Cricket: Simple honesty is Taylor's secret

First Ashes Test: Australia's long-serving captain is setting his sights on new targets after passing latest milestone
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The Independent Online
WHEN MARK TAYLOR decided to declare on himself in Peshawar recently and remain unbeaten on 334 he insisted that any thoughts of forever twinning himself with Sir Donald Bradman, who happens to share the same career best score, were purely coincidental. And yet, despite the commercial bonanza that has followed, you tend to believe him, for this Australian captain is as straight as a road through the Nullarbor.

Now the man they call "Tubbs" (his are not snake hips) is celebrating his 100th Test match at the Gabba, one of his favourite grounds. It is a century which, if not denoting true greatness as a batsman, reveals his indispensability to an Australian team currently enjoying one of its most successful eras ever. Bradman may be the Australian icon, but Taylor is fast becoming one, too.

"Not going past Sir Don probably saved me from getting stabbed in the street," said Taylor on the eve of the first Test against England. "I reckon I get a minimum of 10 people a day coming up to me and kissing me and telling me how great it was I didn't go past him."

Like many of Australia's best cricketers, Bradman included, Taylor was raised in the interior. Wagga Wagga is a mid-sized town in New South Wales, about 250 miles south-west from Sydney on the Murrumbidgee river. There, simple values and courtesies are important and you tend to treat a bloke how you find him. Which is precisely what Taylor has done with both team- mates and opponents throughout his career.

A left-handed opener more solid than spectacular, he was first picked in 1989 to play against a West Indies side 3-0 up in the series. In truth, many felt he should have played sooner and there was a general belief that when a certain Peter Taylor was picked against Mike Gatting's side for the final Test in 1986/87, the Australian selectors had genuinely got the wrong Taylor. Hindsight, of course, has shown they had: Peter Taylor playing in just 13 Tests.

Prospering as an opener of unflappable temperament, he eventually took over from Allan Border in 1994 and promptly recorded a pair in his first Test as captain. "It was in Pakistan and I suddenly thought: Hang on, I might be captain, but I've still got to get some runs."

Border had ridden a roller-coaster of emotions to build his side up and there is no doubt that Taylor was fortunate to inherit a strong and capable outfit. And yet he has taken them even further than the talismanic Border who, after 15 years of torrid battles, never played in a winning series against the West Indies.

An intelligent man who studied surveying at the University Of New South Wales, Taylor, though he plays it down, is generally credited with rounding off Australia's rough edges, and turning a team of chronic sledgers into a side you could to take to have tea with grandmother.

"Actually I reckon there is a lot less sledging than their used to be 10 years ago," Taylor says. "I like the guys to keep in control. I'm not against people having a word, but too much sledging and you can lose focus."

If Aussies are used to sledging on the field, they are not accustomed to barbs off it. When Taylor toured England in 1997, his batting was at an all-time low and critics, many of them former team-mates, were queueing up to tell him to resign. As it was, he made a hundred in the second innings at Edgbaston, a match Australia lost, before taking the Ashes 3-2.

"Although I was going through a tough time I was lucky that the side was playing so well - that really helped me. When I made my hundred, I was really aware of the English fans applauding. England has always been one of the best places to play cricket and I really enjoyed my year in the leagues there." Eighteen months on and he claims he is playing as well as he has done in the past six years.

Captaincy comes at a price and he feels that, apart from lopping five runs per innings off his average, it has forced him to compromise his lifestyle. Much as he appears to relish the task, you sense he would far rather be having a hit on the golf course with team-mates than talking to the press.

"You've got to want to do it," he says of those like the Waugh twins and Shane Warne who have been touted as potential successors, though he plans to play for a while longer yet.

Meanwhile, wearing his Captain Sensible cap he believes the Ashes series should be highly competitive.

"The gap between the sides is closing and England played well at Edgbaston in the last series. On this tour they've obviously had problems but still managed to play good competitive cricket. They've obviously got good things happening in their squad."

As far as Taylor is concerned, the key to the forthcoming series will be in identifying the "big moments" and winning them. "They may boil down to no more than 20 to 30 minutes," he says. "But if you take that catch or keep your wicket intact when the opposition are pressing, it could help win the day."

By such small increments are Test matches won and England will do well to pay attention to detail.