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Cricket news - The special young man from Palmerstone North who just had it

Ross Taylor is on the verge of a special milestone in Wellington where he is due to play his 100th Test

Ross Taylor is on the verge of a special milestone in Wellington where he is due to play his 100th Test

"The game got played at his pace once Ross would come out to bat." Paul Gibbs jumps to his feet in his office as soon as he makes his declaration. It's now time for a demonstration. We are at Palmerston North Boys' High School a few days out from the commencement of the academic year and a day before the Wellington T20I. And Gibbs, the director of teaching and learning mathematics, is busy putting the finishing touches on the syllabus.

He is decked in his formal attire with a tie to boot. There's a tinge of excitement in his tone from the time he starts talking about the "special young man" who he mentored and coached two decades ago. But now as he begins to recall just how ahead of his time Ross Taylor was when only 16, Gibbs can no longer be seated. And the sense of amazement in his voice you'd think has remained the same for the last 20 years, even now as his famous student is about to become the first-ever cricketer to play 100 matches across all three formats.

"He would first put his boot down and scratch the surface within the crease really hard. Then look around the field. Then tap the wicket with his bat. Put his head down, scratch the surface once more and then look up as if to say 'you can bowl at me now'. The first ball he would cut, then walk to square leg, adjust his pads, and then back to his routines," Gibbs tells Cricbuzz.The incident he narrates is from the time Taylor was playing for the school's first XI in Palmerston North's premier grade competition against men often double his age. Understandably, some of them wouldn't take too kindly to the teenager taking his own time and would chirp at him. The more they said, the more he made them wait. And as Gibbs reminisces, the chatter would only push Taylor to up his game and the result was often an explosion of boundaries.

"He would go 6, 6 and then drop the ball near his feet, run a single and just stand at the non-striker's end getting a rest. It wasn't him being arrogant at all. He probably didn't even realize it. He could manipulate the opposition. The reason I get so speechless talking about it is you don't see someone that young do that. These are things that you try to explain and teach. But Ross just came with it. He just had it, which was mind-blowing."

Paul Gibbs still can't contain his excitement when talking about his former student

Taylor came to Palmerston North Boys' High in 2000 from his hometown of Masterton, an hour away in the heart of the Wairarapa wine district, on the aegis of the Central Districts Cricket Association. Gibbs, then in his mid-30s, was just winding up his cricket career - which saw him play a handful of first-class games for Central Districts in the early 90s - and just getting full-time into the teaching profession. Though untrained as a coach, he was also in-charge of the cricket team. But he had never heard of Taylor but was surprised to hear a number of his first XI players rave about the new boy as a potential star. He in fact told them that if they wanted to see Taylor playing right away then it would come at the expense of one of them, which is exactly what would transpire with the future New Zealand Test captain getting his first game for his adopted alma mater owing to an injury.

Palmerston North is a multicultural hub with a population of around 80,000. Apart from being home to the New Zealand Rugby Museum and having a large number of immigrants from South Asia, it's also always brimming with international students and is supposed to have the most cafes per capita in the entire country. The overall vibe may be laidback but there's no shortage of activity as you drive through the rather wide streets of the city. The school itself is one of the older "only boys" establishments in New Zealand. And in addition to being renowned for its prowess in academics, Palmerston North Boys' High has also produced a dozen All Blacks and nearly 15-16 Black Caps, including the likes of Jacob Oram, Mathew Sinclair, Adam Milne and Jamie How.

So, it was quite a big change for young Taylor, the shy country boy of half-Samoan heritage, when he had to shift here and stay at College House, the boarding facility for outstation students. But as Gibbs recalls, Taylor was fortunate to be surrounded by some "great friends" at the hostel who immediately became his extended family. One of them being Jarrod Smith, son of former New Zealand wicket-keeper turned commentator Ian Smith, who went on to play football for the country. There were also others, two of whom decided to have a rather unique reunion with Taylor a few years back.

"They were his hockey friends and they ran to the middle of McLean Park in Napier after Ross scored a century to celebrate with him. And a shocked Ian Smith on commentary goes, 'I know those guys. They used to room with him in Palmerston North'."

One of the places where Taylor's crazy big shots were first detected

It was also in the company of these hostel buddies that the generally reticent Taylor's cheeky side would come through. Like the time Gibbs and the rest of the cricket team got into the team mini-van to go to Napier for a game and the star of the side insisted on playing a cassette tape that he brought along.

"Basically it was Ross and some boys calling up the Talkback radio stations at night and coming up with these crazy made-up stories using names of the staff members from school. The challenge was to see how long they could keep it up before the radio host got wind of it. It would be things like a staff member refereeing a famous rugby match and making a blunder like not raising the flag for a touch on the side, which would have actually happened but without the said teacher's involvement."

Gibbs and his wife actually stayed in the teacher's quarter below the room occupied by Taylor and his roommates during the first year of his stay in Palmerston North. And the coach recalls constantly hearing footsteps as if there were "rats in the ceiling".

