Taylor in the firing line

Tony Cozier on the sudden state of crisis affecting Australian cricket
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The Independent Online
The national team have lost their last five matches, the captain is under increasing pressure to justify his position, the selectors are criticised for their inconsistency, the new coach is on the defensive and the very structure of domestic cricket is being reviewed.

The scenario is strikingly familiar but the captain in question is Mark Taylor, rather than Mike Atherton, the coach Geoff Marsh not David Lloyd, the first-class competition the Sheffield Shield and the team the supposedly mighty, confident Australia.

If Englishmen have become as accustomed and as adept at discussing the state of their cricket team as their equally erratic weather, Australians have taken the consistency of both for granted. When one deviates from the norm it is the signal for soul-searching from press and public.

A month ago, after the West Indies had been convincingly beaten in the first two Tests and World Series one-day internationals, the fear was that a series marketed as "The Decider", following Australia's 2-1 triumph in the Caribbean in 1995, had been embarrassingly transformed into what headline writers took to terming "The One-Sider".

That now has a hollow ring to it as the sides prepare for the fourth Test, which starts in Adelaide on Saturday. The West Indies won the third Test in Melbourne in three days and, with Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara returning to form, they reeled off eight successive victories after losing seven straight.

Momentum has been lost again with three successive defeats, including the World Series final against Pakistan, but that should not count against them in Adelaide. The Australians also succumbed to a youthful, enthusiastic Pakistan team in the World Series and, for the first time in 18 years, they failed to qualify for the final, a shattering blow to both board treasury and team morale.

Australia have now lost 11 of their last 14 one-day internationals. That would be an unacceptable ratio for England, and far less for an Australian public led to believe media hype that its team were world champions in everything but official title.

Taylor is a bold and imaginative captain but, as a left-handed opener, his form this season has been so shocking that he considered dropping out of the one-day series to return to the Sheffield Shield. Predictably, Taylor's men have stuck by their leader. "He brings a lot of experience and calmness to the side," Steve Waugh, a veteran of 84 Tests, said. "He's got the respect of all the players."

Yet if Taylor continues to fail in the final two Tests against the West Indies and, more especially, if Australia lose both and, with them, the cherished Frank Worrell Trophy, his appointment for the tour of South Africa that follows and the Ashes series in England would be in jeopardy.

The absence of the top players on international duty diminishes the quality of the Sheffield Shield, the nursery for the Test team and, significantly, no young batsman has recently established himself in the team. The Victorian Cricket Association has prepared a paper recommending changes that would streamline the Shield by reducing the number of matches. But support has been minimal even though there is a growing feeling that change is needed.

The former captain Allan Border has called the furore "wide of the mark". "Any of the 66 front-line players in the Shield could play a Test match or a one-day international and not disgrace themselves," he said. So far this season, Australia have used 19 and not all have measured up to Border's assessment. Australian cricket suddenly does not look as healthy as it did at the start of the season.

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