Sarah Taylor poses for photos
© Getty Images

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'I couldn't handle being the best because the only way was down'

The England wicketkeeping star talks about her struggles with anxiety, and how she hopes to be able to help fellow sufferers in future

Annesha Ghosh  |  

International cricket has had 758 wicketkeepers - across genders - to date, but when Adam Gilchrist, himself among the cream of that crop, said in June last year that Sarah Taylor was the best one going around, male or female, it didn't immediately sit well with Taylor.

"I didn't really know how to deal with that," the England wicketkeeper-batsman says with a laugh as she sits down for a chat in Mumbai in February this year. "I am horrendous with compliments.

"There were a lot of expectations from that comment, so I had to talk a lot about it and [then] accept it - 'Hey, thanks ever so much.'"

Taylor has 227 wicketkeeping dismissals (the most in women's cricket), 6500-plus international runs (the second most by an England women player), three world titles, and multiple Ashes victories. If you have ever watched her keep, chances are you might agree with Gilchrist's assessment.

"I have always believed that the most feared wicketkeepers are the ones that don't really say much," Taylor says. "But they have a presence about them behind the stumps - you just know that they are just there.

"I want the batsman to know that if they leave the crease, they are gone. I've already got the ball in my hands, I'm taking their stumps and they're just gone. I want them to have that in their brain even before I have caught the ball."

Quick, ever watchful, and nimble, whether standing up to spinners or fast bowlers, Taylor is dexterous either side of the stumps. Such is her flair with leg-side stumpings in particular that even a bowler's erring line can often look like a ruse.

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"I like things to be simple with my wicketkeeping," she says. "My movements aren't too big; I rely a lot on my hands and reactions. I try and get as close to the stumps as I possibly can, flowing with the line almost, just to reduce the distance between catching the ball and taking the stumps, because that could be the difference between feet up or feet down."

An example of her skill was on view in the 2019 Ashes opener in Leicester earlier this month. Natalie Sciver sent an innocuous seamer down leg, a poor delivery by any measure. Ellyse Perry sized it up and went two steps down the track, but her attempt to tickle it fine didn't succeed. As she tried to recover her ground, she lost her balance but only slightly. That split second was all Taylor needed to stump her.

Wicketkeeping, often put in the shade by the other two skills, is a spectacle when Taylor's lightning-fast reflexes are on show. But she says all she ever has on her mind while keeping is "just stopping the ball". Nothing fancy. "Everything else takes over as pure reaction - no thoughts, no premeditation."

Her confidence comes from two qualities. First, a blend of situational and tactical awareness. "You can read they might need sixes or fours and that they have faced a couple of dot balls, so you know something is going to happen. There could be a big shot, a rash shot, coming, and you're ready to pounce."

The other is anticipation. Taylor hones hers with drills like simultaneously catching two balls diverging at high speed off a board with thin ridges along it. It improves her reflexes, which helps when she needs to make a late change in direction, especially when standing up. In the women's game, keepers stand up to the stumps more often than in men's cricket, since the top speed range for most fast bowlers is between 115 and 125kph.

She also learns from watching other keepers. Her favourites are England men's Ben Foakes, her own team-mate - and understudy - Amy Jones, and MS Dhoni whose example inspired her to begin positioning her hands closer to the stumps. "He is so close to the stumps when he takes the ball. He gains an extra split second because of that."

It was at Brighton College, an independent institution in East Sussex with a strong cricket culture, that Taylor's athletic precocity found early expression. Football was her first choice, but in primary school, when a district cricket coach visited an after-school club, she chose to give the game a try.

"I try and get as close to the stumps as I possibly can, to reduce the distance between catching the ball and taking the stumps" © Getty Images

In 2005, a year before her international debut, 16-year-old Taylor, along with Holly Colvin, who would soon be an England team-mate, was selected for Brighton College's 1st XI for the following summer, a decision the MCC president Robin Marlar at the time called "absolutely outrageous", even though a woman had previously represented the side - the former England captain Clare Connor, in 1993.

A decade on from that selection, Taylor would become the first woman to play men's grade cricket in Australia when she turned out for Northern Districts against Port Adelaide. Earlier in 2015, she had become the first woman to become a part of the Sussex Legends Lane - a tradition in which premier cricketers of the county are honoured at Hove with blue banners bearing their portraits - joining the likes of Imran Khan, Tony Greig, CB Fry, Matt Prior, John Snow and Mushtaq Ahmed.

