Cricket: Branching out: life after stumps for a journeyman bowler

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I got bored at Hampshire Cricket Club this week. I had two hours to kill waiting for a meeting of trade union activists to finish (long story). The Rose Bowl is a good-looking place, although in thick fog I could only see about a fifth of it. Clearly, there would be no play before lunch. I stared glumly out towards the middle idly wondering if the fog would lift enough to give me a glimpse of the square.

I'd been worrying what to write about this week. It was only Tuesday - the panic doesn't normally set in until Wednesday night - but it's still disquieting if nothing's come to mind. Then, a brainwave: this being a cricket club there might be a cricketer here to interview - smart thinking or what?

"Most of them are playing Down Under," said the receptionist, "but John Crawley and Billy Taylor are in." John Crawley I'd heard of, but of Billy Taylor, to be honest, I knew nothing. "He's a tree surgeon in the winter," another member of staff told me.

This was precisely the kind of stereotype I was angling for: the honest pro who's reached his level in the game and, realising he can go no further, has a job on the side to fall back on when the captain's thrown him the ball to bowl for the last time. But, gratifyingly, Billy Taylor's story is a bit more complicated than that.

He's 27 now and looks back on an early career strewn with setbacks, knock- backs and all manner of indications that would have convinced a less determined soul he would never make it in the game. "When I was 17 I had a season of second-team cricket but I was told I wasn't good enough and wouldn't make the grade."

There you go, that's the difference between him and me: I would have given up at that point, and it would have felt like the end of the world.

"It felt like that for a bit," he says, "and I went to work 12-hour shifts in a warehouse and I didn't enjoy that at all." By now he was 21. "I wrote to every county for a trial but hardly anyone even replied, but then I had the opportunity to go to play in New Zealand."

His luck changed. "Out there I played against the MCC and bowled really well. Keith Greenfield from Sussex saw me and I got a three-day trial with them when I got back. At the trial the weather was awful, it was like winter, and we had to keep coming off, but I was lucky that my side bowled first and I did well."

On the back of that he got a game in Sussex seconds and took five wickets, then took 22 wickets in the next five games. He went from strength to strength - in 2002 he took hat-tricks in consecutive weeks - and he played a big part in Sussex's Championship-winning season. But he moved on to Hampshire in search of more regular cricket.

By his own admission he is paid well, so why the tree surgery? "The money from cricket's not going to be there for ever and there'll be a lot of life to live after cricket."

But the work, it turns out, also has a therapeutic and even motivational purpose for him. "I enjoy it. It takes my mind away from the cricket. It makes me appreciate what I've got, how lucky I am, and how I should enjoy it while it lasts."

Quite what his insurance bill must be like, being a sportsman and tree surgeon, doesn't bear thinking about. His employers at Hampshire are apparently relaxed about all this, though he's not totally sure that they quite understand how much of his work does involve swinging about on trees. "If the chairman or the coach saw what I actually do when I'm climbing the trees they might change their minds, or have heart attacks."

For man who has won a County Championship and taken two hat-tricks in a couple of weeks, it's odd to hear him talk with as much pleasure of tree surgery as taking the opening batsman's middle stump out - though it's woodwork of sorts in both cases, I suppose.

"It's great when you've done a job and you stand back and you see how happy your client is. I get a lot of satisfaction from that."

All of which leads me to suspect that his mind is on a future up trees, rather than the present in cricket. But it's quite humbling to find out how wrong I am. He trains, at The Rose Bowl, five days a week, all winter. He's in at 9.30 and works out in the gym until noon. Then he'll have a bowl in the nets for three-quarters of an hour.

I find this level of dedication awesome in someone who, in most pundits' minds, probably hasn't quite got what it takes to make the next step up. Steady but unexceptional. A journeyman.

One former international put it to me like this: "He does everything nicely but nothing outstandingly well."

But what's in the experts' minds is less important than what is in his. "All the knock-backs I had early on made me determined. And if someone says I can't do it I'm determined to prove them wrong. I'm getting stronger and fitter every year and my ambition is to play for my country at some stage. I wouldn't be in the game if didn't want to." He pauses, then adds: "I miss the tree surgery, though, as much as I miss the cricket when I'm not playing."

I asked him if his favourite tree is willow. "No, it's oak. It's very strong and a lot more secure. Oak's my favourite." How appropriate.