James Taylor on life with a serious heart condition: 'The shock is like being hit by a 100mph cricket ball'

James Taylor
James Taylor was forced to retire from cricket aged just 26 Credit: Andrew Fox

James Taylor’s description of the moment his implanted defibrillator shocked his heart back into a normal rhythm is told in a matter-of-fact way without a flicker of emotion but nevertheless is a stark reminder of what he faces every day.

“It is like being hit by a 100mph cricket ball and then putting your hand in an electrical socket. The exact feeling is like your insides blowing up because that is really what it is doing. It is electrocuting the middle of your heart. 

“Somebody heard it going off from 30 yards away. I just went all fuzzy and then I shot off across the room. Now my medication is better than it was and I feel more confident on the medication, which makes a big difference. One tiny little pill, it is amazing what it can do.”

Taylor uses the word “scary” a lot and, given what he has endured over the past 11 months, it is totally understandable. 

Last April he fell ill preparing for a pre-season match for Nottinghamshire against Cambridge University and nearly died. He was diagnosed in hospital with ARVC, the congenital heart condition that afflicts one in 5,000 people. It ended his cricket career at the age of just 26, having played seven Tests.

Taylor pictured at the end of play in a 2015 Test against Pakistan Credit: Getty Images

He had just returned from a tour to South Africa and summer 2016 was his chance to establish his place in the England team. Now, almost a year on, he is still coming to terms with the after-effects of that life-changing day at Fenner’s.

“People don’t realise because I have a positive persona but you can’t get around the fact how scary it is and unless someone has gone through it they will never know what it feels like when you don’t know if your heart is ever going to slow down,” he tells The Daily Telegraph. “It escalates and doesn’t stop until this thing in my chest shoots me across the room, which is scary. That is the anxiety I am dealing with all the time. That is my new life.” 

Taylor is at Edgbaston and has just spent an hour talking to first-year professionals at the annual rookie camp held by the players’ union. The young players sit rapt, listening to the story of someone who is the living embodiment of how life can change in unexpected ways, even when young, healthy and supremely fit.

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“It is 24-7. When I lie down it is tough work. When I was sitting talking [to the players] my heart was going and it is a scary place to be,” he says. “Exercising for the first time when you have not done it for a week is scary because you don’t know when your heart is going to go through the roof. Just last week it went from 80 beats per minute to 220 in 30 seconds. It was because I was ill with a cold and I was probably doing more than I should have. It was fine by all reports from the hospital but it was scary.

“I sat down when it was happening because I thought my defib was going to go off and did not want to be standing and fly across the room. It can happen when I am sleeping, if I have too much spicy food, some alcohol or caffeine.

“I can do a lot more exercise than I do but I don’t trust my body at the minute. It is about learning a new body and getting a new level of confidence, which I don’t have, and it is scary when you get a setback. It is just manning up and trusting your body a little bit more.”

Taylor posted a photograph on one of his social media accounts last year showing the vivid scar in his chest where his defibrillator was fitted and more operations will follow as it has to be replaced every seven years.

“That is a scary thought in itself,” he admits. “It is another heart operation every time and that is not to be taken lightly. Imagine having wires screwed in your heart and taken out. Every time you have an operation there is an element of risk and that risk is a lot higher when dealing with the heart.”

Taylor knows he was very lucky to survive. He is incredibly positive about his situation, and it sounds genuine rather than a brave face being put on for show.

“Don’t get me wrong. I get jealous when I know I should be out there doing it. I just want to be out there myself and playing. It can be tough but I suppose knowing that I will probably die if I do makes it a little bit easier. It is 100 per cent easier than being left out. I can’t play cricket so I can’t dwell on it.

Taylor has worked with Sky Sports and also delved into coaching since retirement

“I should be playing for another 10 years. But I am now exactly where I thought I would be in 10 years’ time when retired, just fast-forwarded and I am a bit younger than most doing it. I am fortunate that I have no regrets. I would have liked to have scored a few more hundreds and not given my wicket away so easily sometimes but that is the game.” 

Since his retirement Taylor has worked for Sky Sports and Test Match Special and has also coached at the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire academies. He says he has picked up a bat. “I’ve still got it. It is quite enjoyable to face the odd little kid who asks if he can bowl at me.” 

Edgbaston is looking bleak and as the hard rain turns to sleet it is difficult to imagine the cricket season will start here in six weeks’ time. The whiff of a new summer could be when the reality kicks in again for Taylor but he is prepared and has his wedding to focus on and a media career to build.

“I have been to a million cricket grounds since it all happened so it is no problem for me now and one of my strengths is that I have always been good at change. I know it was extremely dramatic what happened but when I cleared out my locker the other day [at Trent Bridge] it was neither here nor there. I was just clearing out my locker because I needed my stuff out of it.” 

A soon as he fell ill, Taylor used his social media accounts to talk about his treatment and has become a counsellor of sorts for others in a similar position. “I speak to hundreds of people on social media. I direct message them and they get in contact with me. I tell them with what to expect, and the mental stuff too. I do get bombarded and there are only so many people I can help but it is nice to know I can do something.”

This is the seventh rookie camp organised by the Professional Cricketers’ Association and as well as listening to Taylor, the 31 players were given advice about gambling awareness, alcohol addiction, agents and contract negotiations. But it was life after cricket that Taylor was there to talk about. “Make the most of the opportunities and you will be in a great position to enjoy a great life.” 

Gone too soon...

Colin Milburn

A Test average of 41 from nine matches and a swashbuckling style that matched his larger than life personality, Milburn’s loss to cricket was keenly felt. He lost an eye in a car crash in Northampton in 1969 and despite several attempts to play again he was never the same and retired in 1974. Died of a heart attack aged 48 in 1990.

Craig Kieswetter

Somerset wicketkeeper batsman was England’s man of the match in the World Twenty20 final but his career was cut short when playing county cricket a bouncer smashed through the grille of his helmet and fractured his eye socket. Kiewswetter is now pursuing a career on the professional golf circuit.

David Lawrence

The big bustling fast bowler was bowling for England in a Test match in Wellington, New Zealand in 1992 when he fractured his left knee cap. His howls of pain could be heard across the ground. Tried a comeback with Gloucestershire in 1997 but soon retired. Is now a champion body builder.