Cricket: Taylor ends his glorious Test career

Stephen Brenkley examines the achievements of Australia's remarkable cricket captain, who has finally earned recognition of fellow countrymen
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The Independent Online
HE WAS a country boy but he might have been a king. Mark Taylor was noble, humble, gracious and hard as nails. He chewed gum instead of wearing a crown but it never remotely diminished his majesty. Yesterday in Sydney, Taylor confirmed the worst kept secret of the millennium and announced his retirement as an international cricketer and captain of Australia.

His replacement will be named next week and, while "the king is dead, long live the king" is a necessary adage in sport as well as countries, it is difficult to imagine that the Australian Cricket Board will turn up anybody who can rotate his jaws so effectively. Taylor, 34, has been one of the most successful of all 39 captains of Australia and while some debate has arisen these past few days about the precise tier on which he should sit in the pantheon, this is largely academic. "Tubby" Taylor is right up there.

The measure of the respect and esteem in which he is held was apparent yesterday at the large gathering in a Sydney hotel where he formally ended his tenure. There was a phalanx of cameras, notebooks and tape recorders, and if there were any real kings in town their visit would have gone unrecorded.

Taylor, always Tubs or Tubby in the game for the robustness of his girth, fielded the questions with his usual decorum and generosity, and when there were none left and he was ready to depart, his audience broke into a prolonged round of applause. Since the assembly consisted almost entirely of reporters, presenters, commentators, writers and various types of cameramen, all species who would usually rather cut off their hands than applaud an object of their scrutiny with them, Taylor could be said to have done something right.

He scored 7,525 runs as a left-handed opener of limited range but quite formidable knowledge of the whereabouts of his off stump, a total second only to Allan Border. He took a world record 157 catches, most of them at first slip, and if there has been anybody quicker or safer in that position he has never been caught on film. As captain he won 26 and drew 11 of his 50 Tests and won 11 from 14 series. Australia are world champions by a distance.

Last autumn his life changed forever, as did the public perception of him, when he made 334 not out in a Test against Pakistan in Peshawar. He had always been seen as a man of high principles, but when he declared on that score he entered territory reserved for gods.

That was the amount Donald Bradman had once made in a Test match, the highest ever by an Australian. Taylor could have overtaken it and probably gone on to beat the highest Test score of 375, but he put the needs of the team first. Some have since suggested that he might have declared earlier, which is to show that mean-spiritedness is alive and kicking, and although Taylor himself has said that he did not deliberately declare on 334 this has been ignored.

Taylor was made Australian of the Year last week and while critics said it should have gone to someone who makes a more tangible difference to the world, they miss the point that he is an exemplar for a generation.

"I have got more out of cricket than I have given to cricket," he said, and for once he was probably misguided. "I'm starting to lose the edge to compete at Test level and I couldn't just go on as captain. I dare say I'll be sad when the guys go off to the West Indies and the captain says a few a words about how well he hopes the team will do but I know I've made the right decision."

Denis Rogers, the chairman of the ACB, contented himself with saying that they had always made it abundantly clear Taylor would leave on his terms. "He has always had our full support but it was up to him when he retired. I don't challenge the intellectual rigour he has brought to the decision."

The record Taylor leaves is impressive enough but the number of runs, catches and victories do not alone convey the qualities of the man who accumulated them. In a sport which can never have been more intense, where gamesmanship and occasional sharp practice have come to be expected, he was a dazzling example.

Alec Stewart, the England captain, touched on it in his tribute. "He will be the best captain I've played with or against. He's the best tactically I've seen but he was always down to earth, always played the game as it should be played, played it hard, played it fair. I respect him as a bloke and a cricketer. He's a really good bloke."

Taylor was a Wagga boy who moved to Sydney. He first played for Australia on his home ground against West Indies 10 years ago. His best series as a player came the following summer in England. "For a month I couldn't get a run," he said yesterday. "My highest score was 11 and I remember saying, I think to my dad, that at least I've made one Ashes tour, I don't expect to make another." The Test series started and Taylor's form was transformed. He put England to the sword throughout the summer. There were two centuries, five 50s, 839 series runs, an average of 83.90 and at Trent Bridge he and Geoff Marsh batted for the whole of the first day without being parted.

Taylor certainly had a hard act to follow when he was handed the captaincy on Allan Border's retirement in 1994 but he quickly asserted his quieter, if perpetually open-mouthed, style of leadership. In his second series he retained the Ashes and in his third he took a side to the Caribbean and won 2-0. That, he recalled, was the second highlight of his career because the tour was heading towards disaster. Taylor is credited with pulling it round.

By the time he came to England in 1997 to defend the Ashes, Taylor was under the severest pressure of his career. The runs had all but completely dried up and his critics, many if not most of them former Australia captains, were jostling each other to find a microphone down which they could opine that Taylor ought to go and sharpish.

He had gone 20 Test innings without a 50 and Australians have never picked a captain and then the team. Their belief is that the captain comes from the best 11 players and Taylor, it was felt, was no longer that regardless of the side's glorious results. The knives were not so much out as piercing his back.

"That was the lowest moment. In the first innings at Edgbaston I think I was caught Butcher, bowled Malcolm for seven. If I had gone out in the second innings and failed I think I would have stood down."

Anybody who saw Taylor bat on the Saturday afternoon of that match knew he was a special batsman and man. His team were up against it; he was on his way out. He made the grittiest of hundreds under fire. It was not enough to save the match but it saved his place, ended the speculation and allowed him to carry on planning the demolition of England, which was duly achieved.

He was dropped from Australia's one-day side last year after 113 matches and 67 as a captain with a 54 per cent win rate. This miffed him, as he said at the time, but his position as Test captain was unassailable. He knew when to change bowlers, he exposed opposition weaknesses, he knew how to impose pressure and his team's authority, he wanted to win, he was lucky.

Taylor's replacement will probably be Steve Waugh, though Shane Warne and Mark Waugh will also be discussed. All three might profitably ask him what chewing gum he used.

TAYLOR-MADE SUCCESS

1964 27 October, born Mark Anthony Taylor in Leeton, Australia

1985 Makes first-class debut

1989 Makes Test debut v West Indies at Sydney, scoring 25 and 3

1989 Marries Judith Matthews

1989 Scores first Test century, 136

v England at Headingley

1992 Named as Australia vice-captain

1994 Named as Australia captain. Makes a pair in his first Test as captain, v Pakistan

1996 Leads Australia to final of one-day World Cup in India and Pakistan

1998 Equals Don Bradman's Australian Test record of 334no v Pakistan at Peshawar

1998 Plays 100th Test, v England at Brisbane

1999 Leads Australia to record sixth series win over England; breaks Allan Border's world record for the highest number of catches by a fielder (157)

1999 February 2, announces retirement

from international cricket

CAREER STATISTICS

Tests 104 Runs 7,525

Average 43.50 High Score 334no

Hundreds 19 Fifties 40

Catches 157 (world record)

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