There were other prestigious awards and rewards. She was the ICC Women's T20I Cricketer of the Year in 2012 and 2013, and the ODI equivalent in 2014. That year she was also among the first 18 women cricketers given central contracts by the ECB.

Professionalisation of the women's game, however, Taylor admits, brought with it pressure to "be 100% ready for every tour, feel raring to go" and a fear of what would happen if her performance wasn't up to scratch. "I just felt the expectations and I put a lot of that on myself to perform, given rankings and stuff like that. I felt like I had to perform."

From her England debut in 2006, at age 17, to the end of 2015, Taylor's career had registered only one major blip, in 2010, when she walked away from the game for four months, missing an Ashes tour in the process. "There were lots of personal reasons. Just normal end-of-teenage-years relationship stuff… and I'd also hit a point where I'd won everything that England could possibly win," she would later explain in an interview to the Guardian.

She took a second break from the game in 2016, after she scored only 43 runs in a three-match ODI series against South Africa in February and then averaged 9.80 in England's World T20 campaign, enduring heavy criticism for throwing away her wicket in the semi-final loss to Australia in Delhi.

"I had such a tough tour [that] I associated it [the mental-health issue] with cricket, with dynamics off the field, on the field," Taylor says. "Even doing the national anthem was hard in India. Just anything to do with cricket was the trigger for me, initially. I had to say, 'Something's wrong. I don't want to pick up a cricket bat, I don't want to catch a ball, I don't want to do anything like that.'"

Some days the quest for excellence would fuel her to "push the envelope further". On others, her desire for "everything to be perfect" would border on obsession. Her anxiety manifested as a rapid oscillation between chaos and uncomfortable calm.

There would be panic. "The heart races, you feel faint." Physically it was often akin to a having a heavy headache, a kind of hangover, she says, as she tries to describe the condition for the uninitiated. An umbrella term for a number of medical conditions, the ailment includes more than merely experiencing feelings of anxiety as lay people understand the term.

Taylor has come through it, and with help from the ECB and the Professional Cricketers' Association, she continues to monitor and manage it.

Other England internationals with mental-health struggles

Marcus Trescothick The England batsman ended his international career prematurely, in 2008, due to anxiety. After retirement, he described his illness as "the beast that lives inside". He also wrote about it in his autobiography.

Michael Yardy The Sussex allrounder quit England's 2011 World Cup squad owing to a mental illness that included obsessive-compulsive disorder, three years after he became aware of his condition.

Jonathan Trott In 2013, Trott returned home from an Ashes tour after one Test due to "a stress-related condition". Alastair Cook, the England captain at the time, later spoke of seeing tears in Trott's eyes when he joined him in the middle in Brisbane.

Graham Thorpe Much of the former England left-hand batsman's suicidal depression stemmed from the problems in his marriage and his eventual distressing divorce. He documents his struggles in his autobiography, Rising from the Ashes.

Andrew Flintoff The former England captain, television personality, and one-time heavyweight boxer made a documentary, Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport about depression, in 2012, recounting he struggled mentally during the 2006-07 Ashes and that his drinking problem had peaked during the 2007 World Cup.

Steve Harmison In 2012, the former fast bowler owned up to having gone through "a f*****g hell of a lot". He was diagnosed with severe depression that manifested itself in bouts of homesickness and anxiety attacks for over ten years during his international career.

Monty Panesar The former England spinner described the shock of being diagnosed with anxiety and "paranoia/schizophrenia" as the reason behind his falling out of love with the game.

Kate Cross In August last year, the England fast bowler spoke about her struggles with anxiety and how one poor over in an ODI against Pakistan in 2016 had triggered in her "severely dark thoughts about ending it all".

"Robbo [England coach Mark Robinson] in particular has been trying to take that expectation off me," says Taylor. "He's trying to make things simple. That's when I work best, when things are kept nice and simple, and he's been brilliant at that."

During the 2016 World T20, Robinson saw signs of disquiet in her much before any of Taylor's family, friends or team-mates did.

"He took me to one side when we were in India and asked me, 'Is everything okay?' He sensed that I was kind of pulling myself away from the group socially. Most of the time I was in my room alone. I was trying to just get through games. It wasn't like I wanted to turn up and perform. I just wanted to get back to my room and be in a safe place. I didn't notice I was doing it but he did, and a couple of other girls did as well."

