Don unrivalled in the numbers racket

Cricket Diary; nursery end
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The Independent Online
In the dark moments before what could be his final dawn at Edgbaston on Thursday the Australian captain, Mark Taylor, may dwell on his bewilderingly confused record. His prowess as a leader is unquestionable, his form as a player has become woeful.

Only 12 men have led Australia in more than 20 Test matches, only five have a better winning ratio than Taylor. As one of those was Don Bradman, who had himself at his disposal, a second was Bill Woodfull, who also had the world's greatest batsman in his team and a third was Lindsay Hassett, who inherited Bradman's multi-talented 1948 side, Taylor's performance in the modern era is admirable.

By the simple, if imperfect method of awarding the captains two points for a Test win and one for a draw, the Don is top. His 15 wins and three draws from 24 matches (in which he never lost a series) give him a 75 per cent record. Hassett with, respectively, 14 and four from 24, has 70.83 per cent - but then is also saddled with the unfortunate mantle of having lost the Ashes after 20 years in 1953.

Next come Ian Chappell (15 and 10 for 66.66 per cent), Richie Benaud (12 and 11 with one tied for 64.28 per cent) and Woodfull (14 and four for 64 per cent) - all of whom held the Ashes on retirement. Taylor follows that quintet. Of his 24 Tests Australia have won 13 and drawn four to give him 62.5 per cent. The tendency for them to lose matches when series have been decided tells against him.

But if this summer Australia win 4-0 with two drawn, which suddenly it has become fashionable among Englishmen not to contemplate, then Taylor's record would exactly match that of the elder Chappell, his greatest present detractor.

Whatever happens, he must improve his form as a player. None of his 11 predecessors as long-term captain has gone so many innings without a single fifty. Taylor, who began his captaincy with a pair against Pakistan, has been to the crease 20 times since taking 96 from the Sri Lankan attack in late 1995 and has a highest score of 43.

Bradman never went more than three innings without scoring at least 50 when captain (and only three times went six without a hundred). Hassett and Ian Chappell were never more than five innings without reaching 50 and the table then reads: Woodfull (six); Greg Chappell (six); Bobby Simpson (seven); Bill Lawry (seven); Allan Border (eight - and about whom there was much debate when he went 62 innings without a hundred, although he still scored 21 fifties in that time); Richie Benaud (12 - but he also took 41 wickets in that period); Joe Darling (14); Kim Hughes (14). Lawry was the first Australian captain to be sacked mid-series. Kim Hughes resigned, his 14 fiftyless innings ending his term in tears, about which the popular Taylor may not want to be reminded. While selecting Taylor for his virtuosity as a captain - as England once almost did with Mike Brearley - does not appear to be an option, even Brearley never went more than 11 innings without a half-century.

IT is always sort of wonderful when the experts get it wrong. Between innings at The Oval last Saturday one of England's foremost former batsmen, a player of courage, of admirably correct if not always expansive technique and a man who can spot and rectify the blemishes in others, opined on the England captain's place in the one-day side.

Mike Atherton should not be opening, said the illustrious commentator. Nor should he be batting No 3 and, no, he should not be going in above Phillip DeFreitas who was probably batting at nine. In fact, he said, Atherton should not be playing. Atherton then went out and scored a majestic limited-overs hundred.

Of Atherton's Australian opposite number, the expert said that he was completely out of touch, and that he, the great former batsman himself, had been a better player at 50. If this judgement affects Taylor as it did Atherton, England could be chasing some leather.

PHONE callers put on hold at the Victoria Cricket Association in Melbourne can listen to a mischievously entertaining tape explaining why the entire state side should represent the country. Reasoning which of its team, known as the Bushrangers, should bat where the voice-over says: "Dean Jones can go three since Steve Waugh won't." All, you see, is not united in the Australian world.

Book mark: The Australian captain's pitiful run of form began in earnest shortly after the publication last year of an all- embracing book. World Cricketers - A Biographical Dictionary by Christopher Martin-Jenkins is painstaking, endlessly readable, quirky and has thousands of entries. But not Mark Taylor, who must have realised then it was the end for him.

USMAN AFZAAL has rapidly become a performer of genuine consistency in a Nottinghamshire batting order which noticeably lacks the quality. He will be 20 next week and on Thursday made his fourth half-century in just five Championship innings this season. He has not been spectacular but his contributions have been significant and the little run is merely an extension of last season. His last 11 innings have been 51, 39, 0, 7, 67no, 19, 70no, 77no, 52, 5, 54. This is something of a transformation.

A year ago Afzaal was in the England Under-19 side batting at No 9 and was selected for the team primarily as left-arm slow bowler.