Cricket: Master Taylor: Made for Australia, made by Australia

EXCLUSIVE: Mark Taylor is playing in his 50th Test match as captain of his country. A leader who relishes the mental side of the game tells Stephen Fay a post with the ICC might interest him
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The Independent Online
The adjectives that usually suit Mark Taylor best are thoughtful, decisive, imperturbable, composed. Last Tuesday in Melbourne the word was subdued. Getting beaten by England was the last thing Australia had expected. "Coming into the Test we thought, `If we play some reasonable cricket, we'll win this one'," said Taylor. Add cocky to that list of adjectives.

One reason England won in Melbourne was because Australia felt they could not lose. There is a lesson to be learned about hubris, and Taylor is the right man to teach it. "I think the hunger level will be pretty good in Sydney," he said.

For him especially, because the Fifth Test is his 50th as captain. His record (10 wins in 12 series, not including this one) has already led to comparisons with Sir Don Bradman, Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. Although retired players such as Dirk Welham still write "perhaps" about his admission to that Pantheon, Mike Coward, in The Australian last week, described the Prime Minister, John Howard, as "the country's other leader".

Judged by his record, his originality, and his fluency, Mark Taylor is the best captain in cricket now, not as grumpy as Atherton, more experienced than Stewart, more confident than Cronje, and tactically more astute than Tendulkar. He is already an influential spokesman for the game who may become more so if he were to run an authoritative International Cricket Council - an idea that is biding its time.

But Taylor prefers to think of one thing at a time, and his present preoccupation is beating the Poms, something he has had plenty of practice at doing. His record against England is won nine, lost three, drawn three, although his own record in this series leaves much to be desired - 226 runs in nine innings at 25.20, with only one decisive score, in the first innings at Perth. His Test average before Sydney was 7,521 runs at 43.98, and his Test record as captain is 25 wins, 13 losses and 11 draws.

I caught up with him recently in Sydney where he was playing for New South Wales. Since he had lost his wicket cheaply in the second innings he was relying on Mark Waugh and Michael Slater to cope with Shane Warne, and we sat together in the pavilion in front of the home dressing-room and he talked frankly about cricket, about captaincy, and about himself.

Taylor is known familiarly as "Tub" or "Tubby" because he is short and stocky, and puts on weight easily. His preferred way of getting fit is to spend time at the crease: "It's much more enjoyable getting runs than having to go to the bloody gym." But he lost weight during Australia's recent tour of Pakistan (possibly because he spent 12 hours at the crease accumulating 334 not out in the Second Test at Peshawar). He looks compact and robust.

He was born on 27 October 1964 in Leeton, a small town in fruit-growing country in the south of New South Wales, the son of a bank manager who was transferred to Sydney when Mark was 14, although he still thinks of himself as a country boy. City dwellers like to think this too because there is virtue in a rural Australian upbringing. It is widely believed to stiffen resolve and to help cope with adversity.

The fact is that Taylor has lived an urban existence all his adult life, and it has taught him that a decent income, among other things, is a good way of coping with adversity. Compared with other Australian sports stars, cricketers are poorly paid. Taylor only just sneaked into a recent survey of the top 50 earners among sportsmen here, in 44th place at $710,000 (pounds 275,000) a year. (The only other cricketers in the list were Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, and he came 28th.) This does not make him cross or envious: "I'm very happy with how I live, and I'm not going to complain about what I earn."

His green-brown eyes are watchful and attentive; the voice is light and he laughs easily; he does not appear to take himself too seriously. In Australia everyone agrees Taylor qualifies as a very good bloke. Peter Roebuck in the Sydney Morning Herald says that Taylor almost lost his team during the players' wage dispute with the Australian Cricket Board in 1997, and points out that he inherited a side with Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. But Napoleon would not have minded; he approved of lucky generals.

Taylor's presence means that the phoney war rarely breaks out between these Australian and England teams. (The exception is the Great McGrath, of course.) He refers to Alec Stewart and Michael Atherton as Stewie and Athers, and he cares about comradeship and good manners among Test cricketers, though that does not prevent him making critical observations about English cricket.

At the outset of this Ashes series Taylor had thought that England's series victory over South Africa last summer would build resilience in the team. He did not take the result for granted, as he had in 1994-95: "Athers said then that he was looking to play positive cricket and if the series was drawn one-all, it would be a good result. Straight away, I knew we were going to win the series, because over five Tests you can't stop us winning two of them."

