Cricket: Taylor the leader by ultimate example

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The Independent Online
The current lifestyle of the Australian cricket captain Mark Taylor is busy, busy as a blowfly at a butcher's barbecue. So busy is he celebrating his Bradmanesque 334 not out that one gets the impression if he was sleepless at night, all would be solved by counting 334 sheep.

A week ago he was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground playing for New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield and Mercantile Mutual limited-overs double- header against Victoria and, in between making a duck and two in the middle and watching his less mature Test rival Matthew Elliott score twin centuries, he settled himself at a desk in the dressing room and signed 334 limited- edition autograph cards.

Next it was lunch with the Prime Minister, not a private affair on the PM's home ground at Kirribilli House alongside Sydney Harbour, but a very public tribute in the grand ballroom of a swank mid-city hotel - as well as John Howard another 334-plus Taylor fans rolled up (the official count was 590).

Taylor's success in Test cricket can be easily measured by statistics, from the humble - any one of his four ducks - to the heroic - his historic 334; notable too is his win percentage as the captain. But the real measure of the cricketer might best be reflected in some banter from that lunch and, by divulging a little more about events at the MCG.

Whenever Taylor meets Howard a sort of cricketing fog appears to envelop the PM - his eyes shine like the new ball and his grin is broader than Steve Waugh's bat. This chemistry tempts one to dub them cricket soulmates.

Taylor told the gathering: "I see myself as a very lucky Australian cricketer with an opportunity to do something I love doing." Howard responded: "My connection with the game is spontaneous and genuine and absolutely devoted."

A kind of a confession of seduction from the PM and it touched a nerve with Taylor, one in the region of the funnybone. The captain, his face splitting with good humour, as always signalled by his right eye closing by as much as the left simultaneously opens wider, announced that the PM was "cricket tragic", the term Australian players apply to besotted fans.

There was a stirring among the audience; had Taylor insulted the PM? Taylor, the popular 39th captain of Australia, affectionately dubbed "The Tubster" by the singular Greg Matthews but "Tayls" or "Tubby" by the rest of us, has a wonderful talent for sensing trouble and neutralising it. Just for the foot shufflers, the captain explained: "He loves the game more than I do." Once again he had seized the moment, had settled an outbreak of hiccups without standing on his head, holding his breath and counting to 50.

There were hiccups aplenty at the MCG: not only was Taylor's personal form poor, his team were humbled and his Test partner Michael Slater was despondent over three failures. Even more troubling was the sight of the leg-spinner Stuart MacGill bowling a load of old rubbish.

And the captain's trousers didn't fit. Taylor had completed his practice for the limited-overs match and upon changing into his brand-new blue uniform for the toss, which was imminent and to be televised live, he found his trouser legs were six inches too long. And, almost as bad, the No 1 on his shirt was misplaced and half hidden below his waistline.

Minor stuff, but the cause of major dummy spits from some high-profile players. Taylor reacted by mimicking the catwalk pose of a Pierre Cardin model, trousers flapping like swim flippers, laughed at the sight of himself like everyone else, then asked the "roomie" would he mind getting some scissors and hacking off the extra lengths. Then he strolled out for the toss.

Whether it is mayhem or a milestone, Taylor seems able to maintain that same good humour and business-as-usual attitude. This week it's another milestone, the First Ashes Test at the Gabba will be Taylor's 100th. The centurions are a rare breed; Taylor will be the 19th, and the fifth Australian.

The list is: Allan Border (156), Kapil Dev (131), Sunil Gavaskar (125), Javed Miandad (124), Viv Richards (121), Graham Gooch (118), David Gower (117), Dilip Vengsarkar (116), Desmond Haynes (116), Colin Cowdrey (115), Clive Lloyd (110), Geoff Boycott (109), Gordon Greenidge (108), David Boon (107), Steve Waugh (106), Ian Healy (106), Ian Botham (102), Courtney Walsh (102). Plenty of batting there and confirmation that Kapil, Botham and Walsh must have mighty big hearts. One wicket-keeper is enough, but we'll just have to wait on Shane Warne (67 Tests) for the spin balance.

The Australians in the list reflect a particular image: all ticker and no appetite for humble pie. Border was the battler, the no-nonsense man sometimes guilty of grumpiness. Boon battled too, but offered us a slightly ockerish influence and a dry, but roguish sense of humour. If asked to define "commitment" I'd simply say "Steve Waugh", and his frostiness can disturb opponents. Healy is a scrapper, and his mouth can be as sharp as his glovework - his "Porky" jibe to Arjuna Ranatunga when the Sri Lankan captain was huffing and puffing in a World Series final in 1996 remains a fond memory for any Australian fan who doesn't mind a little bit of the larrikin in a cricketer.

