Taylor deserves the ultimate accolade (2 November 1998)

2 November 1998

Taylor deserves the ultimate accolade

By Michael Parkinson

WHEN the Australian cricket team arrived in England last year I was invited to introduce them at the welcoming press conference. Before we went on stage I was taken on one side and asked to try to shield Mark Taylor from the inevitable questions about his loss of form and lack of suitability for captaincy. I said in my experience Mark Taylor was more than capable of seeing off his critics without outside assistance and if by chance the Australians didn't want him he could come and play for us.

As it was he treated his tormentors with charm and intelligence, demonstrating, not for the first time, the difference in quality between himself and his critics. Mark Taylor is a class act and his recuperation in England was merely the overture to what he achieved in Pakistan.

When he arrived here in Australia the other day it was to the passionate embrace of a grateful nation. That is putting it mildly. In a country where sporting success is everything, Mark Taylor has the keys to the kingdom. If the people voted for a president tomorrow he would be a shoo-in. The Prime Minister is his greatest fan, advertisers and sponsors are threatening to submerge him with money. Normally bilious phone-in hosts are honey at the mention of his name.

Good grief, he has even been mentioned in the same sentence as Sir Donald Bradman. The ultimate accolade. The funniest compliment (although Mark Taylor's management don't think so) was the advert for toilet paper appearing soon after he had scored his triple century which read: "Tubby, It's Good To See You In The Runs Again!"

An advertising man said Taylor could now make as much as he liked selling whatever he wanted because he had the perfect image: quality, reliability and triumph over adversity.

None of it is likely to change Mark Taylor. No sportsman of my acquaintance has more clearly demonstrated an ability to treat failure and success in the same level-headed way. Others may talk of them being imposters, Mark Taylor is familiar with both and holds the two of them by the throat at arm's length.

It was only 18 months ago at Heathrow airport when an immigration officer said to Mark Taylor: "Ah, Mr Taylor, the captain." "That's right," said Mark. "But for how long?" came the reply.

It was a question he faced when he went out to bat against Derbyshire before the first Test match. He was out of form and seriously contemplating not only giving up the captaincy but retiring from international cricket. He nicked a wide half-volley from Phil DeFreitas and Dean Jones dropped him at first slip. Taylor walked down the wicket and said to Justin Langer: "That's it. I'm ready to give up."

Langer told him to stop talking rubbish and start battling. Which is what he did. He made 63, scored a century in the first Test and took his team to victory in the series. Had Jones caught the ball it might have been a very different story for Mark Taylor. And he knows it, which is why he keeps an open countenance in both triumph and adversity.

If one gesture in Pakistan summed up the man, it was declaring the Australian innings closed with his score on 334. One more run and he had beaten the mighty Bradman. One more run and never mind fame, he was immortal. He will be forever remembered for the record he didn't break. Was it a gracious gesture, an acknowledgement of the unique status of Australia's most famous sportsman? Or was it Mark Taylor doing what he has always done, making a decision based on giving his team the best chance of winning. We'll never know, but there's a book or two, not to mention a mini-series, in the speculation.

In the final analysis the record will show that Taylor was one of the greatest of all Australian captains, one of the most prolific run-scorers and a man with few equals at first slip.

In many ways those are the least of his achievements. In my view his most profound and important contribution has been to demonstrate that good sportsmanship and success are not incompatible, that good guys do come first, that it is possible to withstand the so called "pressures" of modern sport without becoming a pain in the backside.

What Mark Taylor represents can only be accommodated by old fashioned words like decency, honour, modesty, chivalry even. He is not a soft touch. You don't get to captain Australia unless you can fight. But what he has never done is lose sight of the fact that he is playing a game. Playing it for a living might be different to doing it for love, but not so you have to sell your soul to succeed.

While Mark Taylor was setting an example in Pakistan, John McEnroe was behaving like a prat in Australia. Playing in some gimmicky tennis tournament for fading stars, he revealed that he had lost none of his ability to abuse officials. His foul language and confrontational demeanour were suitable reminders of what can happen to a game when it is abused by its participants. His mollycoddling by the media was yet another indication of how villains are transformed into heroes. If you want the doomsday scenario of this trend, then just look at what is happening in English football.

McEnroe and those who seek to emulate his behaviour (and those who celebrate it) are the graffiti artists of sport. They leave it the uglier for their presence.

Mark Taylor stands apart from the skulduggery. If this makes him appear a quaint, isolated figure among modern sporting heroes then that is the biggest compliment he can be paid. He is a reminder of virtues we have either forgotten or reject for fear of appearing unfashionable.

Brisbane and the first game against England will be Mark Taylor's 100th Test match. It might be his last series. What he has earned is the right to retire in his own time and of his own choosing.

Mark Taylor's young son was once asked at school what his father did for a living. "Not much," he replied, "he just plays cricket." Like father like son. I'll bet when Dad does finally retire he will regard his son's assessment as the perfect epitaph.

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