Cricket: Taylor's poor form troubles tourists

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The Independent Online
It began with what looked suspiciously like a Shane Warne propaganda video, littered with Pommie batsmen being haplessly unravelled to the accompaniment of some moody guitar from Dire Straits. But if the idea came from the frothy world of their new sponsors, Coca-Cola, the remainder of the Australians' press conference was as sensible as their nondescript grey-green suits, the presence of which is surely the real reason the team stopped-off in Hong Kong.

Bleary-eyed - though nothing to suggest that any of them had toppled David Boon's mile-high record of beer imbibing - they do not look like the archetypal Aussie cricketers of yore, when bristling moustaches above yellow and green-striped blazers made them appear as exotic and dangerous as a tropical snake.

Once the video gloat-fest had finished and the lights had been flicked back on, Michael Parkinson, the invited master of ceremonies, declared the "bunfight" open. It was an interesting term to choose and one that, given England's presence, many in the Australia media believe to be an appropriate description of this summer's Ashes.

But if the gauntlet was down between the two press factions, it was left to Mark Taylor, their left-handed captain, to pat back the usual diplomatic pleasantries about how the "Ashes was the ultimate in cricket" and that it was "nil-all at the monent" before buckling down to defend the slightly trickier questions regarding his lack of runs.

"My form has been terrible," agreed Taylor, who has failed to pass 50 in his last 20 Test innings. "Mind you, I firmly believe that whether or not someone is in or out of form, they are only one innings away from either."

At which point he cited his innings of 98, made against Somerset, as a personal watershed on the 1989 tour. "Up to that point my highest score was 11. People have been saying that I'm giving myself until the third Test to get a score. I don't have a schedule - but what I do have to do is prove myself to myself, as well as the other selectors, that I'm one of the best two openers in the side."

The tribulations of their captain do not disguise the fact that the Australians are a side in transition. Having recently lost several "legends" - such as Allan Border, David Boon and Craig McDermott - they are in the process of rebuilding.

Theoretically, then, they could be vulnerable, particularly if their four key players - Shane Warne, the Waugh twins and Glenn McGrath - do not fire early on. Whether or not England can exploit any lapses is another matter; if Australia regularly post scores of more than 380 in their first innings, there will only be one winner.

For that reason, England must pour all efforts, both physical and strategic, into their bowling - and that includes the pitches which, assuming the compliance of the groundsmen, should either be slow green seamers or raging turners.

The second option may sound daft but given that the wrist-spin of Warne and Michael Bevan is likely to turn on any surface other than a sheet of glass, the Australian batsmen may as well be put under the same pressures.

Once again Warne, whose spinning finger was operated on a year ago this month, is likely to be a pivotal figure. He reckons he is back close to his best, and if a swollen knuckle means he has had to cut down on the "bingo" deliveries, his role as a 30-overs-a-day stock bowler belies the sheer mayhem he will cause.

Considering that the Ashes holds such great cultural importance, the Australians' preparation for the series appears to be relatively casual. With the traditional curtain-raiser against the Duke of Norfolk's XI on Thursday, Taylor's men have just six one-day matches (including the three Texaco fixtures) and two three-day games before the first Test at Edgbaston. If the long overdue rain continues to fall, Australia could be as underprepared for this series as England were in Zimbabwe.

However, such a brief period of preparation almost certainly means that Australia know what side they will play in both the one-dayers and the Tests. The sides probably will not differ beyond one or two places and unless the pitches are very dry, the biggest decision will be to reconsider their recent policy of playing just two frontline pacemen, McGrath and Jason Gillespie, alongside the two spinners.

Changing that format means breaking up their powerful middle-order, though the burgeoning assurance of the exciting left-hander, Matthew Elliot at No 3, ought to offset the absence of Greg Blewett should the South Australian be the player forced to make way for an extra seam bowler.

Australians are an unsentimental bunch, not used to nurturing their weak. Which is why Taylor's progress or lack of it over the coming weeks may be crucial to England's chances. "Tubs", as the Aussie skipper is known, is a fine tactical captain whose gambler's instinct has conjured some famous Aussie victories. With him at the helm, Australia keep winning important Tests. However, they lose them as well, which may not be the case should Steve Waugh, the hard flint at the heart of the Aussie monolith, assume the position during the summer.

Whether he becomes captain or not, Waugh is still the hungriest batsmen on the planet. England's bowlers will do well to remember that over the coming months.

AUSTRALIAN TOUR SQUAD: M A Taylor (capt) (NSW, LHB, Age 32, Tests 81); S R Waugh (vice-capt) (NSW, RHB, RFM, 31, 89); M J Slater (NSW, RHB, 27, 34); M T G Elliott (Victoria, LHB, 25, 5); J L Langer (WA, LHB, 26, 8); R T Ponting (Tasmania, RHB, OB, 22, 6); M E Waugh (NSW, RHB, RFM/OB, 31, 63); G S Blewett (SA, RHB, RMF, 25 16); M G Bevan (NSW, LHB, SLC, 26 14); I A Healy (Queenland, wkt, RHB, 32, 88); S K Warne (Victoria, RHB, LBG, 27, 52); A J Bichel (Queensland, RHB, RFM, 26, 2); G D McGrath (NSW, RHB, RF, 27, 28); J N Gillespie (NSW, RHB, RF, 21, 5); B P Julian (WA, RHB, LFM, 26, 7); A C Gilchrist (WA, wkt, LHB, 24, 0); M S Kasprowicz (Queensland, RHB, RF, 25, 2).

Australia tour itinerary

MAY

15 Duke of Norfolk's XI (Arundel)

17 Northamptonshire (Northampton)

18 Worcestershire (Worcester)

20 Durham (Chester-le-Street)

22 England, first one-day international (Headingley)

24 England, second one-day international (Lord's)

25 England, third one-day internatinal (The Oval)

27-29 Surrey, Sussex or Gloucestershire (to be confirmed)

JUNE

31-2 Derbyshire (Derby)

5-9 ENGLAND First Test (Edgbaston)

11-13 Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire or Durham (to be confirmed)

14-16 Leicestershire (Leicester)

19-23 ENGLAND Second Test (Lord's)

25-27 British Universities (Oxford)

28-30 Hampshire (Southampton)

JULY

3-7 ENGLAND Third Test Old Trafford)

8 Minor Counties (Jesmond)

12 Scotland (Edinburgh)

16-18 Glamorgan (Cardiff)

19-21 Middlesex (Lord's)

24-28 ENGLAND Fourth Test (Headingley)

AUGUST

1-4 Somerset (Taunton)

7-11 ENGLAND Fifth Test (Trent Bridge)

16-18 Kent (Canterbury)

21-25 ENGLAND Sixth Test (The Oval)

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