Taylor plays perfect role in hosts' little and large show
When James Taylor strode purposefully to the crease six minutes before tea to bat in a Test match for the first time, England were in trouble on 173 for 4, trailing South Africa's first innings by 246 runs.
The inevitable calls of "men against boys" could be heard as the 5ft 4in Nottinghamshire batsman took guard, inhaled deeply and faced up to Jacques Kallis, a behemoth of the international game.
Kallis, with 153 Tests and 279 wickets behind him, had already accounted for Ian Bell and had the diminutive youngster in his sights as his first ball fizzed past Taylor's outside edge.
But if South Africa thought they needed only to go through the motions to dismiss another England batsman cheaply, Taylor, 22, soon showed he was made of sterner stuff.
Having negotiated his first four balls from Kallis, Taylor was given four more to face before the break as his 6ft 4in batting partner Kevin Pietersen accepted the offer of a single from Imran Tahir's second ball to leave the youngster to negotiate his way to the tea break.
He did so calmly, and with no fanfare, even punching one delivery from the leg-spinner through the off side for four of the most important runs he will ever score.
Nerves settled, a little, Taylor resumed his partnership with the commanding Pietersen after the break and continued his disciplined, watchful approach.
In many ways his innings was a lesson in patience and grit for some of his more senior colleagues.
Andrew Strauss, the captain, was asked before the Test match what he had seen that would enable Taylor to succeed in England's No 6 position where Jonny Bairstow, Ravi Bopara, Eoin Morgan and Matt Prior have been tried but not trusted this year.
"For a young guy he looks very organised and knows his game very well," Strauss said. "His temperament looks very solid. He's quite an old head on young shoulders."
It was a telling assessment of a young man who, if he showed anything yesterday, proved he at least has the temperament to succeed at the highest level.
Just as Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick made their Test debuts on this ground against a world-class West Indian attack in 1991, Taylor will also rarely face a better bowling line-up under such intense pressure. Certainly he had never faced such sustained quality before.
But unlike Ramprakash and Hick, both talented but temperamentally flawed, Taylor looks to have the head for these particular heights.
Of course he was helped by having a partner, in Pietersen, who was expertly batting at a tempo that took the pressure, and the attention, away from the young debutant.
But he still needed to play what was in front of him, and with soft hands, playing the ball directly under his eye line, he was able to negotiate the pace and hostility of Kallis, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander with relative ease.
The contrast with Pietersen was sharp, and not just physically.
No matter how many times Pietersen crashed Steyn and his mates for six or four with outrageous strokes, Taylor never wavered from his game plan of studiously defending straight balls, leaving outside off stump and just occasionally going after anything loose.
Crucially, the difference in height and reach of the two England batsmen disrupted the lengths of South Africa's bowlers. While Pietersen was all ego and bombastic brilliance, Taylor was a study in calm and focus until Morkel finally broke through his defences to dismiss him for 34 from 104 balls.
The partnership of 147 from 208 deliveries could prove to be the turning point in a captivating Test match.
Men against boys? Taylor's standing in the England dressing room last night could barely have been higher after growing in stature in every sense.
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