"The next year I once called Ross and asked him if he was still troubling the teacher living downstairs and he said wait and started banging the floor with his feet. Before long I could hear someone from below berating him loudly and Ross says, 'Well Gibbo, looks like I still am'." Taylor would also often mockingly chide Gibbs, who was player-coach at times, if he'd asked his key batsman to play for time and then gotten out himself playing an aggressive shot saying, "So we aren't playing for time anymore are we?"

Though Taylor wasn't the most "academic" of guys, Gibbs doesn't recall a single time where the youngster took his studies for granted or ever treated it like a chore, despite his growing popularity and success on the cricket field. He never had a chip on his shoulder and even if schoolwork wasn't always his No.1 priority, he did whatever needed to be done.

"I never taught him in class. A place like this though, with the tall poppy syndrome thing, if you are well-known like Ross, it is possible that a teacher would have come to me specifically and told me that he hadn't handed an assignment or was late to class. But that never happened and that is a measure of Ross. He knew schoolwork was part of the jigsaw."

Taylor's name might not have resonated too much around the vast expanse of Palmerston North Boys' High when he was here. Nor was he the sort to shout himself up. But these days, his name is regularly mentioned during school assemblies and every milestone of his is recorded and acknowledged by those in-charge. It's their way of telling the current lot of students that Ross Taylor was one of them. In fact, a bunch of the hostel boys are expected to be around at the Basin Reserve to cheer their famous alumni on as he plays his 100th Test in a few days' time. Taylor too has been very generous with his time and other contributions for the school, according to Gibbs, who proudly has a Taylor jersey from his Royal Challenger Bangalore (RCB) days framed and mounted on the wall.

His parents in Masterton would visit their son occasionally but Gibbs recalls them being even shyer than Taylor. They would in fact watch him play from a distance too. But you were never too far away from the ground when Taylor was on strike. It's his ability to power-hit balls that remains etched in Gibbs' memory. And he then takes you to the back of the school premises and points out towards the far reaches beyond the school cricket ground to explain just how far he could hit them - while once more lauding his fearsome striking ability with a hockey stick that ended up getting the school to reinforce the safety equipment for goalkeepers.

"I still recall some of the shots he played here that were bigger than I have ever seen. They were crazy big. In school-boy cricket, nobody hit it further."

Taylor on the school's annual trip to South Africa in 2001

Apart from being destructive, Taylor also won a number of matches for his school in the premier grades even if the main purpose of them playing in that league was to gain experience. He got 5 hundreds for Palmerston North Boys' High, which is the equal most alongside George Worker, who's also played international cricket for the Black Caps. Taylor also accompanied Gibbs & Co on their annual overseas trip to South Africa in September of 2001, when unfortunately, the entire team was struck by a stomach virus.

"Ross in fact ended up in hospital like some of us. The first few games were cancelled as a result but then he scored a 57 in Bloemfontein. That was great exposure for the boys as he also got to stay with a South African family and just understand the culture of the land he would tour many times in the years to come." It's a tradition that continues with Gibbs having taken his team twice to Chennai and Perth in the last few years.

Taylor was inconsolable in Sydney after going past Stephen Fleming's record for most number of Test runs when suddenly reminded of how that was the task set for him by mentor, the late Martin Crowe. Gibbs doesn't remember having seen the emotional side of his pupil and insists that the only time Taylor would emote was when he wasn't happy with a shot he'd played to get out. He was rather understated even while celebrating his achievements, especially if the team hadn't won.

"If he got a hundred and we lost then no celebration even if everyone is looking at him and going Rossy you are the man. He might score 3 hockey goals, but you lose then what's there to celebrate."

Gibbs on the other hand does get emotional at times when he sees Taylor going through a testing phase, and certainly did so during the captaincy crisis a few years ago. Ask him about how much of the young man from the country who rose to be a worldwide star he still sees in his former student, and Gibbs once again brings up Taylor's "presence in the middle".

"There was a game back then against a club team with two first-class players when we had player umpires and I was standing at square-leg. The unwritten rule was that the batsman walks if he's edged it. And I remember a ball from a leggie called Harry to Ross where there was a loud noise and a louder appeal but he stood his ground. The fielders, all adults, came to me but I obviously couldn't intervene but felt that I had fed Ross to the lions. They really went after Ross post that with their verbals and he responded by scoring two hundreds in that match. The more they said, the better he got and the further the ball went."

He then smiles and adds, "In the second innings, I was trying to get him to learn to play more patiently too. And asked him to survive for 90 minutes of one session. He smashed 115 and got out two overs before the break. How do I criticize that? What I felt was just frustration mixed up with great admiration."

That second innings knock also taught Gibbs an important lesson, and one that he hasn't forgotten even as he proudly plans to be there at the Basin Reserve early on Friday morning to watch Taylor walk out in customary fashion and set a world record.

"The one thing I set out to teach him was to bat time, and I failed to do that, but I did have a great time in the process."

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