Back in the late 1980s, in Masterton, when Luteru Taylor was off to school for the first time, there was a brief hiccup because here he was with a first name that Pākehā teacher tongues would find difficult. The solution came from his Grandma Sylvia (his dad’s mother) who, along with his mum, was there on his big day. “Just call him Ross,” she said.
And that’s how the cricketing world has known him throughout his 16 years and 450 appearances as a high-scoring Black Caps batsman in all three forms of international cricket. For a while he was the New Zealand captain too, although that dream turned sour after what Martin Crowe described as NZ Cricket’s “mean-spirited” removal of him in 2012.
His extraordinary stats since that setback speak to his resilience.
He has scored the most runs, made the most centuries and taken the most catches by a New Zealander in international cricket. He was the first New Zealand cricketer to play 450 international matches, and the first player from any country to make 100 international appearances in all three formats of the game: test cricket, one-day internationals, and Twenty20. And then there’s his highest test score of 290 runs in Perth in 2015 — the most by a New Zealand batsman on Australian soil.
Those achievements could encourage a player to strut a bit. But that hasn’t been his style, as you can see from this chat with Dale.
I’ve been a big fan of your career, mostly because of the classy way you play and how you’ve handled yourself through times of adversity. I know you’ve been busy with all the media off the back of the book’s release, but thanks for taking time to have a yarn with us. . . .
You’ve got a beautiful name, Ross. How did you come to carry the name Luteru Ross Poutoa Lote Taylor?
Well done in pronouncing it! That was half the problem growing up. On my first day at school in Masterton, the principal couldn’t pronounce Luteru. My grandma and my mother were with me, and my grandma said: “Just call him Ross,” which was my grandmother’s maiden name. Up until I went to school, I was just Luteru, or “Kelu” for short, and from there on in I was Ross Taylor, and I guess I didn’t think anything of it.
Tell us about those names. I’m sure they all have a rich history.
Luteru was the minister of the Wainuiomata church that Mum went to, Poutoa was our link to the Sāmoan royal family, and Lote was Mum’s maiden name.
And then, in 2017, I became Leaupepe, a chief of my family and village, Fasito’o-uta in Sāmoa.
The Sāmoan people will be really proud of what you’ve achieved in cricket. It used to be said that Polynesians weren’t good at cricket, but you’ve proved the naysayers wrong.
I think New Zealand has moved on a lot since then. I’m proud of my roots, and it’s been nice to break those stereotypes that people had.
Tell us about how your mum ended up in Masterton in the first place?
Mum (Naoupu, also known as Ann) grew up in Sāmoa and then moved to Wellington. Dad (Neil) was a Wairarapa lad through and through, and was never a big fan of Wellington, so they moved to Masterton and they’re still living there today.
Do you speak Sāmoan?
I used to be pretty close to fluent growing up. Mum used to talk to us in Sāmoan, but when I went to boarding school, I lost it. Mum still talks to me in Sāmoan when we go home, but every now and then I have to say: “Mum, you’re gonna have to explain. What’s that word mean?” But it was cool to grow up with a few different languages. I can pick up a lot of words but I definitely can’t speak as well as I used to.
A few different languages? There’s some other languages?
Sāmoan’s quite similar to other languages. I had a few Tokelauan mates at school and I learned their swear words and other stuff to initiate a conversation.
Did you have any Māori mates through your schooling days?
My best mate Marcus Emery is Māori. His mum’s Pākehā and his dad’s Māori. We grew up together and played hockey together. Marcus represented New Zealand in indoor hockey. We were always a little bit different. Coming from mixed-race families, we could see things that other people probably couldn’t.
Who were your sporting heroes when you were a kid?
I loved watching the All Blacks and the Warriors. In cricket, Mark Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar were my two favourite players. I don’t want to say I copied them, but I definitely loved watching them and seeing how they went about things.
You’ve got your own style, bro. How was it preparing the book (Ross Taylor: Black & White, written with Paul Thomas)? You know, looking back on your sporting life rather than constantly being in the heat of battle?
I really enjoyed the process of writing the book. Surprisingly, I only met Paul Thomas once throughout the whole process, and to this day we’ve still only met once.
Yeah, it was pretty cool to look back on things, to think about how I dealt with the negative stuff that happened to me both on and off the field, and how my family and friends helped me get through it.
It was a little bit strange writing a book where you’re putting yourself out there. I’ve spent most of my career trying to, you know, just keep my mouth shut, do my job and move on. But when you’re writing a book, you’ve gotta do it justice and be honest to yourself and to your family.
With the captaincy issue, I knew what happened at the time and I’m sure a lot of other people knew, but I wasn’t able to speak. Obviously, there’s only one New Zealand cricket team to play for, and I had to keep my mouth shut, keep my head down and score runs, and hopefully win games of cricket.