In May 2016, the ECB announced that Taylor, 26 at the time, was "taking a break from cricket, having decided to take some personal time away from the game". Her decision also ruled her out of replacing Charlotte Edwards as the next England captain, a job that eventually went to Heather Knight.

In June, before the home series against Pakistan, Taylor announced that she had been suffering from anxiety for four years and that she had been undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy for it. England physio Susan Dale was one of the people she spoke to about her illness. "We're going to get you the help that you need," Dale said.

"On the cricket field it happened when I was waiting to come out to bat," Taylor said to the BBC at the time. "The nerves would hit me but it would be nerves plus something else. There have been times when I have had to run off into the changing rooms and be sick through sheer panic."

Anxiety, says Taylor, runs in the family. Her younger brother Alex suffers as well. But opening up to the family about her struggles was challenging nevertheless. "When I initially admitted that something was wrong," she remembers, "a lot of people, including my family, didn't understand these things had been happening recently, and that I had been wearing a mask trying to pretend everything was okay. It was a bit difficult for them to get around because anyone that knows me knows I am quite jovial, quite jokey. I smile a lot, and when times are tough, I'll go even further that way. I will even try and hide the fact that something is probably wrong."

"Just anything to do with cricket was the trigger for me, initially. I had to say, 'Something's wrong. I don't want to pick up a cricket bat, I don't want to catch a ball'"

Taylor traces the roots of her ailment to her growing-up years and her desire for perfection.

"If I look back, I have always tried to be the best at everything, and I was always the best at everything," she says. "I was always that girl that played football with the boys because I was good enough. I was always picked first in anything that had to do with sport. And then, all of a sudden, dealing with the fact you weren't [following the 2016 World T20].

"All the girls here [in the England team] know that I like to be a perfectionist at everything I do. Ultimately, that's probably the downfall. I know, rationally, that I cannot be perfect at everything. But at the time, and in that moment, my brain is going haywire because I'm not perfect or because I know being perfect is not possible.

"When I look back, I can probably remember that if I wanted to be perfect at something, instead of trying it out and failing and learning, I would avoid it completely."

Recognising and accepting one's frailties is never easy. For Taylor, it took till she was at the top of her game to realise that something was wrong.

"Just before I took the indefinite break [in 2016], I learnt I couldn't deal with not being the best. It was in that [World T20] tournament that I was ranked No. 1 in the world in T20Is. I got to [being] the best and I couldn't handle it because the only way was down, and I didn't know how to process that.

"And then the expectations grew from others and myself and I didn't know how to handle them, so it went all… (mimics a plane going down, blowing a raspberry). It all just hit me at once and that's why the break happened."

Taylor didn't play any international cricket from March 2016 to May 2017. Her anxiety forced her to put off air travel for a while, and then to be selective about the trips she did take. She had developed an agoraphobia that planted in her the fear of not being able to get off a plane once it took off.

England coach Mark Robinson was among the first to notice Taylor's struggles and offer her the support she needed

England coach Mark Robinson was among the first to notice Taylor's struggles and offer her the support she needed © Getty Images

Since her return in June 2017 for the victorious home World Cup campaign, she has had to limit her participation in overseas tours or sit them out entirely. She pulled out of the 2018 World T20 in the Caribbean, to avoid long flights and unpredictable schedules. She also began to choose to travel by road - no matter the extra hours - instead of taking domestic flights, like during the 2017-18 Ashes in Australia.

That was a difficult tour for Taylor, veteran England bowling allrounder Katherine Brunt remembers. As bowler and keeper, she and Taylor have fed off each other. Both debuted as teens, figured in three England world-title wins, and now share space on the Lord's honours board.

"Any tour is difficult," Brunt says. "You're out of your safe environment, away from family and loved ones, so you feel like you're out there on your own. And the Ashes is one of the toughest tournaments there is for us. It was a difficult time for Sarah."

Just noticing small things like Taylor's reluctance to come out for dinner - she would order room service instead - would make Brunt send her the odd message of support: "'Hope you're okay today. Do you need any company? Noticed you were a bit quiet at training today. Is anything going on?'"

"Just doing that means a lot to her," explains Brunt. "Just showing that you care, and telling her she has the support she needs - means the world to her."

