Cricket: Taylor takes guard to defend his realm

Stephen Brenkley hears the Canterbury tales of a player still living with legends
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The Independent Online
Failure has hardly stalked Neil Taylor's long batting career. He has scored nearly 18,000 first-class runs, including 42 centuries, and is within a decimal point or some declaration bowling of averaging 40, a figure which generally means you can use the bat as opposed to knowing which end to hold it.

Those are statistics which would impress more than your grandchildren and there are more. Taylor is one of only four players who have scored a century in their first innings for Kent; he has a share in both the county's first- and second-wicket record partnerships; and nobody in the history of the game has scored more hundreds at Canterbury, a place which positively resonates with legends. Last summer Taylor made his 14th century there, two more than both Frank Woolley and Colin Cowdrey. They don't come more legendary.

"I just wish a little bit sometimes that I could have stopped on 12," said Taylor as he prepared for his 18th season, some two stones lighter than at the start of the 17th. "I'm very proud to have the record but if I'd been level with that pair then people in the future might know what it took to get there. As it is, they might see my name by itself and not think much of the achievement."

There was a tinge of regret in the remark and for all his steadfast accumulation of runs down the years and a magnificent, belated blossoming of strokes there may be something similar about his career. Nobody ever launched a "Taylor For England" campaign; nobody had prolonged cause to. Taylor is one of those doughty county cricketers now being blamed for the decline of England, though he has been more prolific and enduring than many.

He was 19 and Kent were not only county champions but all-round cocks of the walk when he strode out (with Bob Woolmer) on to the St Lawrence ground for the first time in 1979. Five minutes short of five hours later he strode back, even more assertively, with 110 to his name.

What struck observers was not the beauty of a young man's strokeplay but the bloody- mindedness, the obvious refusal to sell his wicket cheaply. So it was to continue when a couple of years later he established himself. Obduracy and Taylor were a combination as comfortable as Astaire and Rogers. Unfortunately, his career has overlapped precisely with Kent's barren years.

Champions and Benson and Hedges Cup holders when he started, they did not win another trophy until last year when they secured the Sunday League on the last day of the season. Taylor had played just two games in the competition. During his time Kent have twice been Championship runners-up, have reached five Lord's finals and lost them all. "At last it was a trophy," said Taylor. "As the captain Mark Benson said, it has probably removed a monkey from our backs and I expect the team to win three or four trophies over the next five years. It will be surprising what effect it has and I just hope I can play a bigger role."

That wish is probably doubtful. Taylor will be 37 in July and this is the final year of his contract. For much of last summer he was not in the side, puzzlingly omitted (age maybe) just one game after scoring 99 in the Championship. He is realistic enough to know the best days are behind him.

"I'd like to play on but the secret is knowing when it's time to go," he said, "knowing when you can still contribute and are not fooling yourself. If I was to change anything maybe I'd like to have played in my early twenties as I did in my late twenties. I had a contract then which was going to take me up to my benefit and maybe I was more relaxed. I played more shots."

The stylistic change paid off handsomely. Taylor became Kent's leading batsman. He was flaying attacks in all forms of cricket. Whatever was brought on, Taylor dispatched. He became a different kind of player from the cautious crease occupier of his early years.

"Maybe it was the fear of failure before. It's a funny thing that. Whatever impression we give, we all tend to be insecure in sport, and there's nothing like cricket for it. I like to think it was as much for the side as myself. I've always been able to concentrate. But then I changed my approach and it worked."

In four consecutive seasons from 1989 he scored more than 1,500 runs; in three of them he was the county's leading scorer. Kent still won nothing.

"This has been a wonderful job," he said. "It is a great way to make a living and I would never, ever deny that even though you're never going to get rich as a county cricketer. But you have to remember that no matter how enjoyable, it is a job."

Taylor stoutly defended his much-maligned profession. In the league table of the public respect accorded various jobs, county cricketers now probably rank just above estate agents and journalists. But allegations of coasting and indifference were simply not true, he said. Regardless of the national team's performance, players were not only fitter but under greater pressure. Certainly, there were some end-of- season days which were more casual but a bad day still made you feel lousy.

And so to the summer ahead. "I don't know if I'll get in the side. I want to very badly." He looked out at Canterbury and its stands named after the legends, Woolley and Ames and Cowdrey, the scene of so many personal triumphs. He said: "When you're playing here there's every reason to want to continue playing." And any regrets were banished.