Cricket: A run-machine aiming to get back into production: Mark Taylor enjoyed a prolific Ashes series in 1989. Will he make England suffer again? Glenn Moore reports

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER you looked into a television shop window in the summer of '89 a chunky left- handed Australian batsman seemed to be filling the screens. The bowling was performed by a cast of thousands but the batsman was forever the same, sometimes pulling or driving, more often nudging the ball off his hips or squeezing it to third man.

In the six Tests Mark Taylor spent more than 37 hours at the crease. He was the non-striker when the series started in Leeds and was still there when David Boon hit the Ashes-clinching runs two months later. In all he made 839 runs, a record only surpassed by Donald Bradman.

When he followed up with four Test hundreds at home that winter his place as the world's leading opening batsman seemed assured - just 14 Tests and he had already passed 1600 runs at an average of 70.

However, the intervening years have not been kind to Taylor. While no one expected him to maintain such a start, the anticipated dip became a prolonged depression, with 26 subsequent Tests yielding only two hundreds. His scoring rate has halved and this year he was dropped, for the first time, for the decisive fifth Test against the West Indies.

As Geoff Marsh and Dean Jones will testify, Australia's selectors drop people as savagely as any society hostess, but Taylor got lucky as Curtly Ambrose put the team through the shredder. Taylor promptly returned for the New Zealand tour but his performance, after an opening 82, remained inconclusive. He arrives here, as he did four years ago, with his position far from certain.

Then, Taylor was a Test rookie with just two caps; now he is vice- captain with two novices, Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden, competing for the first Test berth alongside him. Both have begun with a mass of runs, every boundary adding to the pressure on Taylor, whose top score is 53. It is, he points out, an improvement on four years ago.

'I've been hitting the ball all right, unlike last time when I struggled,' he says. 'For the first month then I wasn't too flash, my highest score was 23 and I began to think, 'This is going to be a long four months.' Then I had a good hit at Somerset and it just got better and better. These two have adapted to the pace of the wickets much quicker than I did. It is an ideal situation for the team and, sure, it puts pressure on me.

'They are both good players, great strokemakers. When you are young you don't have fear, you just go out and play your shots. The older you get you start worrying about how you are out. That's good if you are constantly out to the same shot but sometimes you can think about it too much.

'Against the West Indies the biggest problem was that I could not get my shots away. It was not so much technique as split-second timing. If your feet are moving quick enough the pace does not worry you when facing bowlers like Ambrose and Bishop. If you are a fraction of a second behind it is the difference between hitting the ball through the gap for four or thick-edging and getting no runs. I wasn't getting knocked over. I batted for at least an hour nearly every time but just couldn't get going. I'd end up getting frustrated and playing a bad shot. I hit the ball much better in New Zealand, so I am aiming to continue from there. I was lucky to get another chance. It is easy to be dropped and never be seen again.'

Open and relaxed, Taylor, 28, was brought up in various New South Wales country towns, mainly Wagga - also Slater's home town - before moving at 14 to Sydney where he gained a degree in surveying. He had a season in England playing league cricket and then graduated to the Test team. Influenced when young by Kepler Wessels - 'he made big runs against the best sides' - he is the same type of player, a grafter and accumulator.

Such batsmen, as Michael Atherton has found, take time to be trusted in one-day cricket and it is only since Australia's World Cup debacle that Taylor has played regularly in the limited-overs side.

After romping through the early part of the tour - albeit with some minor bust-ups - the Australians face the first test of their favourites' status in this week's Texaco Trophy matches beginning on Thursday at Old Trafford.

'They should be good,' Taylor says. 'Both sides have some new players. There is already a lot of interest and that is a big difference from last time. The crowds have been good and I can't get over the amount of press we are getting. That is probably a compliment to us in that they rate us as a good side. People are expecting us to play well - and we should do so.'

(Photograph omitted)