Taylor raised Tests to new heights (7 February 1999)

7 February 1999

Taylor raised Tests to new heights

By Scyld Berry

IT is just as well for Steve Waugh that he is the most effective batsman in Australia. Anything less and he would find Mark Taylor an impossible act to follow.

Taylor showed the cricket world how Test matches should be played during his five-year captaincy, and how they should be talked about too. He was a Mike Brearley who could make Test hundreds, and one who heightened the level of cricket debate by educating press conferences and the wider public beyond.

It was only a dozen years ago that Australia were losing at home to New Zealand and at the bottom of the pile. Allan Border stopped the losing. Taylor taught them how to win - and how attacking cricket is the most effective form, as well as the most attractive to crowds.

Even England in the last year have realised the error of their wimpish, post-Botham ways. All that stuff about making 400 as slowly as possible on the first two days, even against Zimbabwe, and only then think about winning has been shown up by Taylor's Australians as bad cricket as well as unwatchable.

Taylor's aim was to get on top of the opposition: runs and wickets were merely the means, not the object of the exercise as so often in English cricket. He must rank as the worst batsman ever to have made 19 Test centuries, but to him they were not ends in themselves.

His quickness of hand and eye were more evident in his catching at first slip (as a less than brilliant fielder at gully, Waugh will not be in the same ideal position). Taylor's only drop which springs to memory is the one Mark Butcher offered at Lord's in 1997, and that ball - seam-upright - swung after taking the edge. The Test record of 157 catches could not be in safer hands.

Warren Hegg, England's wicketkeeper in the Melbourne Test, can testify to Taylor's quickness of mind. After Hegg had upper-cut once, Taylor posted a fly-slip. Third man has been known to cling on to some upper-cuts and slashes: not fly-slips who are never in the right place. But Taylor's man had only a few yards to make when Hegg tried again.

He was lucky to have two great bowlers, but they still had to be maximised. Shane Warne had exploded in his last series in South Africa under Allan Border. Taylor took him under his wing in the slips, emphasised the success of the team, not of Warne, told him what he needed to know and not what he wanted to hear. Glenn McGrath was never over-bowled.

Even when he had no rabbit left to pluck, the steadily chewing jaw gave the impression he had. To get Australia through their World Cup semi-final in 1996, when West Indies were coasting home, was magic circle stuff. Taylor was also the man who cut racial abuse out of Australian sledging.

He had his faults, naturally. He began to refer to himself in the third person; without a trace of irony he remarked during the last Ashes series that the weather was not something he could control. At presentations some senior players were a little miffed when most of the credit for Australia's supremacy was given to the wife and kids of Mark Taylor.

He retired when he realised, in composing his autobiography, that his desire to tour the West Indies was not sufficient. As the 40th captain of Australia, Waugh will lead them in the four-Test series there next month. In the longer term Taylor, after cashing in on his many commercial opportunities, should become something more than an International Cricket Council match referee - as the man who played and talked about Test cricket as it should be.

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