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The iconic former Australia captain talks about playing to win, and the many other aspects of leading a champion side
Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi
February 12, 2008
If the Allan Border years were synonymous with hard graft and consolidation for Australia, Mark Taylor's tenure was marked by the epochal away win over West Indies that marked the ascent of a new power to cricket's throne. Soft-spoken and equanimous - in contrast to some of the hard cases in the side he led - Taylor nevertheless made a name as one of the most aggressive Australian captains, and is ranked among the most effective skippers of all. He spoke to Cricinfo during India's recent Test series in Australia.
Would you say that captaincy is the toughest job in cricket?
No, no. I think it could be one of the most enjoyable jobs in the world, particularly when you are a batsman who doesn't bowl. Captaincy can only add to the game for you. I certainly found that, when I took over the captaincy of Australia, it just gave me something else to do on the field.
I've always believed that every player should be thinking about the game all the time, about what they can do to maybe help the side out. But when you are the captain, you've got to actually make those decisions. And it certainly added to what I could do during the game, so I found it very enjoyable.
Was it never a challenge for you?
At the end of the day, people take the game too seriously. It's not always easy but you've got to keep it in perspective. You are talking about the game of cricket here. I never saw it as a job that costs people their lives or their money or anything like that. It was a game for people to enjoy playing and watching. It was a challenge, yes, but something I enjoyed.
Is leadership something that comes naturally? How much of that can be cultivated?
Tough question that. Lots of people can be leaders, but I wouldn't say everyone can be a leader. And you can do it in different ways. I used to think of myself as more of a person who leads through communication and listening to people.
Listening is very important in leadership - understanding what people are thinking of and what's going through their heads. Others lead by example. They go out there and play cricket in a certain way, whether they are aggressive bowlers or aggressive batsmen. So there's lots of different ways you can do it, and that's why a lot of different people can be leaders. Even if you are not the captain, you can still be a leader in different ways.
How do you earn respect as a captain? Ian Chappell said you earn it in three categories: as a captain, as a human being, and finally, as a leader.
The one true way you gain respect from anyone is if you are quite honest with them. I would like to think I was a fairly frank sort of captain. I occasionally told people what I thought of them and how they were going, and sometimes people told me what they thought of me. That's a much better way to go about things because at least then you know what you are dealing with. You look at them and tell them what you think and then you've got the chance to move on, a chance to improve them and a chance to improve yourself. So honesty is one of the keys to gain respect from your team. If you are not honest with them or yourself, even if the team's doing well, you are not necessarily respected.
How different was leading Australia from leading New South Wales? Did you seek out former captains?
I didn't seek out any captains. Right through my career I watched how other captains did things: how they would set fields, how they'd sometimes attack and sometimes defend. So I learned by watching people, like I did with my batting - you try and take the good things out of what other people do.
|When I took over, we were beating sides regularly, but the only side we couldn't beat regularly were the West Indies. So it was more about believing that we were improving all the time and they were inventing ways to drop us off the perch|
Coming to leading the state and country, leading Australia, in a way, was sometimes a lot easier than leading New South Wales. A lot of times it was because I had such a good side to play with on the national front. When you've got people of the calibre of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne - the sorts of players who can win a game for you, who can change a game for you very quickly - they're great players to have. Sometimes it's hard to lead a side when you haven't got great players around you - you are trying to manufacture ways of getting batsmen out. Also, probably from 1996 or 1997 onwards we were considered the best team in the world because we went into series with the opposition worrying more about us more than us worrying about them, which was a great advantage. From New South Wales' point of view, during my time as a player it was a very close domestic competition - every game you went into, you'd think that if you didn't play well, you would lose it. So it was, at times, more challenging to lead in state cricket than it was leading Australia.
You took over a successful team from a pan-Australian hero, Allan Border. You yourself are a relatively quiet man, and you were leading a naturally aggressive bunch of cricketers. How easy or tough was it for you to grow into the job?
I was fortunate that I took over a side that had some lovely, good senior players, so I had quite a bit of seniority out there to deal with: the two Waughs, Ian Healy, McGrath, Warne ... David Boon was still around when I took over the side. All we felt we needed to do was make a slight improvement in our belief. At that stage we were beating sides regularly but the only side we couldn't beat regularly was the West Indies. So it was more just about believing that we were improving all the time and they were inventing ways to drop us off the perch. Once we started to believe that we could actually beat the West Indies was the time we started to forge forward and become a very good cricket side. But having those senior players was a real advantage early on. To me, to be a good captain you've got to be yourself. You say I'm a quiet man. Most times I am, but people who know me will tell you that at times I lose my cool like anyone. I tried to captain the side as I tried to live my life. I didn't try to change me or try to change the team. I just tried to probably make the team a bit more open in our communication about how we could possibly do things better, and it worked.
How much did your batting affect your captaincy and vice versa?
