Big Interview: James Taylor cuts himself a new niche
James Taylor is perched on the edge of the Edgbaston outfield, watching eight-year-olds play the game he is no longer able to.
It is now more than a year since the diminutive batsman was forced to retire at the age of 26, just as he was starting to cement his place in England’s Test team.
Back in April 2016, weeks after he had helped England record an historic victory in South Africa, the former Shrewsbury School pupil was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) and ordered to stop playing cricket.
It was news that have would wobbled the most optimistic characters but instead of wallowing in self-pity, Taylor refocused, and is now carving out two successful careers in coaching and commentating.
“It’s different, but I’m involved in the game that I love, so it’s all good,” he says, as he promises a group of youngsters gathering nervously for an autograph that he’ll be over in a minute. Commentating is actually a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be. I really enjoy it. “Watching my mates and commentating on a sport I know well and really enjoy – it’s not all bad.
“It’s nice to be involved in the coaching side of things as well. I coach with Northants and I’ve done some coaching with England under-19s as well. I’m really enjoying doing the things I’m doing.
“I’m writing columns with the London Evening Standard and doing charity work too, so there’s a nice mix and balance. It never gets boring, put it that way.”
Forced retirement is not ideal, but Taylor is trying to make the best out of a bad situation, and he’s determined to stay involved in the game he loves.
Driven by the enthusiasm and energy of a man in his mid-20s, he waves away the notion that, at some point, he might have to pick between the nets and the studio.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said. “It depends if the role comes that suits me. Hopefully I’ll get two contracts, one in coaching, one in media. In my perfect world, I can do both.
“I think they’ll rub off on each other. Coaching will keep me current and relevant, inside the game and knowledgeable.”
It could have been a very different story for Taylor, who didn’t require a bat in his hand to excel at sport.
Born in Burrough on the Hill, a small village 12 miles north of Leicester, he was on the books of Leicester City as a youngster. “I loved playing all ball sports, it wasn’t necessarily just cricket,” he said. “At a young age, I was best at probably football and rugby. But I went furthest in cricket so that kind of took over.”
He ended up in cricket because he boarded at Shrewsbury School and couldn’t commit to the Foxes’ rigorous training schedule.
“I was involved in the Leicester City academy system but because I was at boarding school, I couldn’t train as much as they wanted me to train,” he said. “Then I went into Worcester CCC academy, it just fitted the school I was at. And it was a natural progression from there.”
In hindsight, it was the right call, because Taylor is fascinated by individual sports stars rather than teams, and cricket is a team game that allows individuals to excel. “I love watching rugby, I watch football, but I probably watch more rugby than football,” he admits. “I support the Tigers but I follow individuals, I speak to some of the Welsh lads on social media so I watch a lot of Wales in Cardiff, Leicester Tigers. And Saracens, because I play golf with some of the lads there.
“I follow individuals in football too. I know Joe Hart from Shrewsbury so I supported Man City for a while. I was going to go out to Italy (when Hart played for Torino), because a few of my mates went out there.”
Although he’s from Leicestershire, Shrewsbury is Taylor’s adopted home because he boarded at the school and played for Shrewsbury Cricket Club in the Birmingham Premier League for a couple of years when he was younger. It’s also where his new wife Josephine is from, and where the pair got married last month. “I wasn’t nervous, I was pretty chilled,” he said. “Although I did bugger-all for the wedding. She did most of the work so it was all a nice surprise when I turned up on the day.”
It’s been a busy summer for Taylor all-in-all. On top of his coaching duties, his media work, and getting hitched, he’s also moved house too. But he’s found time to treat Josephine to a short break before the rigours of work take over once more.
“I took a couple of days out of my schedule so we just went to the Lake District for a chilled one,” he said. “We’re moving house as well so it’s all go. We’ll go on a proper honeymoon to the Maldives around Christmas.”
Despite being on the trip of a lifetime with his new wife, Taylor will still be keeping up with how his old team-mates are getting on Down Under.
England have struggled to find a suitable replacement for Taylor at five, although Dawid Malan currently occupies the spot.
The third and final Test decider against the West Indies, which is currently ongoing, is Malan’s final chance to convince ahead of The Ashes, but Taylor reckons he’s got what it takes. “Malan found it tough in the middle order,” he admitted. “But I saw him play for the Lions and he looked streets ahead of anyone else, albeit in a white ball game.
“He looks very calm and measured at the crease and he knows his game. It hasn’t gone his way so far but give it a little bit of time, I’m sure it will come.”
Taylor’s replacement isn’t the only issue that needs sorting out. Tom Westley needs to convince at three, and Mark Stoneman could use a big score at two.
“Westley started nicely,” said Taylor. “He played to his strengths, didn’t get outside of his bubble. He didn’t get the big score he wanted but he looked the part.”
But while there are concerns about the batsmen, particularly at the top of the order, there is strength in depth in the bowling department, especially now Chris Woakes has returned.
“Toby Roland-Jones has obviously done exceptionally well,” said Taylor. “He hasn’t bowled any differently to how he does for Middlesex, he’s got an incredible record. “But Woakes is back in the side now so I think Toby along with Mark Wood will be the reserves.”
There is an understandable pang of envy when Taylor watches his friends prepare for an Ashes tour – a tour that in another realm, he would be on. But even though he’ll never return to the middle, he has started to do more exercise in recent months as he gets to grip with what his body can and can’t do.
Earlier this summer, an inspirational video of the former Leicestershire and Notts man playing shots in the nets went viral, and when it is brought up, a broad grin spreads across his face.
“I’ve still got it!” he laughs. “That was really good fun. I used to be like a blind man if I’d had two weeks off, but I still had it. I felt like I hadn’t been away, it felt really good. “I can do exercise, that’s why coaching should be fine. It’s just about knowing my body and responding to what it tells me. I can do more but it’s just about gaining confidence all the time.”
And with that thought in his mind, he jogs over to the kids who have waited patiently for his autograph and immediately starts chatting to them cheerily.
n Taylor was speaking to us courtesy of Selco Builders Warehouse, the UK’s fastest growing builders merchant with 55 branches across the UK, including one on the Stafford Road in Wolverhampton and Coneygree Industrial Estate in Dudley. There are also branches across Birmingham in Perry Barr, Stirchley, Tyburn and Tyseley. Selco is in its third year of sponsoring Warwickshire County Cricket Club and Birmingham Bears.