Taylor prey to whingers of Oz

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IT IS a plight with which Mike Atherton can empathise, even if he will not necessarily be sympathising too much.

Mark Taylor, Australia's captain, has suddenly found himself having to cope with the type of crisis that has become almost second nature to his England counterpart. Hailed only a few months ago as one of Australia's finest skippers, Taylor has found his star waning so drastically that his place in a team suddenly enduring a barren period is in increasing jeopardy.

As left-handed opening batsman Taylor scored only 145 runs in the eight matches of the World Series tournament against the West Indies and Pakistan. As captain, he saw Australia fail to qualify for the finals for the first time in 17 seasons. His first-class record contains a solitary half-century in his past 22 innings, none in the three Tests of the present series against the West Indies. Taylor has admitted the situation reached the stage where he considered opting out of the World Series to return to Sheffield Shield cricket with New South Wales to gain more meaningful practice. "I had a think about what would be best for myself and Australian cricket," he said. "I still came back to the same thing. The best way to play it is to get out there and face these guys."

It made no difference. Technical deficiencies have been evident as he has been consistently either caught off the outside edge or bowled off a slanted bat.

Taylor's problems have been complicated by the search for a partner. Five batsmen have gone in with him since the start of the tour of India in October - Michael Slater, Mark Waugh, Matthew Elliott, Matthew Hayden and Greg Blewett - and none has been able to provide a century start.

Australia has always stuck to the policy of picking the best XI and naming the captain after. On that basis Taylor would hardly qualify for the remaining two Tests against the West Indies in a series Australia lead 2-1 or for the tours that immediately follow to South Africa and England.

Yet his experience of 76 Tests, an average of 44, 14 hundreds and a justified reputation as an imaginative captain who enjoys the support of his players guarantees his place for this season and probably the trip to South Africa. It is doubtful, however, if his background alone would be enough to see him through for the Ashes tour should things not improve.

As no alternative is immediately identifiable, this would throw Australian cricket into chaos. Ian Healy, Taylor's vice-captain, says it is not a job he would relish, given the burden of keeping wicket, and Steve Waugh, the most experienced player with 84 Tests has not often done the job at state level.

"The chairman of selectors should go straight to Mark Taylor and tell him he is under no pressure to perform," the former captain Kim Hughes said. "If Taylor was lost to the Australian team there would be long-term ramifications to cricket in this country." Hughes, of course, knows what Taylor is going through after. his own tearful resignation midway through the 1984-85 series against the West Indies.

Unlike Hughes, though, Taylor has the support of his senior lieutenants. "I am pretty sure he's done the right thing," Healy said of his decision not to opt out of the one-day competition.

"He brings a lot of experience and calmness to the side," was Steve Waugh's assessment. "He has got the respect of all the players and, as captain, I guess that is all you can ask for."

But Taylor is also a key batsman and, in that regard, the selectors are asking for a lot more. Already, they have dropped quality young players such as Slater and Ricky Ponting for not producing, in spite of Test averages in excess of 40.

Nor is Taylor's position the only factor undermining an Australian cricket set-up that, hardly a month ago, seemed unshakeable. The new coach Geoff Marsh, Taylor's one-time opening partner, has had to be forthright in his own defence. The format of the Sheffield Shield, has come under scrutiny with the Victoria Cricket Association and the former captain Greg Chappell recommending drastic, if contrasting, changes.

And there is evidence of strife within the Australian Cricket Board itself with the dismissal on Friday of the chief executive officer Graham Halbish.

English cricket can identify with the difficulties, but in an Ashes year, there won't be too many tears at Lord's.