Northern Diamonds 254 for 7 (Kalis 76, Langston 59* Gunn 50) beat South East Stars 250 for 6 (White 73) by three wickets with four balls remaining
It is half-past ten on a perfect June morning at Emerald Headingley and Sarah Taylor squats down in readiness for the first ball of a cricket match. This is something she will have done hundreds of times, for in addition to club and county games Taylor has played ten Tests, 126 one-day internationals and 90 T20Is for England. And even since her retirement from international cricket in September 2019, she has kept wicket for Sussex Women in a few T20 games. This is rather different, though, because Taylor is making her debut for the Northern Diamonds against South East Stars in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy.
This is a higher-profile, professional game, the type of match Taylor was not sure she would ever play again. But earlier this year she agreed to play for Welsh Fire in The Hundred and she is plainly satisfied that returning to the game will no longer risk harming her mental health. Playing cricket, you see, is now only one of the things Sarah Taylor does. There is teaching at Bede's in East Sussex; there is coaching at the County Ground in Hove, where she works with the full-time professional wicketkeepers and the Academy players; there is, in other words, a balanced life.
"I don't see myself as Sarah Taylor the cricketer anymore," she told ESPNcricinfo in January. "I just see myself as Sarah. It's just a really healthy place to be."
The first ball is bowled by Beth Langston and Bryony Smith plays it out to midwicket where Ami Campbell trots in to field. Already Sarah is up at the stumps to collect the return, although there is not the remotest possibility of a run. A pattern has been set, one that will be familiar to wicketkeepers of whatever standard throughout the game.
The eighth delivery of the morning is bowled by Phoebe Graham and it jags back a little to Alice Davidson-Richards, whose cut is now a cramped ungainly effort. The ball would have passed over middle stump and down leg side but it catches Davidson-Richards' glove and flies between wicketkeeper and first slip. Taylor has transferred her weight to her left but dives back, holds the ball in her right gauntlet… and spills it. It would have been a stunning grab. There is little more she could have done except hang on to the thing.
"I had it!" she said afterwards. "It was literally in my webbing and I just hit the deck. The girls will tell you I was talking about it when we were batting. I did the hard work and I was thinking, 'Yes, stunner!' and then my elbow hit the ground and it popped out. But to be fair, it was nice to get there. I felt rusty, believe me, but it was just nice to dust the cobwebs off. Legs, back, hands…Yeah, pretty happy with that. That was good fun."
After that eighth ball Taylor returned to the more routine habits and skills of her chosen trade. Over the next three hours she squatted down over 300 times and the ball was returned to her after the vast majority of deliveries. It frequently went to her directly, of course, and her takes were clean, unfussy, professional. There is never a point in an innings when wicketkeepers are not involved in the game and Taylor was constantly encouraging, congratulating or commiserating with her new colleagues. She was the focus around which the Northern Diamonds' efforts revolved. In the 48th over there was a stumping off Jenny Gunn that Taylor clearly thought was a decent shout but Tom Lungley took a different view. South East Stars scored 250 for 6 in 50 overs and 14 of the runs came from wides. There were no byes.
Cricket often seems a game more suited to playing than watching. A match is frequently a theatre of private, some might say arcane, skills that are nevertheless placed on public display. And few are more private than wicketkeeping. Batters drive through the covers, bowlers scatter stumps, fielders arrow flat returns… and a wicketkeeper removes the bails or takes catches - many of which, so spectators blithely assume, anyone could take.
At times it is viewed as being to the keepers' credit if no one except the umpire notices their work. This is a semi-private art, a quiet confection of skills in which gloves receive the ball with as little noise as possible. It is an art which seems to attract eccentricity and sometimes accommodates extroversion but one in which flamboyance can be considered almost vulgar.
Wicketkeepers can be show-people demanding a reaction, they can be sergeants keeping the troops' morale up, and yet their skills are on a par with the most skilful craftsmen. This was more or less Sarah Taylor's only world for well over a decade of her life. Now it is Sarah and she is helping out the Northern Diamonds for a while. This is the cricketer Adam Gilchrist once named as the best wicketkeeper in the world.
The batting did not go anything like as well as the wicketkeeping. Taylor nudged the first two balls she received for singles but then tried to pull her fifth through midwicket, bottom-edged it into her off stump and departed with a swish of the bat. That gave legspinner Dani Gregory her second wicket but 70 for 5 was also the low point of the Diamonds innings. Sterre Kalis and Gunn both made half-centuries and put on 90 before Langston's outstanding 59 not out saw her side home to a tremendous victory by three wickets with four balls to spare. It was one of those improbable, hard-fought victories that will have been enjoyed in many pavilions around England this blissful Saturday evening.
"You do miss the feeling of winning those games," said Taylor. "We were out of it, let's be honest. It's so good to be part of a team like this and I've also got a nice balance in my life now. I've got my main job at the school and I've got the luxury of working with the guys at Sussex. That is a learning curve and a good challenge. I hate to say it but I don't need cricket. I don't need to play whereas before I needed to and there was a lot more pressure."
Sarah Taylor never shut the door on professional cricket and now that the game is no longer the sole focus of her career it is plain she is ready to make some room for it again. It is also clear that she has so much to give, not least to herself.