Sometimes I batted slightly differently because I was captain. There were times where I would bat more aggressively than normal. That was definitely the case in 1995 in the Caribbean, where I tried to go out there and play the hook a little bit more - telling the players, "We've got to take these blokes on. We've got to try and be aggressive with their short-pitched bowling."
It didn't always work for me personally. Like, I didn't have a great series in the Caribbean, but as a captain there are times when you can set the tone with your batting, and you've got to pick those moments.
As a batsman you were a naturally defensive player, but as captain you are ranked among Australia's most aggressive. How did you reconcile these different traits?
Well, I tried to play pretty well the same throughout my career, but there were times where I went into matches or series and I wanted to be more aggressive, to try and set an example. I averaged around 47 as a non-captain and about 40 as captain. Maybe the captaincy did affect my batting, but you also get older - so I don't know how much of it was age and how much of it was captaincy.
I tried to put a lot of time into the captaincy, looking at how they went about playing, who their cream players were, how we could come up with tactics to foil them. If I think back to my first Test as captain, I bagged a pair, two noughts. So to say that the captaincy affected my batting is probably right, but at times it affected it in a good way. I also made 300 as a captain. That's the game.
The push for four runs an over in Test cricket started under you. Was that part of a conscious strategy?
That strategy started even before my time. When we were going to England in 1989, my first tour, we were setting ourselves goals of making a certain amount of runs in a day's play - in the non-international games we wanted to score 360 in a day, and in Tests, 300 in a day. Things have just developed from there.
Was it also part of your strategy to play for a win each time you won the toss?
That's going back to what I was saying earlier: sometimes people take the game too seriously. Why would you want to play for five days and have a draw? I can't work that out. You should be setting out to win. That's what the Australian side does today, and all sides should do it. Five days is plenty of time to get a result. You should always be thinking of getting a result because it's good for the game, good for the viewers, and you'll find that it's good for you as a person as well: when you're playing in games that always go on to get a result, it will make you a good player.
You toppled West Indies with a fairly inexperienced bowling attack. Do you think that was the turning point for you as captain?
Most definitely. We'd lost Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming before the first Test, both to injuries. When I went to have a word with Glenn McGrath about opening the bowling, he said to me, "It's about bloody time". He was dying to get the ball first. Paul Reiffel came good, so did Shane Warne; Brendon Julian played a bit ... and all these guys wanted an opportunity and proved that they were good enough by wanting that opportunity.
Guys like McGrath and Warne both wanted to play and both wanted to bowl. That's something not everybody has. The great bowlers want to bowl all the time. You tell them you're gonna take them off and they'll say, "No, give me one more, one more, just one more". Those two said that nearly all the time, because they knew they were good enough, they were talented enough. They believed in themselves that much, that eventually they'd get a wicket. Sometimes it made it difficult because it's hard to take them off. You knew they weren't bowling at their best - they were getting tired, you wanted to save them for later on, but they would keep pleading. That's what separates the good from the great.
|The one true way you gain respect from anyone is if you are quite honest with them. I would like to think I was a fairly frank sort of captain. I occasionally told people what I thought of them and how they were going, and sometimes people told me what they thought of me|
You nurtured and used Shane Warne very well. Was that one of your big challenges?
I was probably very lucky in that I'd been playing for New South Wales, where the pitch was very dry with no grass on it and it was a big-turning wicket. We always picked three spinners, Bob Holland, Murray Bennett, Greg Matthews, and all played a lot of first-class games. So I got to see and watch how those three went about their business for many years. And I watched Dirk Wellham set fields to them, and he set very good fields. So I had a fairly good upbringing in spin bowling, on how to use spin bowling, what fields to set. When Shane Warne came along he knew exactly what fields he wanted, but at least I had an idea of what he was thinking. And he appreciated that as well because we could talk a lot about field settings and how we changed it for certain batsmen.
Warne was a character, and there were a few during your captaincy. What was your way of dealing with difficult characters?
It's all about listening to your people. A team is made up of different people and you've got to see what makes them feel good and what doesn't make them feel good. And one of the skills as a captain is to make sure that you are treating everyone slightly differently. They are all independent people, they are not a group of people that you're going to tell them what to do.
Was it all about on-field leadership? Did you leave the players alone at the end of the day?
After I became captain I did pretty well as I used to do as a player. Sometimes you can do a lot of captaincy off the field, like during a game of golf, sitting around a dinner, some nights talking about what's going on in their lives, how they can bowl better, how they can bat better. So, yes, you can certainly do a lot in your relationship as a captain away from the field. That's why I don't think a captain should be a really aloof character. At times you have to distance yourself, yes, but you've got be one of the players who's out there doing what they do.
You have always been an affable personality on and off the field, as a player and as a leader. How much of that helped you in your leadership?
The others will have to answer that. I just tried to be myself as a captain. I just tried to be myself as a player. If you try to be someone else, you are going to fail, because it's not you. As I said, you can pick bits and pieces out from other people and see if you can use them but use them the way you know how to use them.
How much did Allan Border influence you?
