Cricket: Hero's hallmark of humility

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The Independent Online
FEW things in his Test career became Mark Taylor so well as the dignity and modesty he showed in his retirement from it. After the fifth Test in Sydney a month ago some penetrating voices in the press box said Taylor should go now while he was still in his prime because his last four innings against England (7, 19, 2 and 2) were evidence of growing vulnerability.

Taylor seems to have picked up the message from the ether, and acted on it. He always was a decisive captain. But he might have made a rare mistake.

This winter's Ashes series was decided in Adelaide where Taylor led a team which had been picked to bat first. He duly won the toss and batted first. Matthew Engel, wrote in Wisden Cricket Monthly: "There is starting to be something mystical, Brearleyesque even, about Mark Taylor." There was such pleasure to be had out of his captaincy; he always seemed less fallible than the Pope.

When he announced his retirement in Sydney last Tuesday, Taylor harked back to that Test in Adelaide. Since Australia had won it, he said, he had begun to lose the urge to play Test cricket. "I had to ask whether I was still prepared to give it a go as a player. The answer had to be no. My heart is not quite in it any more."

I suspect the decision was more spontaneous, taken more recently, maybe as a reaction to those performances in the Melbourne and Sydney Tests. This is not mere speculation because, only six weeks ago, Taylor and I talked at length about his retirement, and he spoke like a man who was not contemplating it yet.

"Particularly when you've played for a certain amount of time," he said, "you try to avoid thinking about retirement too much because you start playing the game for what's after cricket. You've got to think about cricket as an end in itself."

He quoted Allan Border as saying "You're a long time retired" as if it were a warning. "I'm more than likely to keep playing because I'm going all right," he said. Taylor added that the key would be his fielding: "You've got to enjoy it. It's when you're standing in the field and you think `What the hell am I doing out here?' that it's time to go." He claimed he was still enjoying fielding.

After the fifth Test, Taylor and his wife went to stay on her parents' banana plantation in Queensland. I suspect the decision was taken there, and, if not bananas exactly, it was probably premature. After all, it is only a little over three months ago that Taylor scored 334 not out against Pakistan, equalling Sir Don Bradman's Australian record Test score. And it's not as though there is an obvious successor. Steve Waugh is only seven months younger than Taylor; Shane Warne's goods are still slightly spoiled; and none of the younger players has emerged from a promising ruck.

None the less, we come to praise Mark Anthony Taylor not to censure him. He was Australia's most successful captain since Bradman and Lindsay Hassett won 29 out of 48 Tests played by the great teams in the Thirties, Forties and early Fifties. Taylor won 26 out of 50 in five years, playing in twice as many Tests as Bradman in half the time.

The statistics are impressive: 7,525 runs in 186 Test innings at an average of 43.49; 19 hundreds, including six against England, and 40 fifties. He took more catches than anyone in the history of Test cricket. Those figures are inscribed in the records, but it would be a shame if Taylor's style and authority were not also recorded.

He was known as "Tubs" because he was stocky. He had a light laugh and a cocky walk, and you visualise him punching the ball square to the boundary off the front foot. He took time to talk to his bowlers before trotting back to first slip where he stood stock-still with his hands on his thighs until the ball came in his direction, when he pounced, holding his arm straight as he appealed.

The striking thing about him, in a age of celebrity, was his humility. Taylor preached that the game was bigger than any of the men who played it. He told me: "If you can walk away at the end of your career and say you've helped make the game somewhat better, you've done a great thing for cricket, and for yourself."

What Taylor has done for cricket is to uphold the virtues that make it a great game at a time when they are coming under intense pressure - from the amount of cricket, the size of the television audience, and the money that comes in fast. He abided by the rules, and became friends with his opponents. When he was under pressure himself during a ghastly loss of form, he never moaned or quit. Modern captains need a clear head and steady hands. Mark Taylor had both.

He still has.