That’s where the classy attitude came in. No moaning in the media. Like you say: “Put your head down.” Looking at the back end of your career, I’m sure people have even more regard for you because of your steely focus on the team’s success rather than what some might see as a demotion. In fact, your best cricket came after that anyway, didn’t it?
I think so. As I said, there’s only one New Zealand team to play for. I had a lot of goals that my mentor Martin Crowe had set for me, that I could achieve only if I played for New Zealand. I would have earned a lot more money if I had given that up, but I loved playing for my country. I know my family enjoyed watching me play and representing their country and they’re proud of what I’ve achieved.
Time’s a healer, things move on — and people have dealt with a lot harder things than what I had to deal with. I guess my one was a little bit more public than most. I learned a lot about myself during that period. The resilience that I learned over time helped me in the tough situations that you get yourself into as a professional sportsman — because there’s a lot of it, especially as a batter. When you fail 60-65 percent of the time, you’ve gotta learn to deal with failure.
Do we underestimate the emotional pressures that elite sports people have to bear? Were there times when you hit the wall and had depression? I raise this because we see that some guys, post-career, end up with a whole lot of emotional and health issues. And then the tragic death of Paul Green reminds us that those involved in elite sport sometimes struggle to adjust.
For a lot of sportsmen, their identity is tied up in who they are in sport, whereas for me, I wanted to get into other avenues. I was into wine, I was into property, I was into the sharemarket.
If you’re honest, you always know that there’s only a limited timeframe for being a sportsman. My identity is not all tied up in Ross Taylor the cricketer, which hopefully can put me in good stead for life after cricket.
But at the same time, you’re always going to be associated with cricket in some way, helping out, whether it’s coaching my son’s team or mentoring young up-and-coming first-class cricketers.
Don’t know too many Sāmoan wine manufacturers, Ross . . .
Yeah, a teammate said that to me one time. He said: “I don’t know many Sāmoans who like pinot noir like you do, Ross.” It’s an acquired taste, but it’s a hobby of mine and something that I enjoy doing.
I want to touch on some memorable moments, the first of them when you were invited back to your village in Sāmoa to receive a chiefly title. How did it feel for you to be front and centre in a vastly different arena from the sportsfield?
I was away on tour at the time so I wasn’t able to attend. So my mum took part in the ceremony for me. But, yeah, it was an honour. I had some amazing guidance at the time from Murphy Su’a, the first Sāmoan to play for the Black Caps. It’s been great to bounce ideas off him in those cultural areas. It’s nice to have an independent person to talk to about these things.
What about the first time that you were chosen for the national team? What was it like walking out on to the pitch as a Black Cap?
It’s something I’ll never forget. I missed the phone call from Sir Richard Hadlee, but he left a voice message. That was a special moment. Then having all your family and friends travel to Napier to watch us play West Indies. I had to wait a long time to bat, and to say I was nervous would be an understatement. I would’ve been happy to have played one game of cricket for my country. To have played 450 — I never would’ve dreamed of that at the start of my career.
There’s a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I imagine not just your parents but your wider whānau supported you in your early days when they recognised you had a talent.
Oh, 100 percent. You know, my grandma and granddad, my Aunty Mary, my uncles giving me 20 bucks to go to a tournament, buying raffle tickets off me when they didn’t need to. Who I am as a person is a testament to them. And it was never going to be a problem getting too big for my boots because they would’ve knocked me down very quickly if I got ahead of myself.
What about your role in encouraging Pacific athletes to compete and excel in sports other than the traditional contact sports that Polynesian people have long been associated with?
Yeah, when I retired I had messages from a few of the All Blacks, the Polynesian boys, who said, you know, if it wasn’t for you, we probably wouldn’t have followed cricket. That was humbling.
I think I have a duty to give back to the sport that’s been good to me. And being of Polynesian descent and passionate about it, I know the under-representation of Māori and Pacific Islanders in this game of cricket needs to change. That’s probably a 10- to 15-year programme to get the kids to come through, to be active and get off their devices and just give the game a go. That’s all we can ask for. If there’s first-class cricketers and international cricketers that come from it, so be it.
But first and foremost, it’s just being exposed to the game, and, hopefully, in time kids will want to not only play cricket but play cricket for a living. Playing for the All Blacks and playing rugby league for the Warriors is a pretty awesome job, but representing the country at cricket is not a bad one either.
I’m looking at some of the clubs that you played for, the countries you’ve visited, the guys you’ve competed against, and like music, sport has the ability to transcend cultures. Who are some of the people that stand out, that you’ve been proud to play alongside?
In the New Zealand team, I played with some of the greats of our game. Kane Williamson, Brendon McCullum, Stephen Fleming. I was also fortunate to play in the IPL (Indian Premier League) with Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, and Dale Steyn.
