Taylor-made pathway to redemption for Black Cap
A year ago Ross Taylor, disappointed at being replaced as the New Zealand captain, spent Christmas away from the spotlight. He didn't know when he'd return to the game. Twelve months on, he's in the form of his life and the No 4 ranked test batsman in the world after an incredible series against the West Indies. Last week, he told Fairfax Media his story.
Standing in a butcher's shop in Waihi Beach last December, the hot sun beating down outside as holidaymakers soaked up the rays, the last thing on Ross Taylor's mind was cricket.
Earlier that month, he'd been unceremoniously replaced as the New Zealand captain by Brendon McCullum after 18 solid months in the job.
The decision had been telegraphed a month earlier during the Black Caps' tour to Sri Lanka. But when the blow from coach Mike Hesson officially came on December 7, it didn't make it any easier to stomach.
At a time when his team-mates, under their new captain, were preparing for a tour to South Africa, Taylor retreated to the beach to escape the spotlight.
It was, Taylor says looking back now, fantastic to have a "normal Kiwi Christmas" and spend time with his wife, Victoria, and daughter, Mackenzie. After all, as a professional cricketer, summer vacations are almost unheard of.
But as far as his stellar cricket career went, it was his lowest point and those dearest to him are the only ones who really know how close he may have come to quitting the sport altogether.
Of course, Taylor, if there's another thing they'll tell you, is not a quitter.
He would eventually return to the team in February for the home series against England and, little more than a year after his cricketing nadir, he's soaring higher than ever before having scored three centuries in as many tests against the West Indies, including his first double - an unbeaten 217 in Dunedin. In the process, his average has skyrocketed to 47.51, the best of any New Zealand cricketer to have scored more than 1000 test runs.
As far as sporting stories in 2013 go, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one than Taylor's redemption.
It's the day before Christmas and two days out from the start of the one-day series against the West Indies when Taylor walks into the lobby of the Black Caps' Auckland hotel.
Wearing shorts, a yellow T-shirt and a white New York Yankees cap, with a couple of days' stubble on his face, he looks like he could do with a bit of time off. He feels knackered, he says, but, you know, "it's a good kind of tired".
His biggest concern at the moment, after a year of legitimate, stomach-churning, sleep-depriving worries, is that wife Victoria's gift, a present he ordered online, has not arrived.
"After this, I think I'm going to have to shoot out and quickly buy her something else," he says, that trademark grin spreading over his face, "otherwise I'm going to be in trouble.
"As for the cricket, it's been a pretty amazing three weeks.
"I did set myself a goal of getting at least one hundred, maybe two all going well, but three of them? Never in my wildest dreams did I realistically think about that until I was probably not out on 89 at lunch on the third day of the test in Hamilton."
In the test series, Taylor scored 495 runs at an average of 247.5 and batted for more than 20 hours. No wonder he feels tired.
To understand how Taylor got to this point, you have to understand what he's gone through since that fateful day in early December 2012.
The protracted captaincy saga was draining, but it's old news and something he's not keen to dwell on.
"Does it still hurt? Well, I'm reminded of it often," he says, pausing a long time before answering.
"Everyone has moved on and I'm just enjoying playing my cricket and hopefully I can keep it up for a lot longer."
There, in that answer, is perhaps the biggest hint to the secret behind Taylor's recent success.
Always a deep thinker of the game, the former New Zealand captain has done plenty of that in the last 12 months - about what happened, about the mental side of cricket and, importantly, about the legacy he wants to leave behind when he retires.
His experiences have shaped him, hardened him and he now projects a certain toughness and sense of self-confidence more pronounced than back when he wore the armband.
"I think I was quite resilient back then already; maybe I just didn't show it," Taylor says.
"People close to me know that. But now I'm even harder than I was before on myself. Little things don't worry me too much any more."
Taylor isn't keen to open up about what goes on deep in his cerebral cortex - no professional sportsperson is - or reveal exactly what his goals are.
But what's certainly clear is that he has plenty of unfinished business on the cricket field.
"I do have goals in mind that I want to achieve, both short and long term," he says.
"There's runs, hundreds and winning games for New Zealand - those are my main goals without going into specifics.
"They are written down and I tweak them every now and then.
"They are always good to have as a little bit of a distraction but don't get me wrong, they aren't my full focus."
Still, the question - the obvious, important one - is simply how? How, when a year ago he felt so disillusioned with cricket, has he turned it around?
The best answer, Taylor's inclined to say, is that he's won a battle with himself off the field and finally learned to let the little things go.