They're a tough bunch and none of them would look out of place in a slouch hat; nor will Mark Taylor look out of place in their exclusive club, for there is a little of each of them in him. Like Border he reaches milestones and seems able to survive and then thrive when his back is pressed hardest to a brick wall; like Boon he's unflappable in a crisis and a calming influence on troubled team-mates; Taylor has the "hands" of Healy and the same indomitable spirit, a reminder of young days spent among old and bold bush cricketers; and he has been confronted with riding the same form-bucking bronco as Waugh, and has persevered then prospered.

We all store favourite images of our cricketers, and these are mine of the famous four: the happiness of Border holding up the Ashes urn after beating England 4-0 in 1989, a turning point both in his captaincy and in Australian cricket fortunes; the courage of Boon, one arm virtually useless, resuming batting against the West Indies in Adelaide in 1993, desperately trying to clinch a series win for his team; the commonsense of Healy keeping in a helmet at Sabina Park in 1995 to protect himself against the fierce spin of Warne - or was it to psyche out the West Indian batsmen? And the coolness of Waugh, standing toe-to-toe and word-for-word with the threatening Curtly Ambrose on the same tour, a defining moment in the series, Australia's first win in the Caribbean for 22 years.

A favourite image of Taylor might best be paused - who would have thought that the captain and opening batsman the knockers had consigned to history in 1997 would go on to rewrite a page of Bradman history in 1998?

Maybe Taylor can celebrate his 100th Test with a century, but the captain will not quibble when the supporters of England demand the right to spoil his party. That's just what the game is all about, he'll say, and anyway, while personal success is satisfying he would much prefer to win the Test match and the Ashes. It's that 334 declaration dilemma all over again.

Can Australia win? Taylor won't be happy with a preparation that has seen half his side engaged in slogathons in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The word "underdone" springs into an uneasy mind. Before the Test MacGill has no "long cricket" to rediscover line, loop and length.

How ironic it would be if the selectors chose not to risk him, thus consigning to momentary irrelevance Peter Philpott's dozen-page memo to the England team on solving the mysteries of leg-spin. Australia playing four pace bowlers at the Gabba is only a possibility, but for the Second Test in Perth it's a probability.

GIFTS OF THE GABBA: CLASSIC FIRST ASHES TESTS

1928-9

England won by 675 runs

Enduringly significant as the Test in which Don Bradman made his debut also the first to be played in Brisbane (though at the Exhibition Ground). The Don failed twice, Harold Larwood dominated. Larwood achieved immortality in the Bodyline series four years later but this game saw his best innings analysis of 6 for 32. That was not all. In England's first innings of 521 Larwood (70) helped Patsy Hendren (169) to add 124, still their highest for the eighth wicket against Australia, who collapsed for 122 and 66. England won the series 4-1.

1936-7

England won by 322 runs

They lost a wicket to the first ball of the match, Bradman's first as captain, but after Maurice Leyland's century, Bill Voce took 10 wickets, the captain Gubby Allen eight and England were on their way. Jack Fingleton became the first player to score four consecutive Test centuries in Australia's first innings but they were already well adrift. Caught on a rain-affected pitch needing 381 to win, Australia never recovered from 7 for 4 and were all out for 54, their lowest home total this century. England won the next match as well but lost the series 3-2.

1954-5

Australia won by innings and 154 runs Len Hutton became the first England captain for 53 years to insert the opposition in Australia. The difference was that Johnny Douglas's hunch paid off, Hutton's failed dreadfully. Australia amassed 601 for 8 and England, without a specialist slow bowler, were humiliated. Alec Bedser never played again, the tyro fast bowler Frank Tyson was sent to most parts of the Gabba, the batting was woeful. It looked ominous but before the next Test Tyson amended his run-up, but kept his pace, and the rubber was transformed. England won 3-1.

1974-5

Australia won by 166 runs

One of the great fast bowling partnerships bore fruit. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson had played in one Test together two years earlier but now they ran through England with venomous pace. England stayed in touch with a gallant century from Tony Greig, carving over the slips, but it was unrewarded resistance. Two Englishmen had hands broken as Thomson took 6 for 46 in the second innings. Nor was there to be any escape from the pairing. England were battered, bruised, bewildered and probably scared and Australia won the series 4-1.

1986-7

England won by seven wickets

Famously unsung after a dire build-up England confounded all rational observers. Most of their top order made valuable contributions and Ian Botham scored a characteristic century at No 6 which included 22 in an over off Merv Hughes. Graham Dilley was in his pomp, Phillip DeFreitas had a hugely promising debut and Australia followed on. England had to bat again but the 77 they needed were a formality. It kick-started the tour and they swept all before them. Mike Gatting's team won the series 2-1 - the last time England held the Ashes.

1994-5

Australia won by 184 runs

Australia turned in a masterful team performance to crush England. It was an important toss but that was not all Mark Taylor got right. He helped rampant Michael Slater (176) see off the new ball after which Mark Waugh added 140. England then fell woefully to Craig McDermott. The fourth innings belonged to Shane Warne. England, through Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe, partially resisted, but the leg-spinner's 8 for 71 (6 for 27 in 25 overs on the last day) was spellbindingly conclusive. Australia won series 3-1.

STEPHEN BRENKLEY

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