As always in the fickle world of international sport, one man’s downfall has become another’s opportunity. Withdrawing from England’s squad ahead the crucial second Test against South Africa at Headingley for personal reasons, Ravi Bopara has brought an end to another ill-fated stint in the spotlight.
Unfortunately for the talented Essex stroke-maker, his exile may now be permanent – no amount of runs, either at county level or in the fifty-over arena, can prove that his temperament is suited to the longest format. Quite simply, it isn’t. The two loose shots that ended each of Bopara’s innings last week had no place in such an intense, hard-fought series. Even more ominously, his replacement is hungry.
It seems rather odd to describe a 22 year-old as authoritative. When youngster in question stands a mere five feet five inches tall and is universally known as ‘Titch’, such an adjective feels further misplaced. Then again, James Taylor has made a happy habit of flouting convention throughout his brief, yet blindingly successful career up to now. Where Andy Flower’s deployment of Bopara, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan in the troublesome middle order has appeared experimental, this selection has an air of steadfast faith about it.
The timing of Taylor’s Test introduction is very interesting. In the wake of a truly humiliating defeat at The Oval, England face of a South African juggernaut that is intent on snatching back the top spot in the ICC rankings. After the struggles of the bowlers, who managed just two wickets in 189 overs, many have called for the integration of either Steven Finn or Graham Onions, with wicketkeeper Matthew Prior moving up to bat at six. That would be madness.
The hosts were beaten because they were bowled out twice, capitulating badly on the final day when one dogged partnership could have saved them. Holding a thinner shield up to Dale Steyn and co. might make for murderous consequences. Besides, over at Trent Bridge this weekend, Taylor was busy compiling an unbeaten 163 against a Sussex side featuring some-time Test performers Monty Panesar and Amjad Khan. He now has 5244 First Class runs at an average barely under 50. That is pedigree in itself, even before you glance down a striking cricket CV.
Speeding through the ranks of Worcestershire’s Academy while a prolific pupil at Shrewsbury School, Taylor signed for Leicestershire after his A-Levels. There, he feasted on a three-year run-glut before heading up the M1 from Grace Road to Nottinghamshire last winter. In between times, he opened for England Under 19s in a World Cup, foreshadowing a One Day International debut eleven months ago. As recently as May, the diminutive general was entrusted with the captaincy of England Lions, Flower’s second string. Inevitably, a century against the touring West Indies followed. The best is yet to come.
A veritable dynamo of energy at the crease, Taylor’s technique is undeniably idiosyncratic. There is a heavy bottom-hand dominance that will certainly be dissected by critics (especially if Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel make headway), but also allows for easy manipulation of singles.
Naturally, Taylor pulls and cuts ferociously, while an impressive level of fitness ensures a relentless pace between the wickets. Most impressive of all though, is his unflappable approach. An avid student of the game who trains exceptionally hard, he knows his strengths and will not stray outside of them – a vital skill in batsmanship that is a key ingredient in producing long, match-winning innings. A reliable, determined fresh face – it sounds like the perfect tonic to reinvigorate ailing England.
I first set eyes on Taylor a decade ago when I was 12 years old. In a match between my school and his, Maidwell Hall in Northamptonshire, I had miraculously reached 88 not out at tea. With only about thirty overs to play, my captain set aside ten minutes after the interval for me to ferret the 12 needed in order to reach my maiden hundred.
Of course, standing on the boundary waiting for the umpires to take the field, I was extremely apprehensive. That must have been pretty obvious, too, because on the walk back out to the middle, one of the opposition fielders caught my eye. His height boosted up to five feet by a generous mop of curly blonde hair, this small boy looked me up and down quizzically before unleashing a question as cut-throat as any sledge.
“Have you never scored a century before?” asked James Taylor, 11 years old, incredulously.
My reply was a self-conscious mumble that pre-empted the uncertainty to come – I was starved of the strike and our skipper declared quarter of an hour later, quite rightly, when I had added just six more scampered singles. The confidence of Taylor’s enquiry had unnerved me. It must have done – I still remember it so clearly today.
Now a man on a verge of a Test debut, that boyish assuredness has not deserted him. Speaking yesterday upon hearing on his inclusion, Taylor’s eagerness to make an impression was palpable.
“I hoped that I would be next in line but I never took anything for granted,” explained England’s next number six. “I have scored consistent runs in all forms of the game to earn this chance.”
Few possess a mentality better suited to snatching this opening. Taylor will not wilt in the scorching Headingley heat.
Follow Charlie Morgan on Twitter: @CharlieFelix