When you play against a team in a bilateral series, you put them on a pedestal, and in some cases you’re almost beaten before you play because you’re in awe of them and who they are as a team. And you watch them when they warm up and think how much better they are.
But playing in the IPL breaks that down, because you see them as individual sportsmen. You see how they went about their game — and sometimes they were better than us, but we found out quickly that they weren’t that much better than us.
It was an honour to play with the late great Shane Warne and share a changing room with him, because he was definitely a character in the way he told stories about cricket and about his life.
You’ve described a vanilla environment in New Zealand cricket where at times you felt obliged to leave being Sāmoan at the door. Racist banter and ignorance is commonplace in our country, as we know, but why was it important for you to bring this to the fore in your biography?
I didn’t think I could write an honest appraisal if I didn’t touch on how it felt at different times. It wasn’t prevalent, but it definitely happened at times.
And I think for people to be surprised — well, it’s a bit naive to think that it doesn’t happen. I just want to bring some attention to what happened to me and how I dealt with things because I’m sure there are people out there, young kids, who are going through similar things.
As a side note, New Zealand Cricket wanted to make a big deal of my name in the last game and make it “Luteru Taylor coming out to bat.” I thought, you know, I’ve gone my whole career as Ross and in the last game they want to make a song and dance about my name. It didn’t sit well with me. I thought it was a bit of a token gesture at the end of the day.
Talk to us about your favourite shot of all time. Is there one that sticks in your mind?
I got asked this question yesterday. I’d never been asked that before, and I was wondering how to answer it. But I think it would have to be hitting the winning runs at the World Test Championship in Southampton in 2021. To go out there, to bat in a pressure situation, and to be at the end with Kane Williamson. I think I’d left the ball before, and we needed two or three runs to win, and Kane just gave me a bit of a steer, like: “Hurry up and finish it, Ross.”
So I came down the wicket, stepped a little bit and just smacked it. Everyone thought it was a good shot because, you know, you’re hitting the winning runs, but I think I just got lucky that he put it in the right area — that allowed me to look good, more so than the shot itself, if that makes sense.
It was a memorable shot. What about an innings you played that had all those elements of grit, focus, patience and determination?
Yeah, I think for me it was probably the game before that World Test Championship final. I wasn’t in a great space. I’d just come back from injury. I didn’t feel like the coach wanted me in the team. And I tell a story in the book about how it felt to go out there.
But however it happened, it was the best 80 I ever got. From all the demons in the mind, and feeling like I was going to get dropped for the championship final. To have that pressure on me was probably why that 80 felt so good.
You’ve given us a great deal of pleasure across the years, mate. I have to ask about your tongue. I used to think it was a Māori reference, like laying out a pukana. Is there anything to that, or is that just a thing you had with your kids?
It started with a game at Eden Park when I got what I call a “cheeky 100” — that’s a 100 where I might have got dropped a couple of times or didn’t particularly bat very well. But when I got my second 100, I batted quite well, and for whatever reason, I broke my tongue out.
They were showing that game on TV seven or eight years later and my daughter Mackenzie saw it, and she said: “Dad, when you get 100, can you poke your tongue out?” And the next game, I got a 100, and I guess the rest is history. I’ve poked my tongue out every time I got 100 for her. And for my other two kids as well.
Let’s pay tribute to your wahine and your kids for a moment. Families sacrifice a lot. There’s not a lot of time with their dads. What would you say of the ongoing support that they’ve provided for you so that you can do what you do?
I think it’s a bob each way there. Yeah, they don’t get to see their dad very often, but at the same time, when they have come with me, they’ve been able to go to some amazing places that we wouldn’t have travelled to if it wasn’t for the cricket.
I’m sure they’re enjoying having dad home, but I think we were very lucky. The players of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s didn’t have the technology that we have now. I’ve been able to see my kids grow up on Skype, seeing photos and videos and things. It didn’t make it easier, it was tough on them and tough on me, but I can only imagine how much tougher it would’ve been on the players a lot earlier than me without having the technology we have today.
My wife Victoria’s held the fort for the three kids for a while now. She’s still trying to get used to having me around the house a lot more. She’s told me off a few times for leaving towels on the floor: “You’re not in a hotel now, Ross.”
What else do you do to keep yourself fresh — some things that maybe people don’t realise that you enjoy doing?
It’s nice to have an outlet that’s not cricket, to take your mind off the game, because the pressures externally and internally can consume you at times. For me, that’s the sharemarket and wine. I’ve just started a new job two days a week for a company called Castle Point that runs a couple of equity funds. So I’m looking forward to a new career after cricket.
So when you talk about wine, are you a collector or are you making the Ross Taylor vintage?
I don’t think you’ll be buying any wine made by me any time soon. No, I’m a collector. And storing too many bottles. I need to drink some of them. So if you’re ever down in Hamilton, sing out.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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