Both Taylor and Brunt travelled to India in February this year for a six-match limited-overs tour, their first visit to the country since the 2016 World T20. The three-match ODI series in Mumbai was the first international assignment for both since New Zealand at home in June 2018. (Brunt was ruled out of the 2018 World T20 with an injury in a warm-up game.)

Brunt's performance peaked in the ODIs, but Taylor went the other way. The team then headed to Guwahati for a T20I series, and then Sri Lanka, and won every match they played. Taylor, meanwhile, sticking to her anxiety-management plan, left for home, with scores of 1, 2 and 4 to her name.

"I know that I cannot be perfect at everything. But at the time, and in that moment, my brain is going haywire because I'm not perfect"

"Sport can be cruel; there are no guarantees. You can go home, be proud of yourself and sleep easy," Robinson remembers telling Taylor after England's 2-1 loss in that Mumbai series. "She had a difficult tour; didn't get the time she would have liked in the middle. She practised brilliantly and stood up to all the challenges she'd normally face, and sometimes that's the game. We don't always get the reward we deserve."

In the English sporting ecosystem, experiences like Taylor's are not unusual. Across a cross section, elite athletes have suffered, with varying degrees of severity, from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, feelings of self-loathing and more. Many of them put their mental-health battles down to having chosen to pursue sport, as the former Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton wrote in her memoir.

In cricket, Marcus Trescothick, Monty Panesar, Michael Yardy - a friend of Robinson's, whom Taylor often reached out to in the past - and Jonathan Trott, to name a few, have been sufferers.

Often the signs of someone's torment are all but invisible to those around them. "That's the hard bit and that's why things have gone on for long periods of time," says Brunt. "If they choose not to speak about it, it would be very hard to be able to know that anything is wrong."

Perceptions regarding mental health are one thing; dealing with issues is another. Taylor has been playing a part in getting the conversation going in her immediate circle and beyond.

"The awareness around mental well-being," she says, "isn't for people that are suffering but actually for people that aren't. If they don't understand, they would never really be able to help, even if they may like to help."

Taylor poses with young fans during a Kia Super League game

Taylor poses with young fans during a Kia Super League game © Getty Images

Eighteen months after Taylor opened up about her struggles, her England team-mate Kate Cross spoke publicly about dealing with anxiety. Taylor's advocacy - through her social-media posts, in-depth interviews and charity - has left a mark elsewhere too.

"I think Sarah Taylor's speaking up has started a discussion around it as far as female cricketers are concerned," says India batsman Smriti Mandhana, who is a fan of Taylor and who, as a teen, once remonstrated with her father for not grooming her into a wicketkeeper.

"In our dressing room, too, girls may be facing similar issues. But does everyone know what a mental illness is? I think 50-70% of our team has read or watched her interviews, so there is some knowledge now."

Taylor says she has not exactly considered the possibility of being a role model in the mental-health discourse as far as women's cricket goes, but she is determined to push for help for and support fellow sufferers and survivors.

"If someone's not getting the right treatment or is treated poorly, or is not handled properly, I get a little bit affected by it; it hurts," says Taylor. "If I can say or do anything that can help people understand, then I'd love to do it."

To that end, she has found a potential avenue she can go down after she is done with active cricket: she completed a diploma in life coaching in November last year. A few months ago, she announced she was co-founding a mental-health charity, Awesome Minds. If the opportunity to be a life coach in a professional sports team set-up comes by, Taylor says she would be open to exploring it. "I would love to help as many people as I can."

As for the immediate future, she has her sights set on playing the World T20 in Australia in February-March next year. "Obviously you want to be successful in your field ultimately," she says. Her pursuit of perfection continues, but it is no longer bereft of moderation or perspective.

"I have learnt to accept who I am. It's not a bad thing. If that makes me do a running session, makes me have a hit [at the nets] for another hour, it's okay. That's still me trying to be the best me that I possibly can be, to give myself the best opportunities to score runs, and Robbo too is big on that - the importance of best-preparedness."

She acknowledges the role of hindsight in her increased self-awareness. The past year alone, she says, has brought forth self-knowledge that she struggled to find in the past. Some of the things she learnt about herself "weren't that great," she adds with a smile, but it has been "a nice change" overall.

"It's [learning from what went wrong] not something I would have previously wanted to do. I would bury it; hide it. 'Nothing's wrong; everything is fine.' Now, I know. 'This isn't working. What can I do to improve?' That's been the biggest journey for me - to learn that it's okay to fail and you have to fail. You're never going to get better otherwise."

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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