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Ross Taylor: 10 years of graft

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Ross_Taylor_New_Zealand_Cricket"There was one moment out there. He [Martin Crowe] always said when there's a butterfly that's him. So there is a butterfly out there, when I was on about 70...so pretty good," a teary eyed Ross Taylor fought the rush of emotions when he equaled his mentor, the late great Martin Crowe, and current New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson as the country's most prolific century maker with 17 Test centuries. While Taylor sobbed remembering Crowe, his mentor would have been proud.

When you go through the top century makers in the history, there is no New Zealander because no Kiwi player has scored more than 20 centuries; their highest is 17.

Crowe was not like his New Zealand teammates. The BlackCaps have always been considered non-aggressive, a calm bunch who have stood by their mantra of "team game". The Kiwis missed the traits that were necessary in the making of a successful Test batsman - the traits that were in Crowe. His personal obsession and drive for scoring hundreds brought out the best in him.

Hence, his record of scoring the most centuries for the BlackCaps remained intact for 23 years, before Williamson equaled him in March 2017, followed by Taylor this month.

After Crowe's exit from the game, he found the glimpses of himself in Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle, and he was confident that these two would carry forward the zeal and intensity for scoring those big hundreds. Crowe's intention behind the big hundreds was never a personal milestone; he believed that a Test team can be successful if at least two of its batsmen score centuries on a regular basis.

However, the next generation of Fleming and Astle could not manage the extra pressure of going after the hundreds. It was admirable that they choose to play for the team and not concentrate on milestones, but they were ignorant of the fact that the team needed those big hundreds in order to compete with the likes of Australia and India.

 

In 2013, Crowe said, "Ross rang me in 2006 and asked me to mentor him. That I didn't know him at all was beside the point. The fact was he stated clearly that he wanted to score more than 17 Test centuries, set a new record for New Zealand. So my reply was an emphatic affirmative. He paid his own way to Auckland, we met, we spoke, and we clicked."

 

Taylor's words, “I want to score more than 17 centuries" did the job for him and there was no more convincing needed after that. Thus began a wonderful journey between the two and their bond only strengthened with time. Crowe witnessed Taylor evolve, fight his way to the top and – most significantly – change himself to meet the expectations of others, in the first 10 years of graft before Crowe passed away in 2016.

Luteru Ross Poutoa Lote Taylor's habit of changing to meet the expectations of others began quite early in his life. From a young age, he answered to both Ross and Luteru, a name he was immensely proud of. 'Luteru' was an integral symbol of Taylor's background - the symbol of the union between his Samoan mother, Ann, who emigrated to New Zealand in her teens, and Kiwi father, Neil Taylor, a former representative cricketer. He agreed to give up the name in school just because the other kids failed to pronounce it.

 

The 10 years of Crowe’s mentorship spanned several phases in Taylor's career. From a promising batsman in 2006, who showed the potential to take the BlackCaps' batting to another level; to a master batsman who almost cracked a 50 batting average in Tests - an almost mythical mark for New Zealanders who play much of their cricket in bowling friendly-conditions; to a player with a massive dip in his Test average due to an undiagnosed growth in his eye; to a mentally strong human being and cricketer, who does not believe in giving up.

 

Taylor’s debut Test series was an ordinary one, but in his second series, he announced his arrival to the international arena royally. Although New Zealand lost the home series to England, Taylor top-scored with 310 runs in three Tests at an excellent average of 51.66. The series also saw Taylor scored his maiden Test century. From there, he took off on his Test journey. To the country's and his fans’ disappointment, Taylor has never managed to maintain consistency in his runs. Moreover, he has done well at home but has not replicated that overseas.

New Zealand's major rivals like Australia, South Africa, England and India have given tough times to Taylor in their respective backyards.

When Daniel Vettori stepped down from captaincy after the 2011 World Cup, chaos reigned regarding his successor. The choice was between the vice-captain Taylor and the deputy who was sacked in 2009, Brendon McCullum. While the majority of the players wanted McCullum; the coach (John Wright), selectors and board wanted Taylor.

 

During his tenure as New Zealand captain, he averaged 49.85 compared to 41.12 till then. In 13 Tests as skipper, he scored three centuries, including a brilliant match-winning knock in his final Test as captain in Colombo. He averaged 46.76 in ODIs, way above the 30 he had averaged under Fleming and 39 under Vettori. He had been in a fantastic form as captain, but his teammates could not match the same level and that ended Taylor's captaincy.

 

Taylor ended up at the right place in the wrong time.

After Taylor's match-winning knock in Colombo, Mike Hesson knocked at his door and informed him that he did not see Taylor as a national captain anymore. Being sacked was not the issue; the way it happened really broke his spirit. So much so that Taylor, whose passion for his country overflowed, decided to call it quits.

Thankfully for New Zealand, Taylor eventually decided only to take a long break. The next year, under McCullum's captaincy, New Zealand's Test side was thrashed 2-0 in South Africa, played out a 0-0 draw at home to England before being wrecked by the same opponent 0-2 away. The situation worsened when New Zealand failed to win a Test in Bangladesh, where they settled for a 0-0 draw. In nine Tests, the new skipper McCullum did not taste a single win.

Then came the West Indies. The first Test was hosted by Dunedin, McCullum's home town. The Captain scored a 113 and the former captain remained unbeaten on 217.

Time heals everything. It took time for Taylor to recover, but now, he seemed at peace. He had managed to revive his love for the game. New Zealand would watch a new and hardened Ross Taylor play cricket.

 

While he crossed one hurdle, a new storm awaited in the form of Kane Williamson. The latter was quickly moving on with his game. What kept apart these two was Williamson's consistency and ability to score across the globe. In the pre-Williamson days, if Taylor failed, the team failed. But now, the team had another dependable man, probably a better one. This affected the team for good but the new addition came as a threat for Taylor, the batsman.  

 

It took Taylor eight years to score a century in Australia. Prior to the 2015 series, Taylor played five Tests in Australia and his highest score there was 75. In his sixth Test there, he went berserk as he converted his first hundred into a double and fell just 10 runs short of a triple hundred. If the 290 in Perth is removed from Taylor's list, his average in Australia would look much worse than his current 49.30.

The reason behind Taylor's inconsistency has remained mysterious.

Until last year, he sat third in New Zealand's Test batting aggregates (56.88) and second on the Test century lists (15) and he did not need to score a run more to prove himself as one of the best to have played for the country. However, while Taylor was away getting his eye operated, Williamson switched gears. When Taylor returned and was getting back into the groove, Williamson scored three quick centuries by March to race up and sit on top with Crowe at 17 Test tons.

While Williamson needed seven years to notch up has 17 centuries in 63 Tests, Taylor has played three years of Test cricket more than Williamson and still reached the landmark after the 27-year-old.

Be it the first time Taylor entered international cricket or today, after 11 years, Taylor has not overcome the stage where he has to prove his worth every single time he walks at the crease. First there was Brendon McCullum and now Williamson. Taylor's feats have always been overshadowed by them. Neither McCullum nor Williamson are at fault here. It has just been hard luck for Taylor that he has always played in the shadow of these two.

 

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