For if there's one thing the former skipper's spent an exhausting amount of time on this year, it is, as they say in sport, "the top two inches".
During the captaincy saga, he worked with All Blacks sports psychologist Gilbert Enoka, talking over his frustrations, highlighting his goals and planning his comeback.
Massey University professor Dr Gary Hermansson, another well-known Kiwi sports psychologist, has also been an "incredible sounding board".
There are others, too, who Taylor says want to remain anonymous, but have made a massive contribution to his success.
But undoubtedly, he's sifted through their advice, picking pieces that work and discarding things that don't, and, in the process, taken his game to the next level.
"A lot of the mental stuff has not really, for me at least, been about self-belief but rather about dealing with distractions that come along the way," Taylor says.
"Never is there any day where you feel mentally the same. But as a cricketer, you have to find a way of getting to a state where you can score runs.
"Some days you'll find you can score them easily and some days you have to fight a few demons along the way.
"I think Gary, along with Martin [Crowe], has been great with that."
It would be remiss, of course, to talk about New Zealand's brightest star without mentioning the country's greatest test batsman, Crowe, who also happens to be his mentor and, in Taylor's words, "a cricketing genius".
"I think my recent success has come down to a lot of drive and determination from me to have goals and want to achieve them," Taylor says.
"But at the same time, a lot of other people have helped me along the way."
It's generally accepted that Crowe is New Zealand's greatest test batsman. With 5444 test runs at an average of 45.36 and 17 hundreds, his numbers certainly suggest that.
But Taylor, whether he cares to admit it or not, has every chance of passing him in the record books.
"I'd like to be one of New Zealand's greatest test batsmen," he says.
"But I still think I'm a long way away from that."
As well as getting the mental side of things right, Taylor's also let go of the frustration and anger that justifiably consumed him this time last year.
It's impossible to forget what happened to him. But he says his interactions with Hesson "have definitely improved" and that they now share "a very good working relationship".
It started with a bottle of wine and has now become a tradition. Long before they inadvertently found themselves locked in a campaign to replace Daniel Vettori as New Zealand's captain, something that at times seemed like a popularity contest played out in public, Taylor and McCullum were team-mates.
They've known each other for years and as teenagers in the New Zealand under-19 team were senior players; McCullum, ironically, was the skipper and Taylor his vice-captain - and both were destined to go on to big things.
So when their careers did indeed take off they made a small pact to buy each other a nice bottle of wine for every century scored in international cricket.
McCullum may be regretting that little decision now.
Recently, when Taylor walked into the dressing room in Hamilton during the third test, there, sitting next to his gear bag were seven "very nice" bottles of wine courtesy of the man who replaced him as the skipper.
McCullum, at the time, probably thought he'd paid his debt back. But then Taylor got another hundred.
They have history, sure, but the captaincy controversy has not impeded their ability to get the job done out in the middle, as evidenced in the first test when the duo both reached three figures during a 195-run stand.
"As long as Brendon's captain and I'm in the team, I think it's always going to be around," Taylor admits.
"I acknowledge that and I just have to get on with it. It doesn't really bother me either way.
"Until one of us retires, it's going to be around. And that's not from our doing. I'm sure it's an interesting subject for a lot of people and it's an easy one for them to talk about."
At 32 and with a well-documented back injury, McCullum, in all probability, will retire before Taylor, who intends to play on until the 2019 World Cup.
So would he - should McCullum pull stumps before him - want the captaincy again?
"I did have a feeling I was going to be asked this question at some point," he says, breaking into that grin again. "But I haven't really thought about it to be honest.
"I'm just content with doing what I'm doing.
"When I was captain, I enjoyed the extra responsibilities of the job and I think it brought out the best in my batting.
"I now enjoy the extra responsibility that's on me in terms of being a senior batsman.
"I hope I can teach the younger guys coming through a little bit of what Martin and some of the past players have passed on to me.
"I get a lot of satisfaction out of batting with the young guys and helping them out there in the middle."
Clearly, Taylor is happy with his decision to return to the New Zealand team and let the past stay where it is.
But he's not about to put his feet up, sit back and bask in the glory after what he's achieved so far this summer.
He is hungry to score more runs than anyone in New Zealand test history and help the Black Caps become a genuine force in world cricket.
For now, he's not a man with many worries.
But it's time to go. He has a Christmas present to buy for his wife and no matter how many test centuries he scores and how heroic his on-field exploits, he's not going to get off that easy.