Cricket: England turn to a woman of two worlds

Stephen Brenkley discovers that sporting versatility is alive and kicking - and bowling
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Double internationals are supposed to be creatures from the past. It is generally assumed that if they did not quite become extinct with the dinosaurs they certainly did not make it through to colour television. In the mind's eye all their versatile deeds were performed in black and white.

Clare Taylor is the magnificent exception to a thoroughly unromantic rule. Altogether, she has represented England 68 times at football and cricket. For a decade she has not only never had a close season but also had to combine perpetually overlapping seasons. Today, when she might have been playing as sweeper for Liverpool she is in Hyderabad preparing to take the new ball for England as they set out to retain the World Cup, which begins on Tuesday.

"For a while back in the summer I wondered if I'd be making the trip," she said. "A lot of things were going on in my mind. I wasn't enjoying cricket. I knew I wasn't bowling as well as I could. I wasn't up for it; I was mixed up. But I sat down with a few people, talked things over and that's turned things round. I'm much more settled now in my thoughts, much more focused. You could say I'm raring to go."

England start as joint favourites with New Zealand but they can expect Australia, to be a handful as well. Their itinerary is gruelling but the foresight of the Women's Cricket Association in organising a tour to the sub-continent only two winters ago may prove significant. Eleven of the squad went on that trip.

Taylor, now 32, was among them. If her brief period of self-doubt earlier this year was uncharacteristic for such a perky, handsomely gifted games player, her uncertainty about whether she could find the momentum necessary for another tour abroad was understandable. Taylor's adult life - and most of her adolescent life, come to that - has revolved round sport and finding the time and money to play it.

She came from a sporting family (her mum still plays netball at 56) and showed natural inclination for football and hockey, at which she reached Yorkshire county level. When she was 22 a hockey team-mate persuaded her to give cricket a bash. Within a year she was bowling for England.

"My star rose very quickly," she said. "I just took to it. I found I could just bowl and the ball moved away from the bat for me almost straightaway. Getting it to go the other way is still a problem." She went to the 1988 World Cup in Australia and took two for 27 in the 1993 final.

Her international football debut did not come until 1991 but since then she has won 25 caps and was a key member of the side who reached the quarter- finals of the 1995 World Cup. Thus Taylor is the only player of either gender to play for England in World Cups at both sports. She is also the only woman to have played football at Wembley - in the League Cup final for Knowsley as Liverpool then was - and cricket at Lord's - in the World Cup final.

There are few sporting achievements left for her, although she would dearly love to regain her place in the national football team. She suspects that her forthrightness may not have endeared itself to some coaching staff, but themodern suspicion of those who try to play two sports to a high level has also played its part.

"They've told me the door is still open but I haven't been picked again although I know I'm playing at the back probably better than I've ever done," Taylor said. "I rang up and said that if the door's open there must be a foot behind it." She is candid and feisty and the life and soul of any team. There are some moments when she appears almost to regret having devoted so much time and effort to the twin pursuits. Her common refrain is that she eventually wants there to be more to her life than sport. Yet she cannot drag herself away from it.

Taylor travels thousands of miles from her home in Huddersfield; she is full of praise for her employers, the Royal Mail, who are generous with unpaid leave and grants, for colleagues who cover her shifts and for her boyfriend Steve who does the cooking. But her sacrifices have been considerable, too. If she is rightly proud of her sporting prowess she can sometimes dwell on the fact that without it she might have forged a career more appropriate to her qualifications. After obtaining a university degree in geography she drifted into a holiday job with the Royal Mail and never left. "Although I suppose a degree in geography and being a van driver go hand in hand."

Squad: K Smithies, J Cassar (East Midlands); S Metcalfe, K Leng, B Nicholson, H Plimmer, M Reynard, C Taylor (Yorks); J Brittin (Surrey); C Connor (Sussex); B Daniels (West Midlands); C Edwards (East Anglia); L MacLeod (Lancs and Cheshire); S Redfern (Derbys).

Schedule: Pool A: England, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Denmark, Pakistan Pool B: New Zealand, India, West Indies, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, ANO England group matches: 10 Dec South Africa, Hyderabad; 12 Pakistan, Vijayawada; 14 Denmark, Hyderabad; 16 Ireland, Pune; 18 Australia, Nagpur.