But Taylor believes that, man-for-man, Australia are the better team, and in conversation it becomes clear that he means this literally. No single England player would make his team. Not Darren Gough ("it'd be a harsh call, probably a parochial call, but I'd have to have Jason Gillespie in my team"). Not Mark Ramprakash batting at six where Australia have proved vulnerable ("hard to get out, concentrated well, but he hasn't got a lot of hundreds"). No place for his mates, Stewart and Atherton, though Gough might make it as 12th man.

Taylor had been surprised by England's selection of two off-spinners, Robert Croft and Peter Such: "I found that quite extraordinary." His interpretation of it was that England believed they could beat Australia purely with fast bowling. "That's the wrong sort of thinking. I think Australia is probably the best place in the world to bowl spin at the moment. India is good, but it turns consistently without bounce. In Australia you get more bounce, and any spinner worth his salt will tell you bounce is more important than spin."

Taylor was shocked at the omission of Phil Tufnell: "I don't know him that well, but when you've got a bloke who can take five or six wickets in an innings, you've got a bloke who can win a Test match." As it turned out, England did have a bloke by the name of Dean Headley who took six wickets and won a Test match. That was a shock in a series that had, for Taylor, contained no surprises until then.

England had had their moments in the First Test at Brisbane. ("You could have had us out for 300 and that's a 50:50 game.") He had taken Justin Langer's advice to put England in at Perth and the wicket was still seaming on the third day when Australia were set 64 to win. ("Getting 160 would have been interesting.") Winning the toss at Adelaide was "worth 100 runs to Australia".

The range of pitches in Australia dictates the selection of a balanced attack: "Variety is definitely the spice of life when it comes to bowling, particularly on good Test wickets. England, South Africa and the West Indies haven't got variety in their attack. We have and so have Pakistan, and that's why we have done well." We have Ashley Giles.

England's other problem is a culture of defeat (of which the remark about Giles is an example). "I think one of the reasons why we're successful as a team is because we worry less about losing," says Taylor. "Teams can spend a lot of time worrying about that. That's the problem England has got, but the more time you think about it, the more chance you're going to lose."

Stewart refers encouragingly to the swings and roundabouts of Ashes series, but Taylor insists that if England are to get off the swings and on to the roundabouts, tough decisions are required. "English cricket has to come first. It's easy here with six first-class teams and the top 25 players contracted to the Australian Cricket Board. It's easy for me to say that Glenn McGrath and Stuart MacGill are having this game off. The only reason MacGill is not playing is a five per cent chance his hamstring might get worse while he fielded. He'd play in an English county game.

"Every county has to make a conscious decision to put English cricket first. That means developing English cricketers. In 1993, although they lost the series 4-1, England beat us in the last Test, but when we went into their changing room there were only two or three of them still there. The rest had gone to Somerset or Northants or wherever. What they should have done was to go on the grog with their team-mates, and told each other how bloody good they were, how they came back, and how they're looking forward to the next Test.

"I've talked to Athers and Stewie and they agree entirely, but their contract is with their counties, and if they want them for a NatWest game the day after a Test, they've got to be there. They're going into the last day of a Test match, the game's hanging in the balance and they're thinking of getting on the motorway at five past six so they can make it to Headingley."

When I referred Taylor to the argument of the county reactionaries, that the county system did not prevent England beating Australia in the past, he hit it contemptuously for four: "The game's changed. Sir Don Bradman played 52 Tests in 20 years; I've played 103 in 10. There's much more cricket, and an extra game here and there can make a huge difference. An extra three days at home with your feet up round the pool, or down the pub having a couple of beautiful Yorkshire bitters is as good for your mental state of mind as having five net sessions."

Graham Gooch would turn quite pale at the thought.

Mark Taylor was first selected for Australia 10 years ago - by my distinguished colleague John Benaud, among others - when they wanted to move David Boon to bat at three, and a left-hander opening bat seemed like a good idea. "We saw him as captain pretty early in the piece," says Benaud. "He was one of those solid blokes who know what is going on around him."

I asked Taylor what wakes him at five in the morning: not the state of the game, he replied, even if the position is parlous, though it did wake him once: "When you're 334 not out in the middle of a Test match, that wakes you at 5am." Before the start of play that morning, Taylor declared, leaving Bradman's record score for Australia intact, and earning the great man's thanks and the affection of a nation. (Though he admits he would have been glad of the record if he had scored 335 the previous evening.)

