To chat to England wicket keeper Sarah Taylor is to be reminded that there is a lot more to who we are than the profession that dominates and defines such a large proportion of our lives.
It was almost exactly two years ago that the ECB announced Taylor would be taking a break from cricket. The 26-year-old, as she was then, had established a reputation as the most talented wicket keeper bat in the world, but she had just endured a difficult World T20 in India, where she struggled for form, scoring just 49 runs in five matches as England were feebly knocked out in the semi-finals by Australia.
Never mind a lack of form, there was a deeper struggle going on for Taylor; anxiety. It led to her having almost 12 months out of cricket, before she returned to help England win the 50-over World Cup last summer.
That victory was one incredible, seminal moment in time. The anxiety, however, is ongoing. Taylor has just sat out England’s recent tour of India – a period that coach Mark Robinson identified some time ago as a suitable time for her to rest.
“I look at my brain as a bit of an injury really,” she explains, as she perches on the edge of a table in the Lord’s media centre, dressed casually in ripped jeans and a loose navy shirt. She has just popped in from her Surrey home for a training session in the MCC gym, and is speaking to me for the BBC Stumped global cricket podcast.
“If you’ve got a bit of a niggle with your knee and you perform and play, you know that it’s going to be sore the next day and you’re going to have to rest for a few days and do rehab, and that’s exactly the same with my brain.
“The fact that Robbo (Robinson) noticed that this winter was an opportunity for a break is brilliant and I’m sure there might be some tours that I might miss in the future, but actually it’s for all the right reasons. Those have obviously been the learnings of the last year.”
I had seen Taylor in the Lord’s Pavilion a few days earlier, as she was preparing to play in the historic match between Middlesex Women v MCC Women. She told me that playing that game on the Tuesday meant she needed to rest on the Wednesday. It meant she missed a day of England camp, but she is reconciled to knowing that is the way she needs to manage herself. On any morning she might wake up “feeling rubbish” as she puts it.
“I can wake up and not feel great. Or I can think of a situation where I’m probably going to have to do something, so instead of worrying about what I’m doing, I’m worrying about how it’s going to happen, how it’s going to play out, what could potentially go wrong, and that can sometimes trigger you into something. Sometimes it can just flick a switch and it happens. You’ve kind of got to be prepared for every situation. Obviously the ones that just come out of the blue are the hardest ones to deal with.”
The thought crosses my mind that Taylor might have been worrying about doing this interview, that she might have felt obliged to do it, since I had asked her, and it could have triggered her anxiety. Before I even mention this though, she remarks that she is glad she has met me today, because it has given her something to think about – a focus – after a couple of not-so-great days.
It turns out to be a conversation that is beneficial to both sides, as Taylor expands into the importance of having balance in life, recognising triggers and finding the tools that work for you as an individual. Taylor learnt this through a series of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions, and having done that myself a few years ago, I’m reminded just how important it is not to lose touch with the tools that work, particularly once you feel you are sailing through life again. In Taylor’s case, it is about managing herself day by day.
“Now I think I’ve got the balance right,” she says. “I completely understand where my head is at and I believe that every cricketer now – everyone in any job – should have a balance in their life, and I didn’t have that balance. My whole life was cricket.
“I put so much pressure on my cricket and it was really unhealthy.”
Cricket was not the cause of her anxiety though, more a vehicle through which it was aggravated. It led to her being exposed on the most public of platforms.
“I feel like I was suffering with anxiety before that (cricket). So to do that to myself (be out there on a high profile, public stage) while suffering with anxiety was probably one of the worst things to do.
“I’ll have attacks during a game and no-one will notice, so actually to be able to get through those without anyone noticing has been a massive learning curve. It just shows the support I’ve got to get through it.”
Taylor would like to see youngsters better educated in school about the way the mind works. She regrets that she never really understood or considered the way her own brain worked until she started having problems.
She again mentions Robinson, who has shown unwavering understanding in the context of her England career. During our conversation, Taylor also talks frequently about the support of her teammates too, citing a match during the last Ashes tour, when she struggled during a match, only for her teammates to keep running things out to her, like sugar and cold towels to help her through.
“You immediately go quite hot, because you’re starting to panic,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll focus too much on my breathing, and instead of trying to be calm, I’ll go the other way and you don’t feel like you’re getting the air in.
“Unfortunately, because you’re taking short, sharp breaths, you do get a bit light headed and that’s where the sugar comes in. It’s not the nicest feeling in the world, you don’t know whether to run away or fight it. But when you have the right people in place, it gets easier.”
It was when she was doing some training with former Leicestershire batsman Tim Boon, above, last year that she had a light bulb moment regarding her struggles out in the middle. Boon hit the nail on the head when he asked Taylor if she felt ‘blinded’ by having the spotlight always being on her. From that moment, Taylor’s mantra has been to ‘blind them’.
“Blind them to a point where you can’t see them,” she enthuses. “So the light’s all on them and you can’t see them. I still to this day think about that.”
The mantra got Taylor through the World Cup, and now she is hopeful of playing a full part in the ICC World Twenty20 in November.
“The last one (World T20, 2016) was bad in terms of my performance and that was obviously my last tour for England before I took a break, so it means something to me. I know that I’ll probably put that added expectation on myself, but actually I’ve kind of got nothing to lose. That’s how I’m approaching my cricket now because if I go out there and I’m thinking ‘blind them’ then I know I’ve got a job to do for the team, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Taylor may look to blind others, but she sees things with a new kind of clarity these days. Her relationship with cricket and herself is all the better for it.
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