The thing I mainly learned from Allan was the toughness - hanging in there during the tough times. And AB was brilliant at that. He was fantastic with that as a batsman and also in the field and as a captain, because he'd had some tough times. Just hanging in there and believing that things would get better. That's the thing I took most from AB. If you throw your hands up and say it's too hard when things are going badly, they'll only get worse. You've just got to hang in there and be tough. That's what Allan was good at.
Do captains tend to put too much pressure on themselves by thinking they need to lead by example?
That's right. As I said earlier, you can do that. You can set a bit of a tone with your batting, but you don't need to lead by example all the time. You are just picked as one of the 11 players in the team, one of six batsmen, maybe, in the team. You just go out and do your job to the best of your ability. And as a captain you then go out there and set the fields and change the bowlers. I didn't go out there and bat as a captain, I went out there and batted as an opening batsman. For me to lead by example would've been difficult.
Captaincy by committee doesn't work, and you drove the point home early in your career ...
My first game as a captain was a one-day game in Sydney. Allan Border had torn his hamstring and I became the captain. Bob Simpson called the players in after we'd done our warm-ups and he said, "All right, boys, this is what we're gonna do..." And after that the players were about to break off and I said, "No, hang on a minute, I want to say something. Look, boys, I'm captain for the next three or four games and I'm going to give it my best shot and I just hope you are with me." And a few players like Mike Whitney said it was fantastic that I spoke last as the captain. It was nothing to do with stopping Bob doing what he did, but a lot of the boys were delighted that the captain wanted to communicate with them.
What should the captain-coach dynamic be like?
It should be one of an open dialogue and that's something Bob Simpson and I did very well. When I became the captain, I went to Simmo's house in Sydney and we had a good hour-and-a-half chat about how I wanted to be the captain. I said I wanted a bit more say with the media, I wanted to talk a bit more to the players about how I wanted to play. He was very respectful of that and he said he understood me totally and agreed with me.
How much of a say should a captain have in the selection of a team? Captains have had varied views: Richie Benaud said "None", while Michael Atherton enjoyed being part of the selection panel.
I like to think the captain should have a say, but that doesn't necessarily mean you pick the team either. Because you tend to be with the same guys over and over and over again, you don't get to see a lot of players developing in lower grades of cricket. So you need to have selectors whose job is to pick the team. But it's also important that the captain has at least a bit of input into that. The Australian system works very well, where the captain has a word with the selectors but doesn't have the vote.
|In Australia it's very difficult to give up the captaincy and then go back and play. Because it makes it very difficult on the next captain who takes over the team. We all are different, we all like to captain the side in different ways. By staying in the side you make it difficult for other players in the side|
One thing the Australians have always had is the selectors picking the team and then selecting a captain from that team, unlike the other teams. Is that a healthy thing?
It is. Some people said to me that in 1997 I was picked for my captaincy. I don't believe that. I believe my captaincy helped me. Yes, I was having a terrible run with the bat but I was still catching very well and I was still captaining the side very well. At the end of the day I got the sort of leniency a senior player gets when he is struggling with form. Generally, if you've played 60-70 Test matches and you've a bad run, the selectors will stick with you because they believe you're going to come good again. Fortunately for me, I did. I ended up making a hundred in England [at Edgbaston] and moving on from there. As you said, the fact that I wasn't a selector as such probably helped me in that situation, because no one could blame me for picking myself. The selectors were there to pick the team and wanted me in the team and wanted me as captain.
The Australian way in the recent past has been that once you're through with the captaincy, you are through with the team. But in other parts of the world, in India, Pakistan and England, we see many former captains in the team. Is that a healthy thing?
Look, if you are dropped as captain because the side's not going well and you're obviously still young enough to play, there's nothing wrong with playing on. In Australia one thing we do very well is that if you captain the side and your form holds and you maintain the side, it's very difficult to give up the captaincy and then go back and play. Because it makes it very difficult on the next captain who takes over the team. We all are different, we all like to captain the side in different ways. By staying in the side you make it difficult for other players in the side. It must be very difficult to captain sides that have got these ex-captains in them, because you have these people second-guessing you all the time. One thing that happens is, when you've finished your time as a captain, you probably start to lose the desire to play. Not a bad time to retire all up.
You've never been in favour of a split captaincy, have you?
I will never be in favour of a split captaincy. As I said at the time, it is the ideal situation for any country is to have one captain who is captain in all forms of the game. Yes, during my time we had a split captaincy with myself and Steve Waugh and we could make it work, but the ideal situation is to have one skipper. That way you've got continuity in terms of what they are doing with the players. The problem with two captains is, you need to have an extra line of communication between the two of them to make sure they are doing consistent things.
Should age be an issue when you appoint a captain?
It's not really an issue unless a player gets the job at 34 or 35. Then you've got to think to yourself, "If we make him captain now, he's only going to be there for one
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at CricinfoFeeds: Nagraj Gollapudi
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