He also woke early when the story of Mark Waugh and Shane Warne taking money from an Indian bookmaker finally surfaced in December. "I knew that's going to create a media storm, and that they're going to want my opinion on it. To be frank, it's been downright terrible." His opinion is still that they did a very silly thing, and that, if there is any more to the story, he doesn't know about it. The extent of the alienation caused by the episode among the Australian public has still not sunk in. Taylor wonders why the story had to come out in the first place. It is the only example of naivety in our conversation.

Taylor is a successful captain for a number of reasons, not least that he is a fine batsman - notwithstanding a catastrophic run of bad form in 1997 when he failed to reach 50 in 21 successive innings and caused the Australian selectors to rewrite the rule that they chose the team on the basis of merit and then chose the captain.

He is a professor in the school of thought that teaches the importance of character in cricket. "Generally speaking, the players are blinkered. It's the way they should be. We want them to think the game's the most important thing almost in their lives. But I've seen guys work and work and train and train, and yet they're not going to get any better because the hard bit is getting round the mental side of the game."

He relishes it. You see how he applies it when Taylor talks about spinners. "They're an interesting breed, and you've got to understand their psychology a bit. They haven't got any easy balls. If a fast bowler is struggling he can bowl two bouncers and get a couple of dot balls. A spinner can't do that. At times you're going to say to your spinner, let's have a bloke on the fence. With Stuart MacGill at Brisbane when the English batsmen were smashing him about, I deliberately put the point back on the fence to stop him going for that four.

"It's not the boundaries that matter. It's the psychology that goes with the runs. All of a sudden, they start learning and they say, `Let's bring that bloke up from the boundary.' That's what they say when they've begun to bowl well."

Fierce concentration in the field is another quality he brings to captaincy: "I can't remember a Test that we've won on the last day without getting a headache. It lasts for half an hour after stumps, and there have been a couple of matches when all I've wanted to do is to go away and be by myself in a quiet room."

Listening to him, it became clear that his retirement is not imminent. I said as much and he laughed. "I'm more than likely to keep playing because I'm going all right. One thing Allan Border used to say is that you are a long time retired from cricket. I think you've got to enjoy your fielding. That's the hardest part of the game. Batting's fun; all you've got to worry about is this little red thing coming down. If it's coming down at 88mph you also worry about getting out the road of the bloody thing, but that's what you're there for. If you're standing in the field thinking `I don't want to be here', that's time you shouldn't be."

Earlier we had talked about the impotence of the International Cricket Council as the governing body of world cricket and he refrained from attacking it. "We don't have an international authority because most Test-playing countries won't give them any authority. That's the problem."

Later I asked if he would be interested in the top job at the ICC and he replied that he would be, for sure. "The greatest problem would be a lot of letters after your name and not doing a hell of a lot. I think you need to take the philosophy used by most big businesses: you put someone in charge, and they do the job. If they don't do it right, you get someone else."

He has no illusions about the cultural and religious differences that are inherent in a global game, and his peripheral role in the Warne/Waugh affair might damage his chances, but he can be a splendid spokesman for cricket. I had switched off my tape recorder and we were talking idly about the support among Australian Test cricketers for a republic here. (He doesn't care much for it himself, and the team hasn't discussed it much, though he suspects they would be divided roughly 50:50.) I said that cricket retains a strong place in Australian culture, and when he took off, I switched back on.

"Oh my word it does, and I think that's good. The great thing about cricket is that it does bring out your character. And it can affect your character; you're learning all the time, whether you're playing for the under-sixes or Australia. Competition is a part of life, and it's about losing too. I'm trying to teach my six-year-old this. He's got the Taylor in him. He loves winning, but the bottom line is that there are always times when you'll have a bad run, and you'll need to call on your inner strength and become a better person.

"That's what I like so much about team sport. In England last year and before that I hadn't played any worse throughout my career, and yet I was still a winner. I was a loser personally, but the team was winning. What better lesson can you get for living than that? That, although you're not doing well yourself, if you can just hang in and play your part, you can still be a winner."

Listening to him say that, I added sympathetic to the list of suitable adjectives to describe Mark Taylor. The Aussies are lucky to have him, but, then, they made him.