Taylor makes mark in unassuming way (20 November 1998)

20 November 1998

Taylor makes mark in unassuming way

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins

MARK TAYLOR, who started his 100th Test match at the Gabba today, is what the Australians call a champion. That is one step removed from their absolute heroes, who are known as legends, but if Australia win the Ashes for the sixth time in a row, the apotheosis will be complete. As player and captain, he has never known what it is like to lose a series to England and since his amazing shower of runs in 1989 - in Tests - his batting, with the exception of one almost disastrous slump in 1996-97, has been a major factor in the team's success.

When a fast bowler has had to be blunted - Curtly Ambrose, Allan Donald, Wasim Akram, Devon Malcolm - as often as not it has been Taylor who has done the job, often at the very start of a series. So his battle with Darren Gough is no less important to the outcome of the series which started this morning than Mike Atherton's with Glenn McGrath. Atherton had to be tough for all sorts of reasons in his years as England's captain but if 'Iron Mike' was a fitting epithet for the Pom, 'Iron Mark' was no less apposite for the Aussie. Ask anyone who has played with him.

The fifth Australian to play 100 Tests is as down-to-earth and unaffected a bloke - and bloke is the word - as you could meet. Until recently, he lived in an unpretentious house in Sydney's unsalubrious northern suburbs. He could have afforded to move with his wife and two young children, but Mark and Judy liked the neighbours.

He has scored more Test runs, 7,297 at 44, than anyone still playing, but not many people know that. He does not look like a great player. You would not think of him as one of the great fielders, either, with his waddle from one end of the pitch to the other and his nickname of Tubby. But by the end of this series, he might well have taken more catches than any other man in Test history. He only needs to pouch nine more at first slip to pass Allan Border's record of 156 catches. What is more, Border played 156 matches.

This determined, shrewd, honest, frequently underestimated cricketer likes golf, fishing, Aussie rules football and a few days away at a farm in the country. He doesn't use long words or dress nattily and he won't be following the current trend for sportsmen to have their hair cut like convicts. He is happy talking about the game and taking his time over a beer, but he watches when and how much he sips because he has to watch his weight and feels it necessary to set an example.

"I don't go out with the boys as often as I did. As captain, you've got to get involved in a lot of the off-the-field activities. I hadn't thought much about becoming captain but when they made me vice-captain, I thought I'd like to give it a go. All the players have taken off some rough edges in recent years to become a successful cricket team. Every series is important these days. We talk much more openly than we ever did. We try to win every series we play."

Australia have not only won but made friends doing it since Taylor took over from Border. The accusations about Aussie sledging were always an exaggeration, he says, and he is happy as long as none of his players loses control. He likes his side to play entertaining cricket and sees no need for the World Championship of Test cricket which the International Cricket Council will announce soon, with a running league table leading to occasional play-offs for the top four. He points out that Australia played to full houses in India and fullish ones in Pakistan and that league tables would often oblige teams to play for a draw.

Common sense is not the least of the attributes of a man who moved from Wagga Wagga to Sydney in the interests of his cricket as a teenager and not long after, played in a grade semi-final on a pitch which was wet and dangerous at one end. He stood there and made 10 in 90 minutes, refusing ones and threes to protect his mates and he has done the same sort of thing in Test matches when the flak has been flying. Whether, at 34, this is his last series depends on results. He says he could walk away from cricket at any time because it is just a game and he has never treated it as anything else. He could go back to his other profession as an agricultural surveyor but he won't.

Channel Nine put a ball down for him some time ago as a future commentator - "They've paid me for three years and I've hardly done anything for them yet" - and the switch from pitch to commentary box will be comfortable enough. He might have made it after the tour to England in 1997 had he not scored his recuperative hundred in the second innings at Edgbaston after going 20 Test innings without a 50.

"That was a tough time for me personally but it was a strange time, too, because the team was doing so well. The captaincy was a bonus then because you could get some enjoyment from the fact that you were leading a side that was being successful. But if I'd missed out at Edgbaston, I'd have had to have a very honest appraisal: is the side being affected by the fact that the captain's out of form and if I'm not in the side, would the side play better?

"The 129 at Edgbaston wasn't a great innings by any means but I realised that over the six to eight months I'd been batting badly, I'd started to look for the perfect innings to get myself out of trouble. I wanted to play the lovely cover drive and the nice square cut, play the pull well and then hit a nice straight drive straight after that and score this beautiful hundred to say to everyone, 'hey, I'm back in form'. But if I look through my career, I haven't played too many innings like that and I don't think many players have. In every innings, they've squirted one here, inside-edged one there. Since then, I've relaxed a lot more and realised that some days you get dropped and make a hundred; other days you hit 'em really well, someone takes a screamer at point and you're out for 35."

The real test of his priorities occurred last month in Peshawar when he walked off after the second day with 334 not out to his name, equal to Australia's highest score, made, naturally, by the nonpareil Sir Donald. Taylor was within perhaps an hour's batting on the third morning of passing Brian Lara's world Test record, but with a fine disregard for commercialism, he barely even considered putting his own possible immortality above Australia's best chance of winning that game.

"I thought it might mess up their openers, Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar, if I carried on a bit to keep them guessing rather than know they'd be batting at the start of the day but then I thought we usually aim to get 600 and we'd got four for 599 so why not declare and get on with the game?"

Pure Wagga Wagga. Pure Taylor.

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)