Taylor takes charge
Sometimes one man's determination can inspire an entire team. Late last month Brendan Taylor became the first Zimbabwe player to score back-to-back centuries in consecutive ODIs. However, his unbeaten 128 and 107 against New Zealand in Harare were only the strongest resistance Zimbabwe's fragile batting line-up could muster, as they lost those encounters, the first by nine wickets and the second by four. In the third match Zimbabwe faced their tallest task - a target of 328, a score they had never reached before. Taylor started the chase with a pacy 75 before he was dismissed for the first time in the series. This time, his innings set the tone for a historic day for Zimbabwe, who won by one wicket, ending a losing streak that had lasted for 12 internationals.
Taylor has moulded a vulnerable side while showing extraordinary strength himself. "One of my jobs is to lead from the front," he told ESPNCricinfo. "Hopefully that has a ripple effect on some of the other players. I'd take the win over a third hundred any day. It made me so happy."
Taylor has only been in the captain's seat for under five months, but he has already been at the forefront of three international series. He took over the leadership after they returned from the World Cup with little to be proud of besides Chris Mpofu and Ray Price's new-ball combination. Their batsmen had struggled on subcontinental pitches, with only one, Craig Ervine, making more than 200. Taylor himself had a disappointing tournament, with a top score of 80 against Sri Lanka but only 170 runs in six matches, not enough for someone who had moved up the order to open the batting.
Elton Chigumbura captained the team in the competition, and the extra responsibility seemed to adversely affect his form. Though rated Zimbabwe's most competent current allrounder, he was ineffective, scoring 96 runs and not taking a single wicket in six matches. The rigours of captaincy were not for a soft-spoken and gentle man like Chigumbura, who is aggressive on the field but shy as a kitten off it.
With a packed summer of international cricket looming, Zimbabwe needed a captain who would be stern enough to take a stand but tender enough to nurture a young squad through thorny patches. They needed a player who could zone in and focus on his own game but also look at the team's performance in perspective. They needed someone who was a father figure, a brother, a friend and a good cricketer. They picked Taylor.
"I had a feeling that he would respond to the challenge," Alistair Campbell, who was convenor of selectors at the time Taylor was made captain, said. "Having toured with the team for two years, I knew he was an automatic selection in all three formats of the game. I could see that his performances would probably not go down after being made captain, and that he had the respect of his team-mates."
At 25, Taylor is a veteran of the Zimbabwe set-up, despite his youth. He was fast-tracked into the national team at the age of 18, during the player walkout in 2004. Taylor was barely out of school but showed he was mature enough to make important decisions of his own when he was asked to join the white players' protest and refused. "I was too young to be involved in all of that," he said. "And I have no regrets about my decision."
Although he did not plan to make a political statement and was simply soaking in the opportunity to represent his country, the fact that he stayed when others like him left, changed the way both black and white players related to Taylor. "I definitely got respect for that decision," he said.
The depth of character he showed in making that decision was not forgotten and it paved the way for him to be seen as equal by all the players he took the field with, including those under whom he played. Taylor's previous captains include Tatenda Taibu, Prosper Utseya and Chigumbura, three players he describes as friends as well as colleagues. When Taylor was asked to succeed Chigumbura, he did not hesitate. "I felt I had played enough and I was mature enough to do it," he said.
Seven years as an international cricketer and over 100 ODIs under his belt meant Taylor was able to divide his responsibility easily. "When I am batting, I just look at myself as a batter, not a captain," he said. He attributes that ability to information passed down from Andy Flower.
"Andy told me when I was captain that if I [was] scoring runs and making a contribution, that was good enough," Campbell said. "He told me to bat for long periods of time because that would set the team up well. As a captain you have to learn that you can't carry the weight of the team on your shoulders - especially in Brendan's case, because he is the best batter in the side."
Zimbabwe's batting has too often been crippled by what Taylor calls "fear of failure," though he thinks it is slowly starting to erode away as the side builds confidence. For his part Taylor steers away from scolding his men and focuses on scoring runs in any situation, hoping they will follow his lead. "We have all played enough to know what's right and what's wrong, and we can all have a quiet word in someone's ear, but I know everyone has been training hard and things are changing."
Taylor is one of cricket's eternal optimists, encouraging his side to fight even when they look ripe for the picking, joking with team-mates and spurring them on. "You can have your dark moments at home, but in front of your team you smile," Campbell said.
That's not to say Taylor has always been happy with the way Zimbabwe have performed. "The margins of our defeats have been disappointing in some cases, which is why the win in the ODI against New Zealand gave us huge encouragement. It showed us that we can do it," he said. "The Test win against Bangladesh was the same. We really played as a unit." That match, played in the first week of August, was special for Taylor on two fronts: he scored his maiden Test century and won a Test in his first game as captain.
Since then Zimbabwe have faced stronger opposition: Pakistan and New Zealand. "I always knew it would get tougher," Taylor said. We're a side that needs to keep improving and our next challenge is going to see how we do away from home." Zimbabwe travel to New Zealand next, their first assignment abroad after they made their Test comeback.
Campbell said the trip will be a good measure of Taylor's captaincy, and that the best way for him to pass the test is by scoring runs. "It is imperative that he continues doing that," Campbell said. "But it's also important that other batsmen contribute on a more consistent basis to ease the burden, because he also has things of his own to work on."
These include technical matters, such as his much-talked-about lack of footwork. Instead of shying away from his shortcomings, Taylor is happy to talk about them, including being moved down the order in ODIs. "It wasn't my decision to move down the order but it has brought a bit of solidity to the middle order," he said. "I've also had a few issues with swinging balls at the top."
The results have been sensational and have resulted in Taylor's best year ever: 743 runs in ODIs in 2011, including 573 runs in six ODIs at home this summer.
"I have a nice job because I have so many senior players to bounce ideas off," Taylor said. "For example, I have a very good relationship with Tatenda Taibu and Ray Price. I just want to keep growing as a captain and, as a person." Campbell said that attitude could make Taylor one of Zimbabwe's greats. "He has an insatiable appetite to learn and he wants to improve wherever he can, whether it's batting or learning how to make bowling changes. I expect him to continue to do well."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent