The man who made Australia winners again, 2000

Taylor: his place in the Pantheon

Scyld Berry

When Mark Taylor came off the field for the final time in Test cricket, on January 5, 1999, he was wearing his baggy green cap, not his normal white hat, to signal that retirement was at hand. It was the end of an era not just for Australian cricket, but for the game worldwide, because he had no challenger as the finest captain of modern times.

It would be fruitless to compare "Tubby" with the leaders of other ages. Warwick Armstrong, who was tubbier still, never had to address TV viewers ten minutes after the breathless finish of a day/night international, as Taylor did with unfailing articulacy. Sir Donald Bradman did not have to calculate net run rate and work to keep the media on side: newspapers then were deferential. When Richie Benaud was captain he knew the workings of the media all right, but he did not have to speak to them about players taking money from an Indian bookmaker, as Taylor did, with diplomacy of an elder statesman.

Taylor can only be compared with other captains of the post-Packer era. And - bearing in mind that Mike Brearley led in just eight Tests in this period - among them he was unquestionably supreme. His only possible rivals, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards had a single game-plan in the field: they did not need more with the West Indian fast bowling.

But while he had to play a more complicated game than any of these, Taylor was, like them an autocratic captain. The wicket-keeper Ian Healy, at times Australia's vice-captain and always in a position to know what was going on, testifies that he was never consulted on any major decision. A French or Italian stranger to cricket, introduced to a ground where Australia were in the field, would surely have been able to point out who was in charge: the one who strode down the pitch between overs, carrying a helmet under his left arm, directing with his right arm here and there, and chewing gum, his very jaw the focus of Australian cricket in the field. Even in the World Cup semi-final at Mohali in 1996, when Australia were on the verge of elimination by West Indies, Taylor's jaw and eyes never wavered. The impression that he always had something left up his sleeve - if only Stuart Law's leg-breaks - was never punctured. It was as well he never accepted the opportunity of captaining Northamptonshire.

An alternative style of captaincy has been tried in English county cricket - a less autocratic, more collegiate way in which every player is expected to offer his opinion so that all the ideas and energies of the team are pooled. It was pioneered by Brearley at Middlesex, and worked very well for them and, more recently, for Warwickshire under Dermot Reeve and Leicestershire under James Whittaker. But this collective style is suited to the long haul of the county game. In the heat of Test cricket, decisions need to be taken immediately, not after consultations in the dressing-room at tea. In Taylor's penultimate Test, a low-scoring match at Melbourne, Warren Hegg uppercut the new fast bowler Matthew Nicholson to the boundary. Before the next ball, without consultation, Taylor moved Stuart MacGill back to deep fly-slip and the next time, Nicholson pitched short, Hegg uppercut a catch straight to him. The idea of him agreeing to an earpiece - as Hansie Cronje did in the World Cup - so a coach could prompt him, would have been total anathema.

To this end, of being his own captain, Taylor's first act upon his appointment in 1994 was a political one. With his predecessor, Allan Border, Bobby Simpson had worked hand-in-hand, planning ahead the bowling strategies and field-placings of each session. Taylor caused Simpson to revert to being coach again, the organiser of nets and conductor of fielding practices, and determined to do all the captaincy himself - so much so that he omitted to think about his own batting and made a pair in his first Test as Australia's captain in Karachi. Soon he learnt how to compartmentalise.

He had the essential attribute of being lucky. His record of tosses - 26 wins out of 50 - was in keeping with statistical norms, but he seemed to win the ones that mattered, for instance Adelaide and Sydney in the last Ashes series. And he had two great bowlers. So he could always keep control at one end. The Australian system helped him in protecting Glenn McGrath from being overbowled; during Taylor's captaincy, McGrath played only ten Shield matches for his state, New South Wales. Shane Warne, though, needed more than the system to protect him. On Border's last tour, to South Africa, Warne had exploded in the face of Andrew Hudson and the growing pressures of superstardom. Taylor was less of a friend to Warne than Border had been, more of a counsellor. He brought Warne under his wing, into the slips between Mark Waugh at second and Steve Waugh at gully, and relieved the pressure by explaining that as long as Australia won it didn't matter if Warne failed to take bundles of wickets.

When Taylor's form deserted him, as it did through the first half of 1997, he was still able to hang on to his catches at first slip (Mike Atherton still regrets that he did not captain England from that prime position) and therefore his position of authority. His batting could never live up to his first full series, when he scored 839 runs against England in 1989, but it recovered to the point when he scored 334 not out against Pakistan in Peshawar in 1998-99 to equal the highest score for Australia. For declaring then, he received Bradman's thanks - and some recompense from a lucrative venture of jointly signing bats. Taylor did not believe much in technique; scoring runs and taking wickets were simply the means to getting on top of the opposition and staying there.

Yet he was perhaps the least conservative captain of his era as well. In contrast to Border, his declarations were not designed to kill all hop in the opposition, and interest in the match: he set New Zealand 288 at less than five an over in Hobart in 1997-98, albeit when Australia were 2-0 up in a three-Test series. If his record had a weakness, it is the minor one of losing Tests after a series had been decided, the mission accomplished. Whereas he learned from his Northern District club captain Ross Turner about backing himself and his players in tight situations, his New South Wales captain Geoff Lawson showed him how to take the risk of losing in the pursuit of winning.

He also upheld the dignity of the game. If he did not abolish Australian sledging, he oversaw a reduction of the racism in it. When Dickie Bird umpired in the Tests in Australia after Salim Malik's return to the Pakistan side, he noticed that Taylor did not permit any verbals about match-fixing. In his press conferences and TV interviews, Taylor talked so well that he raised the standard of debate in Australia - and perhaps of cricket itself - in a way which was an example to all professional cricketers (except for an irritating phase when he kept referring to himself in the third person). His deeds mattered more than his words, however. His teams played such good and entertaining cricket that he strengthened its potentially vulnerable position as the No. 1 sport in Australia.

When Steve Waugh took over for the 1998-99 Test series in the West Indies, he made the error at Kingston of having two part-time bowlers on together, which Tubby would never have done. His difficulties there turned out to be mere teething troubles before leading Australia to the World Cup and a clean sweep of the following season's home Tests. Waugh won golden opinions, but it is too early to assess his place in the history of captaincy.

Taylor had disagreed with the decision to make Waugh one-day captain while he was still in charge of the Test side. But it was sensible selection policy which helped the team to keep evolving until they won the World Cup, and Taylor to keep going as Test captain until his last Ashes series was won and another tour of the West Indies loomed. He had been there and done that, his greatest Test triumph the 2-1 win in the West Indies in 1994-95, something that his predecessor so dearly wanted to achieve and never did. Border stopped Australia losing. Taylor made them into winners, the acknowledged if not official world champions of Test cricket.

© John Wisden & Co