really busy between the wickets. The Oval boundaries were massive. It was set up for the men's T20 that was to follow in the afternoon. It was all about running twos, threes, but there was also the odd boundary because the pitch was brilliant. But it all comes together - how you're going to play with the person who is at the other end, what are their strengths, what are your strengths, and how do you mix those two things."

That intoxicating feeling of scaling peaks can be hard to find in day-to-day life now that international cricket is behind Taylor. However, she sometimes gets that high through her continued pursuit of excellence with a violin in hand.

Taylor shakes hands with USA's Shebani Bhaskar © Peter Della Penna

"I play in a couple of orchestras now," she says. "I've replaced some of the performance anxiety and preparation and so forth that I used to have from cricket, and very much the challenge aspect, with music.

"The ones I enjoy most are the ones that I have to practise hard. I get that same kind of performance buzz from my music, and in some cases from my work that I used to get from cricket."

Taylor isn't entirely lost to cricket, though. In recent years she has served as a mentor with the England academy, and she also partakes in the odd tour with the MCC, offering advice to players in places as near as Loughborough or as far-flung as the ICC's final frontiers: China and the USA. After captaining the MCC to the USA on their maiden women's tour of North America last September, Taylor returned in May to captain the CanAm Women's Team, the first all-women's club to compete at the 25th Annual Philadelphia International Cricket Festival.

Both in her international career and beyond, Taylor has modelled herself on achieving a comfortable stasis on the field and off. It's a message she's looking to convey to others.

"If we can help them understand how they get the best out of themselves by talking to them about their cricket and putting them into different situations in the game, giving them slightly different challenges, making them think about the way they are playing or whatever, then that's really important to me. I think then that translates outside of cricket.

"I talked about a challenge, because I know that if I can find a challenge in a situation, I will perform to my best and I will learn things along the way. But other people are different. If they can start to build that framework and if it's through cricket, great, and they make some improvements in cricket, but it's also relevant outside of that."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna

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  • Rick on July 10, 2017, 21:38 GMT

    Claire is one talented individual! The ability to play classical violin at a professional level plus a degree in Mathematics from Oxford, to go with her all-time-great status with the cricket bat. Most people would be happy if they could do one of these things. Thanks for this article.

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