Cricket: Australia close to the Border-line: Tony Cozier reports from Brisbane on the trials and tribulations of a master batsman who is his country's longest-serving captain

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The Independent Online
ALLAN BORDER will captain Australia for the 72nd successive time in the Second Test against the West Indies starting in Melbourne on Boxing Day.

'There was never any doubt that he would come back into the team as captain - and that's official,' the Australian team coach and selector, Bobby Simpson, said yesterday, so pointedly stating the obvious as to emphasise the doubts over Border's prolonged tenure that have grown in the past fortnight.

Since his 71st Test at the helm - and his 134th in all - things have turned sour for the durable Border.

Frustration as the West Indies grimly hung on for a draw with eight wickets down in the First Test in Brisbane led to a charge against him of dissent against the umpires and a fine of Adollars 2,000 ( pounds 950), hefty for cricket, from the International Cricket Council match referee Raman Subba Row. Border had declined to attend the relevant hearing.

A few days later he was involved in a very public row with Simpson and the team manager, Ian McDonald, over travel arrangements and preparations for the start of the one-day World Series tournament. Both McDonald and the Australian Cricket Board responded quickly and sharply to Border's charges that he was not consulted. 'Obviously, sometimes he forgets,' McDonald commented.

It was all welcome grist to the mill for the press, which had dubbed him 'Captain Grumpy' and with whom his relationships have always run hot and cold. According to The Australian, his questioning of umpiring decisions was bad enough; his refusal to attend Subba Row's hearing 'was the most disappointing aspect of the whole unfortunate episode'.

'His responsibilities as leader dictated that more than anyone he had an obligation to respect the wishes of world cricket's governing bodies,' the paper added. Border's subsequent apology has done little to ease the pressure.

Border took time off to rest his injured leg and Australia were thrashed by nine wickets by the West Indies in their opening World Series match. When, in his absence, Australia went unbeaten for their next four matches and stand-in captain Mark Taylor earned the man-of-the-match award in two of them, speculation intensified that 'Captain Grumpy' had reached the end of his tether and it was time for somebody new.

Polls were taken of former players and, if most were ambivalent on the subject, it was not difficult to deduce where the papers stood.

'Taylor's men on a high' headlined The Age in Melbourne after one Australian victory. 'Taylor on top of the world' proclaimed The Australian after another. Feature writers cogitated on the end of the Border era, by far the longest of any Australian captain and only three Tests short of the match record of Clive Lloyd, who led the West Indies in 74 Tests.

Significantly, Border had presaged the pressure he would be under even before the season started. 'I've been around for so long that maybe people are getting bored with me, or they just want the new era to come,' he said. 'But I think I can bat as well as any of those younger blokes running around.'

He has repeatedly made the point that he still enjoys the game and those close to him claim he is keen to lead the team to England in the summer to defend the Ashes and continue to the home and away revival series against South Africa in the 1993-94 season, when he would be in his 39th year.

His record as captain and player rate with Australia's finest. With 9,865 runs at just over the 50 average that separates great batsmen from the rest, he is only 257 short of India's Sunil Gavaskar as the most prolific run-scorer of them all. His thirst for runs remains unquenchable, his last four Test innings yielding 106 and 78 (against Sri Lanka in September) and 73 and 17 (in the Brisbane Test). Under him Australia resoundingly gained the Ashes in 1989 in England and just as resoundingly retained them here two seasons ago. They have defeated every opponent except the West Indies.

He was a reluctant successor to the captaincy in December 1984, when Kim Hughes tearfully resigned, but has developed an image as a tough fighter with which Australians readily identify.

Only the West Indies have proved invincible during his time and, just as he can sense their fledgling side under Richie Richardson is finally vulnerable, a heap of distractions has mounted, a lot of it of his own making.

'The ultimate irony would be if, in the season where the Australians have their best chance in 16 years of beating the Caribbean champions, they should have to limp away from the final Test, victims of the cruel accident of shooting themselves in the feet,' Richie Benaud, himself a former Australian captain and now highly respected commentator, noted.

In that case, Australia would probably turn to Mark Taylor as their new leader, leaving Border with his host of records, but his final ambition unfulfilled. For the moment, he resumes the job he has held for eight years in Melbourne in a week's time.

(Photograph omitted)