‘My heart was started in front of hundreds of people!’: Former England cricketer James Taylor on his brush with death, having a defibrillator… and giving back to the county game

When James Taylor describes Grace Road as ‘a place that’s close to my heart’, it’s hard not to be taken back to the moment, eight years ago, that changed his life forever.

The terrifying condition that struck at a pre-season match in Cambridge sounds like a theoretical notion from a medical textbook: arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, which in layman’s terms affects the beating of the heart.

Yet for Taylor, who had just taken part in England’s triumphant Test series in South Africa and was making a name for himself in the one-day team, its consequences were real and devastating. 

Overnight, physical exertion was out of the question. At the age of 26, he was – just like that – an ex-cricketer.

It says everything about his sunny outlook that he has since forged a successful career off the field, including coaching roles with England Under-19s and Northamptonshire, and three years as national selector Ed Smith’s deputy. 

James Taylor batting for England’s ODI team against Sri Lanka at the 2015 World Cup

And he begins the 2024 season as the new assistant coach at Leicestershire, who 16 years ago gave him his first break as a teenager.

‘I’m lucky,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘My wife said it to me the other night: I’ve never pitied myself. The worst thing I could have done is ask “why me?”’

Even now, the details of his brush with death that day in 2016 inspire equal parts awe and horror. By the time he reached hospital in Nottingham, his heart was pumping at 265 beats per minute – almost four and a half per second.

Astonished doctors said most victims would have been rendered unconscious within 10 minutes, but Taylor – one of the fittest cricketers on the circuit – was still wide awake after six hours, despite experiencing a strain on his heart equivalent to running five marathons. 

A couple of months later, he was fitted with an internal defibrillator, and reveals almost cheerfully that he will soon require another complex operation to change its batteries.

He sounds happy to be alive, grateful for a second chance in a sport he adores. For a couple of years, though, he was leading a diluted existence, a life skulking in the shadows.

‘People just see the outside version: if you’re smiley, then you’re great. But you can’t sleep on your left side because you feel every heartbeat. 

Taylor in hospital after arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy first struck in 2016

Taylor in hospital after arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy first struck in 2016

‘Every time you cross the road, you second-guess what’s going to happen if you shuffle a bit quickly. Every time I went up a flight of stairs, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was freezing cold for the first six months because my circulation had been affected.’

And the machinery now inside him, designed to restart his heart if it gets out of rhythm, took some getting used to.

Once, in Antigua, the defibrillator went off after reacting with a ball pump – Taylor’s ‘scariest moment’ yet. 

On another occasion, he felt stressed after arriving late to give a talk at Grace Road. When he took the stage, his heartrate was 130 beats. It soon topped 300, triggering the mechanism.

‘My heart was restarted in front of a few hundred people,’ he says. ‘You could hear it in the mic as well: imagine the noise. Even now, if I hear a loud bang, it brings me back to that time.’

So how did a fitness junkie adapt to a life where adrenaline and excitement might prove fatal? The answer was golf, allowing him several hours of non-strenuous exercise. He has also started to do 5km Parkruns, pushing his two-year-old daughter in a pram and ‘shuffling round in ‘27 or 28 minutes’. 

Many joggers without a heart condition or a small child in tow would be happy with a time like that.

Taylor wants to use his perspective to be a 'mentor' and help the cricketers of Leicestershire

Taylor wants to use his perspective to be a ‘mentor’ and help the cricketers of Leicestershire

‘My biggest challenge is having to slow down when I want to go faster,’ he says. ‘When it goes up above 100, it can spiral out of control. So I just chill.’

Taylor’s equanimity is remarkable. ‘I’ve loved learning about my new body. I’ve always thought about what I can do, not what I can’t. The last eight years at times have been pretty scary, but I’ve loved it. It sounds mad.

‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever done: mentally I’ve been good as gold, and that should never be the case when something flips your world upside down. All I’ve ever done in my life is exercise and run around. And now I can’t. I think you’re a different cat if you can deal with that.’

Taylor now wants to use his perspective to help the cricketers of Leicestershire, who begin the summer on a high after winning the 50-over Metro Bank One-Day Cup in September and pushing for promotion in the county championship. 

Above all, he wants to be a ‘mentor’.

And he can draw on plenty of experience from his playing days, most notoriously when he was belittled by Kevin Pietersen after adding 147 with him on Test debut against South Africa at Headingley in 2012. 

‘His dad was a jockey,’ said Pietersen of the 5ft 6in Taylor, ‘and James is built for the same gig. We were facing the fiercest attack in world cricket. I didn’t think he was up for it.’

Taylor begins the 2024 season as the new assistant coach at Leicestershire

Taylor begins the 2024 season as the new assistant coach at Leicestershire

As if by way of response, Taylor could boast a one-day average of 53, a figure bettered at the time of his retirement by only Michael Bevan, AB de Villiers and Cheteshwar Pujara.

‘You develop coping mechanisms in your career,’ he says. ‘Not getting as many runs as you’d have wanted, dropping a catch, or someone saying you’re not as good as maybe you think you are. Everything I’ve learned from cricket has put me in a good headspace to deal with this.

‘I don’t have many regrets, because it’s a dangerous place to look back and say: “What if?” Don’t get me wrong: I would have played a shedload more games for England and would have made a lot more money. But I look at it as a chance to learn. It’s really helped that my head has gone in that direction. We move on and we look forward.’

Another metaphor feels unavoidable: despite everything, it is a tale to warm the heart.

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